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Arts Down Under 2020: An Interview with Jeffrey Tan, on Arts For Good-funded work SAME-SAME

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Think Singapore is too small? Then perhaps it’s time to think about the great wide world beyond our island’s shores, something non-profit organisation the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) has been promoting since it was founded in 1991.

But what makes the SIF stand out from other organisations aiming to build stronger bridges between Singapore and other countries is in their methods. Rather than seeing it as a strictly political issue, for example, diplomat to diplomat, their initiatives and programmes are primarily targeted at a more down-to-earth level, focusing on the human element, and connecting people to people instead. Their idea of internationalisation is centred around capacity building, with broad ideas of what it means to go international, and give Singaporeans the opportunity to network and form meaningful relationships, learning from others and vice versa, forming a strong international, inter-country community, be it in the field of arts, business, education or healthcare.

For a foundation that’s all about bringing Singaporeans global though, the Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) usual plans had to be changed in a year where commercial flights had all but stopped, and the world seemed to be becoming increasingly insular and bubbled thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of crisis comes creativity, and the NGO pivoted their goals accordingly. This year, instead of focusing on physically bringing Singaporeans to other countries, the focus was instead primarily on creating new opportunities for collaboration, one of which resulted in the inaugural open call for the Arts For Good projects to support arts-based initiatives. Receiving almost 140 applications from 25 countries, five projects were ultimately selected and awarded up to S$20,000 in funding each to fulfil their projects, with the aim of positively impacting over 37,000 people globally.

Ms Jean Tan, Executive Director of the SIF, said: “In 2016, SIF launched Arts for Good to grow a community of practice that harnesses the transformative power of arts and culture to create positive social change. COVID-19 may have disrupted our progress and adversely impacted the arts and culture scene here and abroad, but SIF stands in solidarity with our community. We are ramping up our Arts for Good Projects to help support our arts practitioners and their arts-based collaborations that build a better world.”

The second edition of the Arts for Good Fellowship

Arts For Good’s exchange programme in Chennai, India

Of the five projects, one that stands out is by local independent theatremaker Jeffrey Tan, with his collaborative dance-theatre production SAME-SAME. Created in collaboration with No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability (AUS) and Maya Dance Theatre’s Diverse Abilities Dance Collective DADC (SG), the project is also produced in collaboration with Subastian Tan (Maya Dance Theatre), Emma Beech and Michaela Cantwell (both from No Strings Attached), and features the similarities between differently-abled performers in Singapore and Australia during COVID-19, and will be performed across both Adelaide and Singapore and available to view on Zoom. Says producer and co-director Jeffrey Tan: “COVID-19 has been unprecedented in how it has affected lives, including the arts and culture scene globally. The Arts for Good Projects and the SIF’s Arts for Good ecosystem provides an important source of support in this challenging period, enabling artists to continue pursuing creative collaborations while contributing to uplifting world communities.”

Jeffrey himself is an alumni of SIF’s Arts For Good fellowship, a programme started in 2017 that aims to harness the power of arts and culture to effect positive social change. The fellowship in particular seeks to build a vibrant community of practice from diverse sectors of the arts to create positive social effect, and to date, has seen over 450 artists and 170 Fellows from more than 60 countries working together to build upon the SIF’s Arts for Good network, where art practitioners and different sectors of society can collaborate, ignite change and advocate socially-engaged creative practices collectively.

SAME-SAME performer Wanyi

On the genesis behind the project, Jeffrey explains how the relationship between Singapore and Australia had already been established during his stint as a fellow at SIF’s Chennai Exchange Programme. “During the fellowship, I met Kari Seeley from No Strings Attached, and we got along really well,” says Jeffrey. “When I was in Brisbane in 2019 for Open Homes, she even came down for a weekend from Adelaide to catch five performances, and I was amazed because not many would be willing to do that. But we just weren’t sure when or how we would end up collaborating, as much as we wanted to.”

“Fast forward to 2020, and COVID-19 was upon us. Following several rejections of applications and grants, Arts For Good announced their open call, and because of the international collaborative nature of the funding, I thought maybe it was a sign to do something together. Even after getting approval, we were wondering how we would do an international collaboration when we couldn’t travel.”

