Peer Pleasure 2020: An Interview with Ngiam Su-Lin, Executive Director of ArtsWok Collaborative
The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival has been one of the most significant avenues for youths to access and perform theatres over the last few years. Now fast approaching its 2020 edition this August, the beloved festival will draw to close with a last hurrah, with a line-up of programmes shedding light on the lives of the differently-abled in Singapore.
Themed around the issue of Disability, this year’s festival takes inspiration from the strange new way of life we’ve been presented with in 2020, and how we’ve had to adjust and adapt our ways of thinking, imagining the perspectives of people in our society who have had to live with a different perspective even before this. Besides featuring a number of student participants, this year’s festival is headlined by a new, devised work What If, produced by a diverse team that includes people who are differently-abled.
Speaking to producer Ngiam Su-Lin, Executive Director of ArtsWok Collaborative (who is co-organising the festival with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay), we found out how determined the team was to ensure the festival went out with a bang, in spite of all the restrictions Covid-19 has caused. “We were tussling with the idea of whether to even go ahead with the festival or not,” says Su-Lin. “And especially considering that it’s the last year of the festival, we really wanted to present a live show in a physical venue. What If was in the works since last year, and our collaborators were initially very upset that they wouldn’t be able to present it in the form as planned, and that all those rehearsals and research would go to waste. Because it’s a work that has seen so much effort going into it, with a steep learning curve for everyone involved.”
“But eventually, they reasoned with themselves and we too decided to take the whole thing online,” she continues. “The Esplanade has been very supportive of our efforts to go digital, and we’re learning a lot along the way how to adapt to this new medium, not just for our practitioners, but how our differently-abled audiences can access it as well. If you’re blind, how will you see something on Zoom? If you have cerebral palsy, will you need someone to assist you? We eventually had to consult a new media director to help us figure all these out, and we really appreciate how our directors and performers rose to this challenge.”
During the performances themselves, the team wanted to empower audiences even in the digital realm, as opposed to making them feel as if they were being forced into a specific norm at play. When welcoming viewers into the space, the team will prepare instructions for how they would watch the performance, and what to expect, including post-show dialogue sessions and audience participation. “Because our festival this year is all about spotlighting disability, it was more important than ever to make sure we accommodated our audience members who are differently-abled,” says Su-Lin. “It really is all about finding that connection, as well as providing accessibility with captioning and audio description where possible. Everything we do is aimed at easing them into the space, and ensuring that this is a safe space. We take inclusivity seriously, which is why we need to put in the effort to be generous to each other, and make the attempt to understand and adjust ourselves and the medium to accommodate others.”
Other productions that will be presented include original student-devised plays The Other People and If These Wheels Could Speak, by Dunman High School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School respectively; as well as multi-sensory interactive theatre piece Riley’s Rain, created and performed by Republic Polytechnic, and devised and directed by Gloria Tan and Samantha Bounaparte. “The productions we present all highlight how we as a society can continue to coexist in spite of our differences, and the production challenges we’ve faced, a way of rethinking how we can connect in spite of our distances,” says Su-Lin. “With the medium changed, we’re thinking of how we can still get audiences to watch together, like individuals watching the same stream together, or as a class, projected in a classroom. Our aim has always been to create genuine conversations, and we’ve done this by dedicating time for schools to engage with us using Facebook Live, and have exchanges with practitioners.”
“In part, that’s why we have such a long devising process with our participants. Over one year, our participants do intensive, extensive research into stories and information and the landscape that will inform their work,” Su-Lin adds. “It’s a process that enables and empowers, because it makes them think, and start asking the hard questions to themselves, where they’ve been lacking, and truly come to terms with what they feel are the kind of stories they want to tell, and if they’re worth telling.”
Throughout the five years that the festival has been around, ArtsWok has kept their modus operandi simple and sweet – to ensure that each festival stays in line with the theme, and to ensure participants are given a voice that is heard by others. “Rather than constantly being fed content, ArtsWok is constantly doing community engagement work that raises questions about community,” says Su-Lin. “This period has kept our minds so busy, and we’ve been reaching out more than ever to network and field discussions. In a time where nothing is normal, it becomes easier to ask difficult questions, and it’s an opportunity to bring our theme to the fore and question our ‘norms’.”
Speaking on this edition of the festival being the last, at least for now, Su-Lin concludes: “We’ve been doing the festival since 2015, and it’s been a good journey for all of us. It’s a good time to take a break, and use this moment to share all that we’ve learnt and our processes with others, particularly with youths who want to find another avenue for expressing their opinions and views. The festival is and always has been about its young participants, and despite us going fully digital this time around, we believe that we’ll still be able to bridge our distances with our art, that we’ve used this platform to build friendships and strengthen relationships, and that above all, we will have hope in our hearts as we move towards whatever lies ahead in the future.”
The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2020 will take place from 4th to 16th August 2020. Tickets available here