My Responses on Community Theatre for Youths in Singapore (Interview)

Just yesterday, a few National Institute of Education (NIE) students — Alexandria Seah Ming Qi, Gavin Goh Shiming, and Pamela He Hui Mei — asked me for an interview for a presentation they need to deliver. They are taking the module ‘Theatre for Young People‘ taught by Ms Thong Pei Qin. Their topic is ‘Community Theatre and the Youth’s Place In It‘.

The questions and answers came in a series of emails, but I have, with their permission, consolidated some of the points for reference. Here are my responses.

Prose and Cons Theatre Lab was established for ex-inmates and by ex-inmates who wanted to continue drama in the community

Prose and Cons Theatre Lab was established for ex-inmates and by ex-inmates who wanted to continue drama in the community. This was performed at the Arts House, titled ‘Unsex Me’ (2008), for SDEA’s Celebrate Drama.

1. Based on your experiences and work, how would you define community theatre for youths in Singapore? 

It does not matter whether community theatres are for youths or for the elderly, but the whole project of ‘community theatre’ is a form of community engagement through the use of the arts.  
2. What are your views on the potential of applying community theatre for youths at risk? 
I’m not sure if I want to use or “apply” community theatre for anyone. To look from that perspective means seeing the arts as an instrument of larger goals. While that is important, especially in speaking to funders and organisations, I don’t want the arts to be “used” as a Band-Aid for problems in society. The arts must, first of all, be about aesthetics. It has to engage with the body in creative explorations. It has to ignite imagination, creativity, spontaneity, whether it’s for the individual or for the collective group.
Once that is fulfilled, the by-products of the creative process will be reflection and critical thinking – skills required for anyone (not just youths at risk) wanting to seek clarity on personal and social issues, for example.
3. We understand that you have used drama in prisons, could you please share with us any interesting encounters that made you feel that theatre does or does not have the ability to help these teenagers?
This is too hard to write about in a short email. Please read the blogs and watch the UNESCO-CARE video (especially the story of Jinn).
4. Please share with us the processes involved in applying the theatre form for youths at risk. 
In the prison context, drama was used in two ways: (i) the Drama Club, and (ii) Lifeskills. 
For the Drama Club, it is an optional recreational activity, much like the CCA in schools. For the Lifeskills component, I introduced it as part of the curriculum that lower secondary students in the Prison School need to go through. Both processes are very different.
To briefly answer your question, the Drama Club is based on devising techniques and principles, where participants improvise and create stories using various stimulus (props, songs, reflections). The Lifeskills is based on aspects of drama therapy, forum theatre, and drama in education. The outcomes are more intentional, i.e. to provide inmates with a platform to discuss issues that are pertinent to them at that point in time.

I’m the first speaker, where I highlighted some of the stories from the prison context. At the end of the presentation, we have a Q&A session, where I have also answered questions related to experience/ethics/skills when working with vulnerable communities.

(ii) Another link can be seen here. The methodology used here is adapted from The Geese Theatre Handbook: Drama With Offenders and People at Risk (based on Boal’s forum theatre and Moreno’s psychodrama), which I have found to be extremely helpful.

But to give it a clearer, historical context to the work I did in the Prison, arts practitioners such as Noorlinah Mohamed and Felicia Low came to conduct workshops when I was working there full-time. The reflections we did (as part of our journey) were documented here. While the blog is now defunct, the information is still highly invaluable:
(a) A Prison Educator’s Perspective (see Ed Chow’s in March 2005; June 2005; Rehearsal in June 2005; and Performance in August 2005)
(b) A Facilitator’s Perspective (see Noorlinah Mohamed’s blog in March 2005; in December 2005)
(c) Another Facilitator’s Perspective (see Felicia Low‘s)
(d) Participants’ Perspective (see inmates’ poetry)
5. Could there be any limitations of applying community theatre for youths at risk? How would you overcome these limitations? 
There are always limitations, from logistical ones to administrative ones. Everything needs to be approved by the management, especially with the prison authorities. Behaviours within prison settings are also, to a large extent, regulated by prison rules, so these restrictions place boundaries on what you/they can do in a roleplaying situation.
With these, you, as a practitioner, would need to come in with ‘nothing’, be prepared for ‘everything’, and work on what is ‘given’ to you in the moment. Where ethics are concerned, the practitioner needs to be very aware of contexts – institutional rules and goals, cultural and religious contexts, group-behaviours (including sub-group dynamics), and the practitioner’s values and worldviews (i.e. my own values, prejudices, judgements which have to be suspended in the spirit of open enquiry).

Email correspondences between Alexandria and myself, dated 21 October 2015. Additional notes and explanations have been inserted into blog on 22 October 2015.