SAME-SAME performer Jack

The answer to that was simple enough – going digital. But that still didn’t resolve the issue of what exactly Jeffrey and No Strings Attached would end up doing. “For some reason, over the last few years, I’ve been working mostly with people in the margins, like visually impaired teenagers as tour guides,” says Jeffrey. “And I kept wondering: what else could we do in Singapore? There’s been this explosion of inclusivity and access in recent years, and a sudden interest in those with disabilities wanting to perform. At some point, I met Kavitha, artistic director of Maya Dance Company, and found out about how they started Diverse Abilities. I’d never worked with Maya Dance before, so it was a good chance to get to know them and collaborate with some one who believed in giving access and opportunities locally. So we introduced No Strings Attached to them, and decided that the three of us would do something together for Arts For Good.”

SAME-SAME performer Junlin

Jeffrey then hit upon the idea of working with those in the disabled community, and how many of them, even before COVID-19 struck, had spent most of their time at home, and how the circuit breaker measures ended up not impacting their daily lives as much as some other people. “So we got excited, and decided that we would start with the premise of finding the connectivity and sameness across countries,” Jeffrey says. “We found a few performers across both countries, both actors and dancers, and got ready to begin the rehearsal process. The project, at the end of the day, is really trying to show how we’re all human, and to be able to reach out and connect to one another to make sense of where we are. Our endgame wasn’t to create a show with the performers doing a script, and it was a creative risk to just say ok, let’s play and find what are our points of connection.”

SAME-SAME performer Kobi

While Jeffrey has been working in theatre for a long time now, he still feels he had plenty to learn from the experience. “I was a little apprehensive because I wasn’t officially trained at facilitating disabled people and arts, but I did an intense 4-day online course and learnt how to work with children and audiences with disabilities across the whole spectrum,” says Jeffrey. “I guess I also ended up learning a lot about patience, and the importance of deep listening and being sensitive to the partners we worked with. It was nice how they were all connecting, and while some started off being shy onscreen or frustrated with not understanding, it was very rewarding to watch them grow together.”

SAME-SAME performer Zoe

Over the course of three months, the seven performers from both countries ended up getting to know each other and explored the idea of SAME-SAME online. Their roles evolved from performers to reveal the sameness of what it means to be human, and how even beyond COVID-19, we can continue to celebrate our bonds and how we can overcome differences to connect. “Overall, it was a very open process, with a lot of give and take on either end, and we were continuously devising as we rehearsed for the show,” says Jeffrey. “At this stage, we’re doing a long-list of the exercises they enjoyed, what they think they’d enjoy online, and for many of them, they’d never had the opportunity to have so much say before, since dancers just follow choreography and actors follow a script so much of the time. In a way it’s quite a complex project. It may look simple on the outside, but the more you allow yourself to engage with your performers and the process, and how both us and them are always negotiating and processing.”

Jeffrey Tan in rehearsals

At the end of the day, while limited in some ways by COVID-19, SAME-SAME still manages to find new ways of connecting across countries and borders, building up these relations between performers and collaborators in Australia and Singapore, and in a way, establishing a foundation on which the relationship can only continue to grow and impact even more people in future. “SAME-SAME is ultimately something you’re not just watching, but experiencing as you see these seven performers trying to connect online, to feel and understand the idea of friendship. It’s definitely a big challenge to have chosen to do this live on Zoom, and have this element of interactivity and participation for audiences. So much of it is about the here and now, something that I think is lacking when it’s pre-recorded,” says Jeffrey.

“We need to learn not to be afraid of silences on Zoom, and perhaps, not to be afraid of giving people time, because of their very different abilities, and to have patience if we just try to hear what they’re trying to say. For folks to come watch same same live in person in Adelaide or online via Zoom, it’s a really unique encounter, and I think there’s something in there that will move you in one way or another.”

SAME-SAME plays from 13th to 14th November 2020 at the Quartet Bar, Adelaide Festival Centre. Tickets available here. It will also be streamed online, with tickets available on Peatix

For more information on the other projects funded by the Singapore International Foundation, visit their website here

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