Ong Keng Sen



Ong Keng Sen (b. 1964, Singapore–), the critically acclaimed artistic director of TheatreWorks, a local theatre company, is best known for his intercultural Shakespeare-inspired trilogy of works – Lear, Desdemona and Search: Hamlet.1 He was the artistic director of an international arts festival, In-Transit, held at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, in 2002 and 2003.2 Winner of the Young Artist Award in 1993, the Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture) in 2000 and the Cultural Medallion (Theatre) in 2003, Ong is a trailblazer in the development of Singaporean and Asian theatre,3 and has achieved international fame with his works that have been staged in Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States.4  

Early life
Born to immigrant parents from Xiamen, southern China, Ong is the youngest of six children. His siblings are all professionals, among whom is ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong.5 As a child, Ong and his siblings used to act out Cantonese soap operas. Growing up, he communicated with his parents in Chinese, but conceptualised in English.6 That was when he first had the feeling of being both “inside and outside” of a culture. He felt that his parents were from a world that he could never totally penetrate.7 This in turn, shaped his art-making and the idea that life has multiple realities.8


Ong was educated at Anglo Chinese School (ACS) where he became an active member of the ACS Literary, Drama and Debating Society.9 The society produced some of Singapore's theatre luminaries, including, actor-brothers Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu, director Ivan Heng, and actors Lim Yu Beng, Adrian Pang, and Glen Goei.10

Ong's interest in theatre grew when he became a member of The Stage Club, a non-profit theatre group established in 1945, and a pioneer of English language theatre in Singapore.11 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.12 In 1986, Ong attended a workshop by the Practice Performing Arts School.13

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 artistic director of theatre group TheatreWorks in 1988.14 From 1993 to 1995, Ong pursued the Master of Arts programme in theatre at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.15

Achievements
A Fulbright scholar, Ong was awarded a number of fellowships, including the Japan Foundation Fellowship and the British Council Fellowship. He is a member of the Asia-Europe Network and the New York Asian Cultural Council.16 A talented speaker, he has given talks on performance art in Asia, in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney and Hong Kong.17


On the local front, Ong was responsible for the development of playwriting through the creation of the Writer's Laboratory in 1990 to develop and nurture young playwrights, and the establishment of the Flying Circus Project in 1996. The latter stemmed from Ong's interest in the concept of interculturalism, and brought artists from different regions in Asia to work together. This culminated in the production of Lear by participants from Japan, Thailand, China and Indonesia. Ong continued with his Shakespeare-inspired plays with the production of Desdemona, featuring artists from India, Myanmar and Korea. He then went on to stage The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, involving artists from Cambodia, Japan and Singapore.18 Based on the true story of Em Theay, a master of classical royal temple dance from Cambodia,19 this production is an example of “docu-performance” – a genre created by Ong – which explores aspects of culture and social identity formation by juxtaposing historical material and personal experience of history in theatrical form.20

Notably, 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 2003.21 He was also  artist-in-residence at Tisch School of the Arts in 2002 and the Vienna Schauspielhaus in 2003, where he curated the series Myths of Memory.22

Awards
1993:
Singapore Young Artist Award for Theatre; Fulbright Scholarship, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.23

1994:  Receives grant from the Asian Cultural Council in New York.24
2000: Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture).25
2003: International Society of Performing Arts Distinguished Artist Award; Excellence for Singapore Award by Singapore Totalisator Board; Cultural Medallion (theatre).26

Accomplishments
1988:
Graduates in law from the National University of Singapore; becomes artistic director of TheatreWorks.27

1990: Establishes The Writers' Lab at TheatreWorks.28
1993: Pursues Master of Arts programme at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.29
1995: Completes graduate studies at Tisch School of the Arts.30
1998: Participates in Hong Kong's Journey To The East theatre festival.31
2002, 2003: Artistic director of In-Transit, House of World Cultures, Berlin.32

Directions
1991:
Retrospective (Singapore); Fried Rice Paradise (Singapore); Trojan Women (Singapore).33

1992: Madame Mao's Memories (Edinburgh Festival, Scotland);  Beauty World and Three Children, Japan.34
1993: Lao Jiu, in collaboration with Kuo Pao Kun (Singapore).35
1994: Lao Jiu, The Festival of Perth, Australia.36
1995: Broken Birds (Singapore).37
1996: Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival, Egypt; Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror (Singapore).38
1997: Mixed Signals (Singapore); Workhorse Afloat (Singapore); Lear in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.39
1999: Lear tours Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia.40
2000: The Silver River by David Henry Hwang (Spoleto Festival); Desdemona (Singapore).41
2001: The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields (Yale University); The Spirits Play (Singapore).42
2002: Search: Hamlet (Elsinore, Denmark); The Silver River (Lincoln Arts Centre, New York).43
2003: The Global Soul – the Buddha project (Singapore); Open Secret (Vienna); Spiegelgrund (Vienna); The Bibliotheque of Cultural Decontamination (Vienna).44



