Ong Keng Sen

Ong Keng Sen (b. 1964, Singapore -), the critically-acclaimed artistic director of TheatreWorks International, has achieved international fame with his works that have been staged in Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States. He was the artistic director of an international arts festival, In-Transit, at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, for 2002 and 2003. He is best known for his intercultural Shakespeare-inspired trilogy of works; Lear, Desdemona and Search: Hamlet. Winner of the Young Artist Award in 1993, the Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture) in 2000 and the Cultural Medallion Award (Theatre) in 2003, he is a trailblazer in the development of Singapore and Asian theatre.

Early life
Ong's parents were immigrants from Xiamen, South China. His late father was a businessman while his mother is a housewife. He is the youngest of six children, all professionals, including Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong. As a child, he and his siblings used to act out Cantonese soap operas. Growing up, he communicated with his Henghua-speaking parents in broken dialect. That was when he first had the feeling of being both 'inside and outside' a culture. He felt that his parents were from a world that he could never totally penetrate. This in turn, shaped his art-making and his idea that there are multiple realities in life.

Ong was educated at Anglo Chinese School (ACS) where he became an active member of the ACS Literary, Drama and Debating Society. The society produced some of Singapore's theatre luminaries, including, actor-brothers Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu, director Ivan Heng, actors Lim Yu Beng, Adrian Pang, Glen Goei.

Ong's interest in theatre grew when he became a member of The Stage Club, a non-profit theatre group (established in  1945), a pioneer of English Language Theatre in Singapore. Although Ong went on to study law at the National University of Singapore, his interest in drama did not diminish. He ran the student playhouse and campaigned for the use of theatrical techniques to prepare aspiring lawyers for the courtroom. In 1986, he attended a workshop by the Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS).

Despite qualifying as a lawyer, Ong turned down a job offer at the distinguished law firm Lee & Lee. Instead, he immersed himself in the theatre scene in Singapore, taking on the post of artisitic director of the theatre group TheatreWorks in 1988. From 1993 to 1995, he studied in the Graduate Programme at New York University's Tisch School of Arts.

A Fulbright scholar, Ong holds a number of foundation fellowships including the Japan Foundation Fellowship, British Council Fellowship and a member of the New York Asian Cultural Council. A talented speaker, he has given talks on performance art in Asia, in such cities as London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney and Hong Kong.

In the 1990s, he was commissioned by various international arts festivals to produce new works. These include the Adelaide Festival; Berlin House of World Cultures; Copenhagen International Theatre Festival/Shakespeare at Kronburg Festival; Vienna Schauspielhaus; Spoleto Festival, Charleston, USA; and Festival of Arts and Ideas in Yale University, USA.

On the local front, Ong was responsible for the development of playwriting through the creation of Writer's Laboratory in 1990 and the Flying Circus Project (FCP) in 1996. Ong's interest in his concept of interculturalism brought together artists of different regions in Asia to work together. This culminated in the production of Lear by participants from Japan, Thailand, China, Indonesia. FCP II (1998) culminated in the production of Desdemona by artists from India, Myanmar and Korea while FCP III (2000) resulted in the production of The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields with artists from Cambodia, Japan and Singapore.

Ong was also the creator of the genre "docu-performance" which explores aspects of culture and social identity formation by juxtaposing historical material and personal experience of history in theatrical form. One example of this is the 2001 docu-performance The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields which was based on the true story of Em Theay, a master of classical royal temple dance from Cambodia.

Ong was the first Singaporean and Asian to be commissioned by the House of World Cultures and the Festspiele Berlin to curate In-Transit, the Berlin international arts festival in 2002 and 2003. He was also the Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University in 2002 and the Vienna Schauspielhaus in 2003, where he curated the series Myths of Memory.

