Thursday, October 3, 2013

Clare Coburn: Weaving words, connecting culture in Singapore 2013

This tiny city-state has changed since I was a regular visitor in the late 1980s. Cutting edge architecture, sculptures and a thriving youth culture have brought more zing to the city. The Singapore International Storytelling Festival is part of the push towards deepening cultural expression. Its current artistic director, Kamini Ramachandran (pictured above), known to many Australian storytellers, curated a rich festival this year under the umbrella of the National Book Development Council.

As I was so involved in running workshops, giving the keynote address and performances, I didn’t have much opportunity to sample the other events but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Gene Tagaban from the US with his Raven regalia and native stories entranced audiences. He offered quiet wisdom and a charismatic presence. Len Cabral also of the US, brought the Anansi tales of his Cape Verdean heritage to life with verve. Ng Kok Keong from Malaysia was a charming teller while Muriel Bloch from France offered unique interpretations of traditional fairy tales. A pair of gifted shadow puppeteers from the Phillipines, Amihan Bonifacio-Ramelete and Sigmund Pecho, used gesture, their own bodies and puppets to tell their folk tales and creation stories. I very much enjoyed a performance by local tellers, including Rosemarie Somaiah and Blue Mountains/Singaporean teller Kiran Shah in a memorable tandem telling.

The festival was focused around the Asian Congress of Storytellers held in the old Parliament House,
now a glamorous and comfortable venue. I gave the keynote address in the old council room, walking between the green leather benches of the government and opposition towards the public gallery. I spoke on the role of imagination in fostering empathy and suggested that as storytellers we worked not in IT but WT—wisdom or wonder technology. I also offered a workshop on working with thresholds in stories and in our personal lives, and a master class on the power and peace of listening. The feedback was extraordinary and I felt that my personal passions and perspective were welcomed and affirmed. 

The outreach program included performances in the extraordinary libraries which are a feature of this nation. I was hugely impressed by the UNESCO listed collection of traditional tales at the four-storey Woodlands Regional Library—23,000 volumes. I went back to fossick through the collection after the festival and would love to visit again. This is a culture that values literature and story. Outreach also involved working with support organisations. I ran a lively workshop based around story in listening and communication for beneficiaries of the philanthropic Tan Chin Tuan Foundation.

In keeping with renowned Singaporean efficiency, the festival was extremely well organized. As a participant I appreciated the deep respect and care offered by Kamini, festival manager Celine Chow, members of the Singapore storytelling association, the volunteers and all the many others who were involved. 

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