I am asked regularly—after lectures, in meetings, via emails: what can we do?
The question comes at me in the context of my work as a sociology professor whose research examines poverty and inequality in Singapore. After they have heard about my work, which analyses problems, people want to know - what are the solutions? The work of an academic is to describe - assign names, frames, texture, so that people can see the existence and understand the nature of problems. Confronted with the question of what comes after description - what solutions there are - academic work, on its own, is insufficient. Where academics deconstruct, there must follow the labour of reconstructing. Where academics work alone, there must follow a ‘we’ in this labour.
The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival is an instance of collective doing. What its participants—theatre practitioners, youth, teachers, resource panelists - have done, over the course of a year and a half, is dream.
Dreaming is work.
To say that dreaming is what has been done and to say that dreaming is work is to highlight that theatre-making in particular, and story-telling more generally, entails labour. The dreaming I describe here asked of its participants commitment, struggle, intellectual and emotional energies. The work entailed deconstructing in the first instance and then reconstructing after: before making (theatre), the youth had to unmake ‘common sense’; before generating their own stories, they had to understand and appreciate prior and others’ stories. Everyone in the process was put through the paces to interrogate assumptions and presumptions — in their individual biographies as well as within their shared social milieus. Young people, wearing prejudices and biases like light cardigans rather than like tattoos, easily pointed out that there are prejudices and biases in the way ‘the poor’ and ‘the rich,’ ‘success’ and ‘failure,’ are perceived and described. In the gaps created through this deconstructing, they asked more questions, sought out sources where answers may lie; in this, the teachers, artists, and resource panelists involved in the festival served both as guides and as fellow explorers. Blindspots were filled in with new and/or alternative forms of knowing - books, articles, plays. Ideas and theories provided lenses for new ways of seeing; the seeing itself happened further through encounters with humans - as camps brought together youth across the class divide, while ‘human libraries’ and community walks broadened understanding of the diversity and complexity of human experiences, worldviews, sensibilities, choices, constraints.
Dreaming is hard work.
Unlike other tasks of learning young people are asked to do, the self is on the line. Uncomfortable questions arise: are my parents wrong? Have my teachers withheld some truths? What is this place I thought I knew? How am I complicit in maintaining things as they are? Am I the problem? How can I be the solution? What happens if I tell this story? The questions generate discomfort. These are held steady rather than dissipated, because the questions cannot and were not answered in any definitive way. The asking of the questions were the youth encountering and sitting with moral ambiguity. They encountered ethical thinking as process. It was a process from which they could not easily disentangle because the questions were not posed of or for the other but directed toward one’s self. In contrast to what students are often asked to do - to think, and to think dispassionately, and to complete the activity of thinking quickly - the youth in the festival were challenged to also feel, and to feel not just on behalf of the abstract ‘other’ (“put yourself in their shoes!”), but to cast the gaze slowly - sideways, backward, and ultimately downward, to one’s own shoes.
This process is especially hard work because the world is not flat, and the implications of potential answers to those questions vary for different groups. The various participants in the festival, in other words, had different things at stake. In an unjust world, there is friction, disagreement, misunderstanding, discomfort, pain. That inequality exists was palpable within the process as the groups met and as stories emerged - who has lived experiences of poverty to share; who has lived experiences of wealth; what do people do with their bodies, their voices, and their eyes in shared spaces, and how are markers of class performed and interpreted to reenact, however involuntarily, social divides; what spaces exist for which groups to practice their craft in; is the festival an opportunity to tell one’s own story or someone else’s story; whose perspectives are too amplified, and whose voices are muffled. Again, no easy resolutions. The contrasts and differences echo around the rooms - sometimes discussed out loud, other times noticed but unspoken. This too is what inequality looks like, and it is uncomfortable to view at close range. Instead of letting everyone look away, the festival organisers, teachers, and artists - the adults in the room - held the gaze. In doing so, they produced and maintained a safe space: for not papering over differences, for not faking equivalence, for refusing to smooth things back into neat caricatures that free some but constrain others. It was challenging work. I could see them squirm a little in their own discomfort, breathe deep before persisting - powered by their commitment to foster change through dialogue, and the belief that the young people they work with are worth it. The young people respond to this affirmation - at first avoiding, slowly making eye contact, finally fiercely leaning in to really look - inward, outward, at their peers, at The Other, and soon, toward whoever shows up at the Esplanade.