Author

Nureza Ahmad




References
1. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2; Suhaila Sulaiman. (2002, August 7). Play it again, Sen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tatlow, D. K. (2002, June 2). Singaporean curator for Berlin arts fest. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Oon, C. (2003, September 27). Art landers. The Straits Times, p. 3; Pandian, H. (1993, August 17). Keng Sen to study in New York. The Straits Times, p. 7; Leong, P. P. (2004, January 12). Arts & culture. Today, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 828. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
5. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 828. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
6. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 829. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
8. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. OngMilestones. (2006, March 15). Today, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 829. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
10. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 829. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
11. Koh, B. P. (1995, February 24). Stage club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Practice Performing Arts School at crossroads now. (1995, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2003, March 3). Director Ong goes back to law. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Phan, M. Y. (1995, January 28). Singapore theatre takes centre stage in New York for new season of plays. The Straits Times, p. 11; Pandian, H. (1993, August 17). Keng Sen to study in New York. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Pandian, H. (1993, August 17). Keng Sen to study in New York. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Culturebase.net. (2008, August 22). Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Culturebase.net website: www.culturebase.net/artist.php?197
17. Culturebase.net. (200, August 22). Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Culturebase.net website: www.culturebase.net/artist.php?197
18. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2002, January 19). Now it's two. The Straits Times, p. 8; Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Theatreworks. (n.d). The global soul. Retrieved 2017, March 20 from Theatreworks website: http://theatreworks.org.sg/international/tgs/biographies.htm
19. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2003, March 3). Director Ong goes back to law. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Culturebase.net. (2008, August 22). Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Culturebase.net website: www.culturebase.net/artist.php?197
21. Tatlow, D. K. (2002, June 2). Singaporean curator for Berlin arts fest. The Straits Times, p. 6; Suhaila Sulaiman. (2002, August 7). Play it again, Sen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2002, August 7). Play it again, Sen. The Straits Times, p. 4; Sulaiman, S. (2003, March 3). Director Ong goes back to law. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Shakespeare in Asia. (n.d). Ong Keng Sen – biography. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Shakespeare in Asia website: http://sia.stanford.edu/features/ong/bio.html
23. Pandian, H. (1993, August 17). Keng Sen to study in New York. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Leong, P. P. (2004, January 12). Arts & culture. Today, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Oon, C. (2003, June 19). Ong joins list of award legends. The Straits Times, p. 3; Oon, C. (2003, September 27). Art landers. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2003, March 3). Director Ong goes back to law. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Pandian, H. (1993, August 17). Keng Sen to study in New York. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Phan, M. Y. (1995, January 28). Singapore theatre takes centre stage in New York for new season of plays. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Tatlow, D. K. (2002, June 2). Singaporean curator for Berlin arts fest. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Culturebase.net. (2008, August 22). Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Culturebase.net website: www.culturebase.net/artist.php?197; OngMilestones. (2006, March 15). Today, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Suryadinata, L. (Ed.). (2012). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: A biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 830. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
34. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Pandian, H. (1993, April 15). Torn between two worlds. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Koh, B. P. (1995, May 30). Out to create theatre with unanswered questions. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Culturebase.net. (2007). Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Culturebase.net website: www.culturebase.net/artist.php?197; Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Oon, C. (2003, June 19). Ong joins list of award legends. The Straits Times, p. 3; Kaiden, E. A. (1998, April 21). All the world's a stage now. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Fukuoka Prize. (2016). Arts and culture prize – Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Fukuoka Prize website: http://fukuoka-prize.org/en/laureate/pdf/2010kengsen_cv.pdf
41. Culturebase.net. (2007). Ong Keng Sen. Retrieved 2017, March 15 from Culturebase.net website: www.culturebase.net/artist.php?197; Leong, P. P. (2004, January 12). Arts & culture. Today, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2002, January 19). Now it's two. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Suhaila Sulaiman. (2002, August 7). Play it again, Sen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Global take on the soul. (2003, June 21). The Straits Times, p. L7; Suhaila Sulaiman. (2003, March 3). Director Ong goes back to law. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



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.

 

Subject
Award winners
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Theatre)
Theatrical producers and directors--Singapore--Biography
Arts>>Theatre>>Theatre direction and production
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Ong, Keng Sen
Theatre
Theatrical directors
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Theatre