One day, I met a teacher from a secondary school where many of the students come from families living in poverty. I spoke to her about the project we are doing, this festival, the theme… I said we are asking: “Does poverty exist in Singapore? What does it look like?” Her subsequent reply made me feel like a privileged idiot, another artist trying to intellectualise very real problems… Her reply was straight and direct: “I have students who go to school only so they could eat because they get recess food coupons. I have students who don’t go to school because they cannot afford the 60 cents bus fare. The other day, one of my students heard her father jump…”
One evening, I took part in drama activities with a community group. In one of the activities, I was paired with a 10-year-old girl living in a rental flat. We had to tell each other what made us happy. She told me, “If I do well in my exams, my father will bring me to Toa Payoh.” I asked her, why Toa Payoh? What are they going to do there? I didn’t ask, though I did think, why not Universal Studios? She replied, “Because my father says we can go further if I do well in my exams. We can walk around Toa Payoh and eat roti prata.” That moment, I thought of my teenaged nieces who had just been to Canada, to ski.
I’ve met many other teenagers like my beloved nieces and we have to be careful before judging. Prejudice can cut both ways and poverty comes in many forms. There is an overarching system under which all our young live inescapably. Many have both benefitted and suffered from it. One of the most moving things said to me during this process was from a resource panelist in our team. She said, if we do this project, it means we believe in all young people, whatever their background; it means we have faith that they can change, that they all have the potential to make things better.
It is this same hope that unites all of us who have embarked on this project – the people at ArtsWok Collaborative and Esplanade; our resource panel who are helping to guide everyone on this 1.5-year-long research and creation process; the teachers, community workers and artists working directly with the youth and many many more supporting the project… As Anne Michaels wrote in her book “Fugitive Pieces”, there is something called “The Gradual Instant”. Every tiny bit of work done will build up and one day, very gradually, there will be an instant of change.
It is such a privilege to present a youth theatre festival annually, and to have the resources and support to do so. We’re grateful M1 Peer Pleasure is into its second cycle with the ongoing sponsorship of M1, and the continuing collaboration of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. A huge thank you to Alvin Tan, Peer Pleasure’s first Artistic Director for enabling the birth of this festival, and for agreeing to currently contribute as one of the advisors to the festival.
We are elated that taking over the role of Artistic Director is Jean Ng, a veteran in theatre and drama education, with so much experience, desire and faith channelled to shape young theatre-makers, while discovering and honing their own voice and finding their place in society. We hope that the synergy between Jean’s vision and ours to deepen, and further develop M1 Peer Pleasure as a festival with a social conscience will contribute towards developing the next generation of cultural and civic leaders.
The festival is zooming in on poverty in Singapore these two years, a challenging and layered topic, requiring sensitivity and a nuanced understanding. It is a timely issue, and where as a society we have been increasingly questioning inequality and our social fabric. It is an issue that requires us to be courageous, to be self-reflexive, to be unafraid of the answers we may find, to take responsibility and to respond.
We are therefore so glad the individuals we invited to the resource team to guide us on this issue have been so generous and insightful with their contributions. The willingness of the participating groups in the festival – Beyond Social Services Community Theatre, Anderson Secondary School, Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) and the theatre practitioners working with them, Rizman Putra and Izzaty Ishak, Renee Chua and Iris Chia-Khanashat, to be involved in an extended process of research and creation, to be stretched and challenged and ultimately give back has been nothing but inspiring.
There is so much to look forward to! Join us for devising and drama workshops this year with poverty as the issue in focus, for schools and youths from Voluntary Welfare Organisations. The plays created by the participating groups, together with a participatory theatre piece and other engagement programmes will be offered in 2019. Together we can imagine change – with all the idealism, energy, raw emotions and capacity to grow that being young, and young at heart brings.
Su-Lin, Charlene, Michelle, Angie and Kirin
The ArtsWok Collaborative team