: Singapore Young Artist Award for Theatre; Fulbright Scholarship, New York University's Tisch School of Arts
1994 : Won grant from Asian Cultural Council in New York for achievements in Singapore and Asian Theatre
2000 : Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture)
2003 : International Society of Performing Arts (Ispa) Distinguished Artist Award; Excellence for Singapore Award by Singapore Totalisator Board; Cultural Medallion Award (theatre)

: Graduated in law from the National University of Singapore. Offered and turned down job with law firm Lee & Lee. Became artistic director of TheatreWorks
1990 : Established The Writers' Lab at TheatreWorks to foster development of Singapore playwrights
1993 : On Fulbright scholarship to study Master of Arts at Tisch School of Arts, New York University
1995 : Completed graduate studies at Tisch School of Arts
1998 : Participated at Hongkong's Journey To The East theatre festival
2002, 2003 : Artistic director of "In- Transit", an international arts festival, at the House of World Cultures, Berlin.

: Retrospective (Singapore); Fried Rice Paradise (Singapore); Trojan Women (Singapore)
1992 : Madame Mao's Memories (Edinburgh Festival, Scotland); Presented two Singaporean productions, Beauty World and Three Children, in Japan
1993 : Lao Jiu, collaboration with Kuo Pao Kun (Singapore)
1994 : Presented Lao Jiu at The Festival of Perth in Australia
1995 : Broken Birds (Singapore)
1996 : Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral at Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival in Egypt; Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror (Singapore)
1997 : Mixed Signals (Singapore); Workhorse Afloat (Singapore); Presented Lear in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka
1999 : Lear tours Hongkong, Indonesia and Australia
2000 : First opera, The Silver River by David Henry Hwang (Spoleto Festival); Bright Sheng (Spoleto Festival); Desdemona (Singapore)
2001: The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields (Yale University); The Spirits Play (Singapore)
2002 : Search: Hamlet (Elsinore, Denmark); The Silver River (Lincoln Arts Centre, New York)
2003 : The Global Soul- the Buddha project (Singapore); Open Secret (Vienna); Spiegelgrund (Vienna); The Bibliotheque of Cultural Decontamination (Vienna)

Nureza Ahmad

Phang, M.Y. (1995, January 28). Singapore theatre takes centre stage in New York for new season of plays. The Straits Times.

Pandian, H. (1993, August 17). Keng Sen to study in New York.
The Straits Times, Life, p. 7.

Pandian, H. (1993, April 15). Torn between two worlds.
The Straits Times, Life, p.16.

Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). Going places- lots of places- all the worlds a stage now.
The Straits Times.

Koh, B. P. (1995, May 30). Out to create theatre with unanswered questions.
The Straits Times.

Koh, B. P. (1995, February 24). Stage club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The Straits Times.

Oon, C. (2001, July 23). Sonny come home.
The Straits Times.

Suhaila Sulaiman (2002, August 7). Play it again, Sen.
The Straits Times.

Suhaila Sulaiman (2002, January 19). Now it's two. The Straits Times.

Tatlow, D. K. (2002, June 2). Singaporen curator for Berlin arts fest.
The Straits Times 

Further readings

Oon, C. (2003, September 27). Art landers. The Straits Times.

Oon, C. (2003, June 19). Ong joins list of award legends.
The Straits Times.

Oon, C. (2003, May 21). Up close and personal.
The Straits Times

Suhaila Sulaiman (2003, March 3). Director Ong goes back to law.
The Straits Times.

Taking a look at an 'invisible' artist. (2003, November 24). The Straits Times.

Global take on the Soul (2003, June 21).
The Straits Times.

House of World Cultures, Intercult, Visiting Arts and the Danish Center for Culture and Development. (n.d.).
Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved April 30, 2004, from

Haus der Kulturen der Welt. (c2002-2004).
Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved April 30, 2004, from

National Arts Council. (c2001/2002).
Recipients of Cultural Medallion. Retrieved April 30, 2004, from

Singapore Totaliser Board. (c2002).
Winners' citations: Winners for the year 2003: Mr Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved April 30, 2004, from

The information in this article is valid as at 2004 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Ong, Keng Sen
Theatrical producers and directors--Singapore--Biography
Arts>>Theatre>>Theatre direction and production

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