Issue 116 | Jan-Mar 2019

All the Numbers are a Stage

The journey from mathematics to theatre might seem unlikely, but as Mr Kok Heng Leun (Science ’90) reveals, there’s a science to the art form.

A VOICE FOR THE ARTS In 2016, Mr Kok was appointed the Arts Nominated Member of Parliament by the President of Singapore. Over his two-year tenure, he represented the all-encompassing nature of the arts by speaking about issues as diverse as education and National Service. When asked about the experience, Mr Kok replies with a laugh, “I’m still processing it all.”

Singapore’s arts scene of the early 1990s was very different from the one we know today. NUS alumnus and theatre doyen Mr Kok Heng Leun recalls that telling people you were a full-time arts practitioner meant putting up with puzzled faces. “‘Like that also can ah?’ they used to ask,” recalls Mr Kok, the Artistic Director of local theatre company Drama Box.

It was a path that Mr Kok did not set out to tread. Fresh out of the University, he joined the civil service as a Community Development Officer with the then-Ministry of Community Development (MCD), which aimed to nurture a culturally-vibrant society (it has since been reorganised into two distinct ministries). Mr Kok’s role entailed close work with the grassroots to forge stronger bonds in the community.

But the death of a close friend in 1992 sparked Mr Kok to seek greater meaning from his career and to further explore his love for the stage. Over the illustrious 25-year career that followed, the National Arts Council Cultural Fellowship recipient has directed landmark Singaporean plays, among them Happy, Drift and 2016’s Manifesto. The AlumNUS spends an afternoon with the 53 year-old as he prepares to return to his alma mater for this year’s NUS Arts Festival: A Game of Numbers, where he will deliver a keynote address as part of its Critical Conversations series. 
Isn’t it fitting that you were asked to speak at this year’s NUS Arts Festival, since its theme is aligned to your major in university?
Yes it was. Many people have a misconception that math and the arts are foreign to each other. Over the course of my career, I have employed many mathematical concepts as I structure and organise my work. I have even used the Fibonacci Sequence when representing my work! I will highlight these similarities in my address at Critical Conversations. 
Tell us a bit about your journey to theatre.
Growing support for the arts also contributes to more intensive engagement with the community, allowing us to tell stories better and from more varied perspectives.

My interest in theatre was sparked during my time at NUS. As a member of the Chinese Language Society, I directed a staging of The Diary of Wei Wei and was later involved in other productions. I enjoyed the process so much that after I graduated, I started Drama Box as a non-profit venture in 1990. This allowed me to explore theatre while still working at MCD. But the passing of a close friend prompted me to seek something more meaningful. So I took up an offer at The Substation to be an arts administrator. Switching from the civil service to the arts sector wasn’t easy — I took a pay cut and couldn’t even fathom career advancement. But it was something I wanted to do for my own growth as an arts practitioner. 

Some might say that today’s arts scene is a lot more welcoming to practitioners. Is this true?
It definitely is, in terms of support. But competition has also grown, creating a different playing field. Back then, we had the advantage of exploring uncharted territory, allowing us to experiment and try new things — and being rewarded for it. That’s not to say that there’s no room for growth or vibrancy in today’s scene. One aspect of the arts that I’m very excited about is cross-cultural exploration, allowing us to produce works in different languages without being constrained by the notion that some of us are “Chinese- or Tamil-language theatre companies”. This fosters a truly multicultural arts environment.
How have attitudes towards the arts changed over the years? 
Growing support for the arts also contributes to more intensive engagement with the community, allowing us to tell stories better and from more varied perspectives. Take BOTH SIDES, NOW, an immersive experience Drama Box has put on for the community for the past six years. It discusses the taboo topic of death and palliative care, but does so with inputs from community partners like Yishun Health (Wellness Kampung) and Montfort Care GoodLife!. This level of engagement is possible because of the community’s belief in the arts.
What role has social media played in the changing attitudes?
It has made art more accessible and certainly improved engagement. But the entire arts ecosystem — comprising practitioners, administrators, curators — has to ask itself what sort of engagement this is, and if important messages from the artist are getting lost. I saw Cooking The World, by Indian artist Subodh Gupta, in Frankfurt and was overwhelmed by its exploration of the rituals and symbolism of food consumption and preparation. I wonder how many people understood or absorbed these messages when they posed for photos with it at the Singapore Biennale in 2016.
What has been the most memorable Singaporean theatre piece over the past 10 years?
The Book Of Living And Dying, which premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival in 2012. It was a poignant and beautiful mix of poetry, storytelling and good acting. The play tells the story of a transvestite and his adopted daughter and their attempts to reconcile. 


nusartsfestival.comNUS Arts Festival 2019: A Game of Numbers partners the NUS Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science, to explore the parallels in thought and processes of the seemingly diverse disciplines of arts and mathematics; in particular, the centrality of the imagination and the demand for rigour in both. The festival’s theatrical, dance, orchestral and film presentations are inspired by the lives and work of mathematicians.
Text By Keenan Pereira
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