Ong Keng Sen

by Nureza Ahmad

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 – LearDesdemona, and Search: Hamlet.He was the artistic director of an international arts festival, In-Transit, held at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, in 2002 and 2003.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,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 Ong Keng Yong, who was Secretary-General of ASEAN from 1 Jan 2003 to 31 Dec 2007.5 As a child, Ong and his siblings used to act out Cantonese soap operas. Growing up, he communicated with his parents in Chinese dialect, 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 other countries, such as Australia and Germany.17


On the local front, Ong was responsible for the development of playwriting through the creation of the Writers' 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 a commissioned artist at the Vienna Schauspielhaus in 2003, where he curated the series Myths of Memory.22 While continuing to be active in the theatres, Ong was also appointed to curate festivals, such as the National Museum of Singapore’s Night Festival in 2010.23

In 2013, he was appointed the festival director of Singapore Arts Festival (later known as Singapore International Festival of Arts) to revamp the festival; this was a position he held from 2014 to 2017.24 During his appointment, he was noted to have introduced avant-garde artists and productions and had commissioned some of the largest scale plays performed by local theatre companies.25 Realising that there was a growing gap between artists and audiences, Ong initiated “The Curators Academy” in 2018, which involved a series of workshops and events aimed at to building bridges between creators and audiences.26 

Awards
1993:
 Singapore Young Artist Award for Theatre; Fulbright Scholarship, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.27

1994: Receives grant from the Asian Cultural Council in New York.28
2000: Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture)29
2003: International Society of Performing Arts Distinguished Artist Award; Excellence for Singapore Award by Singapore Totalisator Board; Cultural Medallion (theatre).30
2007: Life! Theatre Awards for Best Director31
2010: Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize32

Accomplishments
1988:
 Graduates in law from the National University of Singapore; becomes artistic director of TheatreWorks.33

1990: Establishes The Writers' Lab at TheatreWorks.34
1993: Pursues a year-long Master of Arts programme at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.35
1994: Graduates with a Master of Arts in Performance Studies.36
1998: Participates in Hong Kong's Journey to the East theatre festival.37
1999: Set up Arts Network Asia with donations from the Ford Foundation.38
2002, 2003: Artistic director of In-Transit, House of World Cultures, Berlin.39
2008: Appointed by the European Cultural Foundation to curate a new festival in Amsterdam in 2009; Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Edinburgh University.40
2010: Curator of National Museum of Singapore’s Night Festival.41
2014–2017: Festival Director of Singapore International Festival of Arts.42

Selected directions
1991:
 Retrospective (Singapore); Fried Rice Paradise (Singapore); Trojan Women (Singapore).43

1992: Madame Mao's Memories (Edinburgh Festival, Scotland); Beauty World and Three Children, Japan.44
1993: Lao Jiu, in collaboration with Kuo Pao Kun (Singapore).45
1994: Lao Jiu, The Festival of Perth, Australia.46
1995: Broken Birds (Singapore)47
1996: Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival, Egypt; Destinies of Flowers in the Mirror (Singapore).48
1997: Mixed Signals (Singapore); Workhorse Afloat (Singapore); Lear in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.49
1999: Lear tours Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia.50
2000: The Silver River by David Henry Hwang (Spoleto Festival); Desdemona (Singapore).51
2001: The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields (Yale University); The Spirits Play (Singapore).52
2002: Search: Hamlet (Elsinore, Denmark); The Silver River (Lincoln Arts Centre, New York).53
2003: The Global Soul – the Buddha project (Singapore); Open Secret (Vienna); Spiegelgrund (Vienna); The Bibliotheque of Cultural Decontamination (Vienna);54 Lim Tzay Chuen (Singapore).55
2004: Sandakan Threnody (Singapore Arts Festival, Brisbane Festival and Melbourne Festival)56
2005: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Vienna)57
2006: Diaspora (Singapore); Geisha (Spotelo Festival).58
2007: 120 (Singapore)59
2008: Vivien and the Shadows (North Carolina, United States of America); Awaking (Singapore).60
2009: Diaspora (Edinburgh International Festival); The Good Person Of Szechuan (Austria).61
2010: Red Ballerina – A Work-In-Progress (Singapore)62
2011: Fear Of Writing (Singapore)63
2012: National Broadway Company (Singapore); Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun (Singapore).64
2014: Facing Goya (Singapore International Festival of Arts)65
2015: The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers (Singapore International Festival of Arts)66
2016: Sandaime Richard (Singapore International Festival of Arts)67
2017: Trojan Women (Singapore International Festival of Arts)
2018: Tree of Codes (Spoleto Festival)68
2019: The House of Forbidden Flowers (New York)69



Author

Nureza Ahmad




References
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The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 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
Arts>>Theatre>>Theatre direction and production
Theatrical directors
Theatrical producers and directors--Singapore--Biography
Theatre
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Ong, Keng Sen
Arts>>Performing Arts>>Theatre
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Theatre)
Award winners