The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival, Singapore’s only annual theatre festival by young people, is back with a number of shows and programmes after a year’s hiatus. With brand new artistic director and theatre practitioner Jean Ng at the helm, the festival has gained a new focus by zooming in on specific societal issues, such as this year’s theme of Poverty, explored through both research and devised work from the young participants. We spoke to Jean and found out a little more about her role, the festival, and what to expect. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: Could you tell us a little about how you arrived at the theme of Poverty this year?
Jean: It’s been a subject matter that I’ve wanted to work on in the theatre for a long time now. In fact in end 2015/ early 2016, I had asked Heng Leun and Li Xie if they would like to work on a piece with me. They both said yes immediately. But then we all got busy with a million things and it is wonderful how things came round in one circle and we ended up making a piece for this festival [The Class Room].
Bakchormeeboy: What was the process like of getting the participants to better understand and come to terms with the theme of Poverty? Were they receptive/were there challenges?
Jean: I knew from the start that the youth participants needed to do deeper research on the subject matter. This is perhaps the biggest element in the process. I didn’t want them to stay in the rehearsal room, read a couple of articles on social media and make the pieces. They needed to be out there, seeing, listening, talking to people. So we put together a team of resource panellists including a sociologist, a social worker and a community worker.
They gave us so much of their time, talking to the youths, devising workshops for them, watching their works-in-progress and offering feedback. The youths also went on guided community walks around rental flat neighbourhoods. They went inside the flats and interviewed some residents. Some theatre practitioners who have done a lot of devised theatre on social issues like Heng Leun and Haresh Sharma came and talked to the youth, giving them inspiration and deeper understanding. The youths have been very receptive. They are beautiful, whatever background they come from: they are open to learn, to question, to explore, to transform.
Bakchormeeboy: What is the background of these students and participants like, i.e. do they come from a drama background? Did that ultimately matter when it came to devising and rehearsing for each work?
Jean: The participants from the two schools are drama club members and those from Beyond Social Services come from The Community Theatre, so all are not new to the theatre. Of course they come from different socio-economic backgrounds. Many of the TCT members come from rental flat estates while you know, you have students from ACS (Barker Road), many of whom are from a more privileged background.
This is exciting. We need to look at the issue from many different perspectives. We need to build bridges and understanding between different communities. We also began to understand that poverty is not just about economic poverty. Someone from a middle upper class family can have other forms of Poverty. So it isn’t about us versus them or even us helping them, it is “Even though we are very different and I don’t fully understand your situation, I want to understand and I know there are emotions and experiences that I share with you.”
Bakchormeeboy: Particularly in regards to the theme of Poverty, we all understand that the arts have often been seen as a luxury we cannot afford. How can one engage those living in poverty with the arts if there are so many barriers to entry to it?
Jean: First, I don’t think we should stand on any pedestal and want to engage any community with the arts. Who are we to do that? For me it’s always been that Theatre is something I do, and if it can be a way through which I can encounter a community, it’s great. Also, I think the definition of “the arts” doesn’t have to be so narrow. I learn a lot from people who are artists in life – the cooks, bakers, drivers, gardeners, etc.
Bakchormeeboy: Why then is theatre such a powerful medium when it comes to engaging youths and the themes of Peer Pleasure?
Jean: To answer that, I’ll refer you to You Yenn’s essay “Doing: the work of Dreaming”.
The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2019 runs from 24th July to 4th August 2019 at the Esplanade. For more information and the full programme lineup, visit their website here