The third graduating batch of ARTivate, the youth wing of local socially-engaged theatre group Drama Box, is tackling the difficult subject of grief and healing with their graduation performance.
Under the mentorship of Drama Box’s co-artistic director Kok Heng Leun and resident artist Chng Yi Kai, besides training in areas such as body movement and forum theatre, these young theatre practitioners-to-be have also been taught to create works about social issues with criticality and empathy.
Reflecting on the rise in youth suicides in Singapore, and an understanding that most people, the team members themselves included, are not adept in supporting someone in distress, they decided to base their work on how to hold space for people with mental health struggles. In particular, they wanted to delve into how individuals cope with losing their loved ones to suicide.
While conceptualising on the piece, they had the opportunity to talk to a group of bereaved mothers from the PleaseStay Movement, who have lost their child to suicide. The experience made the youths realise how complex the grieving experience is and how surviving loved ones often struggle in silence for long periods of time.
Written, produced and performed by the eight-women collective, Dancing with Fish in the Midnight Zone is an original play that follows the lives of a mother, a sister and a friend after the death of their loved one by suicide. While they each have different struggles in coping with their loss, they have to deal with the common narrative that society has prescribed them, with regards to how they should move on.
“I think I would like to open up space to reflect upon mental health, grieving and healing with some lightness and ease,” shared Koh Wan Ching, theatre practitioner and director of the play. “I make stupid jokes at funerals and hospitals. I don’t always dare to as I’m not sure if I’m allowed to. I think it’s just a way of gaining different perspectives on something.”
To convey the intricacies of themes, the play uses a mix of realistic and fantastical elements. “We felt that tapping on how sea creatures heal and using aquatic elements was an appropriate portrayal of the grieving process, which is often akin to waves in the ocean,” said Lim Ci Xuan, a member of ARTivate who is also one of the three playwrights.
Like many theatre productions and live events, the creation of this play has been greatly impacted by the uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. Most of the initial conceptualisation and devising for the script were done through Zoom, and the team has to be ready for any changes to performing guidelines. Finding a new venue that can accommodate the heightened alert measures and making provisions for digital screenings are some examples of how the team tried to adapt to the constantly evolving situation.
Adapting to the new normal has also further demonstrated the importance of understanding healing, grieving and loss. “The trauma that comes with this pandemic, the various kinds of loss and crises have put a toll on many people’s mental health. While we pay attention to the tangible losses, we also need to pay attention to the intangible losses. A piece like this is timely and important,” said Kok Heng Leun, who has been mentoring this batch of ARTivate since 2018.
ARTivate was founded in May 2007 and has successfully nurtured two batches of young people from the programme, many of whom have continued working in the theatre industry. Some of its alumni include Myra Loke, co-artistic director of The Finger Players, Neo Hai Bin, playwright and actor, Chng Yi Kai and Han Xuemei, both of whom are resident artists of Drama Box.
The third batch of ARTivate comprises eight young women from diverse backgrounds – theatre, social science, communications, engineering and business. Apart from their day jobs and school commitments, they are each taking on different roles in the production to bring their dream to fruition. They believe in the collective power of youth and hope to continue to address social issues through art making in future.
Dancing with Fish in the Midnight Zone will be performed live from 24th to 26th June 2021 at Practice Space @ The Theatre Practice, 54 Waterloo St, Singapore, 187953, with plans for digital screening thereafter. Tickets available from Eventbrite