Ong Keng Sen

Portrait Ong Keng Sen
Photo: Esra Rotthoff

Ong Keng Sen is a citizen of Singapore. Around the world he tries to bring together people and ideas from all corners of the globe. And not only in the theatre.

We’re chatting over video, where are you now?
I’m in Seoul, where I’m about to direct The Trojan Women. But before I can start working, I have to stay in quarantine for 14 days. So you’re not catching me at a friend’s, or in a hotel room I chose myself, but in one that the officials assigned me. In Asia Covid is managed very differently than in Europe. There are very strict rules and the goal is zero infections. Monitoring is everything. In your country they’re protesting against the anti-Covid measures. That is unthinkable here. In return, they have much better control over the virus.
Your parents are from China. When did they go to Singapore?
They each arrived separately. They were teenagers and hadn’t married yet. After the Second World War, probably around 1946, before the People's Republic of China was founded in October 1949. They came from a village in southern China near the sea. That’s why they heard its call more than that of the country’s interior. My father was a businessman. But he spoke not only his native dialect but also Mandarin, and he was a good calligrapher. My mother only spoke her dialect and no Mandarin at all.
We lived in very humble conditions. My father had an understanding of accounting, but he was a bad businessman. He went bankrupt, got himself back on his feet, went bankrupt again. My mother was the strong one, the one who could cope with life. She managed the budget, borrowed money, made sure we survived. My father, on the other hand, dreamt about our futures. Both made sure that all their children got a good education. We should, my father thought, learn English, the international language at the time, the language of the future. He wasn't afraid that we would be colonized by it. He saw it as a possibility for liberation. My Buddhist father sent us all to English-speaking Methodist missionary schools. We all went to university and graduated with good qualifications.

A immigration success story.
When I talk to second-generation Turkish Germans, much of it sounds very familiar to me. 

What does your surname, Ong, mean?
It’s the southern Chinese version of Wang and means »king«, it’s a very common name in China. Keng Sen means »vision of life.« 

How did you parents know what your job would eventually be?
Presumably they didn't know. But the name says something about my father's dreams. Over time, I've grown into these names.

You’ve written again and again about how important it is for you to take the present moment seriously, to actually be in the moment.
I like the immediacy of that which is. I am also comfortable in the midst of tensions and difficulties; I feel alive in them. That's how I ended up in the theatre, I think. It's always live. Everything in it is present. Even if the texts are old. They live in the theatre.

Covid interrupts communication. We rarely move around. Everything is like it’s been frozen.
Covid didn’t catch me unprepared. From 2018-2019, I lived in Berlin and wrote a dissertation. The only things I knew were my desk and the library. That experience changed me a lot. In the theatre, you are always with other people. In Bleibtreustraße I discovered how important it is to be with yourself. So I was well prepared for Covid living conditions. In the meantime, I have grown into this solitude philosophically in a way. On the one hand, I love the immediacy of exchange with others, but on the other hand I’ve also come to enjoy being alone.

In the 90s you became a renowned theatre director. Your Shakespeare productions, which combined Western and Eastern theatrical traditions, showed how East and West could come together, established paths toward a theatre in the era of globalisation.
They were steps from the postcolonial situation into the present. But this also includes, at its core, a questioning of the director's role. The director had to be deprived of the position of guru, had to be freed of it. We wanted to get away from that, we also wanted to get out of the theatre, from focusing on this small community of performers and spectators, from this echo chamber, from this universe with its own particular laws. On the one hand, therefore, it was a matter of broadening the horizon, so about expanding one's own role as well, but on the other hand, it was also about its reduction through precisely this process. A process of deconstruction and construction.

And where are you in the process today?
I direct fewer productions. I am more interested in the rehearsals than the performance. »It's Showtime!« is no longer that important for me. The process, the journey is the destination. That's why, for a long time, I’ve been involved not only in theatres, but in any place where an examination of our situation is taking place. Globalisation forces everyone, wherever they are, into a change in their work. For me, it’s driven me a little out of it and put me into the global intellectual debate about trying to understand the world of today. I'm working to create as many of these places as possible.

Like the KIOSK at the Gorki for example? The storefront is located behind the theatre at Dorotheenstraße 3.
At the moment it's just the box office that's open while the theatre is closed, like all theatres in Germany and in many other countries around the world. What exactly we are going to do at the kiosk is currently in development. It will depend on the little virus and on our imaginations. For me it’s always about one thing: that we practice stepping out of our world, not to integrate into another, but to meet with the others who step out of their worlds into third spaces, which we create through our encounters. The KIOSK could be something like that, should be something like that. What it turns into depends on those who enter it.

Is the Kiosk something like a continuation of the Young Curators Academy from October 2019?
That would be nice. For the academy more than thirty young curators came together for fourteen days, all working – often under difficult conditions – at the intersection of art and activism in their countries. This exchange helped them to reflect on their own work, to see it within a worldwide context. The KIOSK should aim to achieve something like that. At different levels and in different places. We want to escape and reach beyond the limitations of our situations, out of the boxes we were born into. We know today that we must look to others to understand how we live, even who we are. The Maxim Gorki Theatre throws open the windows, knocks down walls, helps us see things, people, situations, relationships that we have not yet seen. The KIOSK will expand on this work.

How does that mesh with your joy in being alone?
The theatre is a place of intense, intimate encounters. During a production we get very close to one another. Then we don't see each other for a few years. But as soon as we perform together again, the closeness is back. Very few people live like this. So much intensity in such a short time with so many people. It's exhausting. But at some point, calm becomes important to a person. One doesn’t want to always be chasing new things but instead, one is interested in what remains. It’s becoming more and more important to me to engage with myself. I'm no longer a news junkie. I'm not constantly busy doing something. In English, nothing means no-thing. I try not to produce things. We already have so many of them. We are accustomed to joining forces to create something. It would be good if we could just come together more for its own sake. But we cannot do that until we've found ourselves. Venture beyond our selves. Settling into oneself is just as important as venturing beyond oneself. In some situations in the life of an individual, a society or even the world, it boils down to the same thing.

Interview: Arno Widmann

Gorki Kiosk

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