Where does the work of dreaming lead?
Theatre is story-telling distinguished from other forms of story-telling by embodiment and by real-time engagement. The youth conjure up, with their physical selves - their feet, knees, torsos, shoulders, hair, fingers, elbows, necks, chins, eyebrows, voices - layered questions and multiple perspectives. They move with and against each other, playing with realities and alternatives, moral quandaries and human conflicts. In the theatre, there is no looking away from a difficult topic. A teacher told me: theatre is special because you can hear the actors breathe. The dreaming leads then to collective story-telling that first draws energy from within festival participants and then from the audience. I have seen some rehearsals and been moved by scripts, but I know the real magic will occur in the moments of encounter at the theatre.
After the lights go out, what remains?
The plays - created in a year when poverty and inequality came to the forefront of national debate - capture something of the moment we are in. What realities have become so ludicrous as to invite caricatures? What in our lives are ripe for parody? What of ourselves are the stuff of nightmares? What qualities of humans, in our communities, do we aspire to elevate? How do we remember the past? What do our hopes for the future feel like? In the years to come, if we revisit these works - in the scripts, in video documentations, in recordings of the process - we will see what we thought, how we thought, what words we used, what frames we constructed, what we saw easily, what we could not say. These will be valuable insights for how society moves, changes, regresses, encounters stasis, progresses. Who were/are we, and who did/do we want to be? All this will be the stuff of more dreamwork, further imaginations of possible alternatives.
In a theatre, it is possible to conjure up another world, other worlds. Here is perhaps where this festival is at its most dreamy and yet also where the solutions it has already enacted are the most concrete. The other worlds are most obviously witnessed in the final products - in the fantasy scenes performed on stage, in the transformation of single actors into multiple characters by costume and lighting, in the interplay between real-life words and imagined sentences.
But what I am thinking of here goes back to process: in a city in a hurry, these naughty people insisted on taking up time, filling up hours, days, months—with meetings, workshops, conversations, movement, community walks, devising, rehearsing. In a culture uncomfortable with difference, these renegades held steady with diversity and disagreement - creating safe circles, playing games to diffuse tension, talking through uncomfortable feelings in small groups, giving each other feedback, relentlessly insisting on respect but also on honesty. In a society fixated on performance as measured by narrow criteria and static outcomes, the festival has focused on scaffolding - for continuous thinking, learning, interacting, challenging, being; the process is as important as the outcome. Radical, yet concrete. Sometimes when you want a different world, a better world, you have to begin occupying your current one as if you’re already living the dream.
A few weeks before their plays were slated to be performed, some students involved in the festival asked me: what can a person do about the problems of poverty and inequality? I told them that the answer to the question shifts. Who is asking and where are they situated in life at the point of asking? Everyone is able to do something but what that is depends on the roles they play in life and the opportunities those roles afford them. I also told them: right now, you’re already doing it.
The work of imagining alternatives, creating solutions - this cannot be the work of a lone individual or a particular occupational group. We cannot dream alternatives dreaming alone. In doing the work of dreaming, together, the youth are partaking in the groundswell taking the lid off the problem. In the process, they collectively amplify some voices and some stories which need amplification - speaking together creates solidarity ties, dissipates risks, strengthens the cause. Audiences will come, join in to create an even larger temporary community, and the works will incite further dream-making.
Most of the young people involved in this festival will not go on to careers in theatre. Their roles in generating social change will evolve into other shapes and forms. What they have been part of this past year, and what they have created, are shifts, perhaps not immediately obvious nor self-sustaining, but nonetheless part of something larger: people not looking away from difficult issues; people co-creating ideas and generating possibilities; people building solidarity ties. Doing, doing, doing, the work of dreaming.
TEO You Yenn is Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018).
More information about her work at: TEOYOUYENN.SG
At our Second Encounter: youths from Anderson Secondary School, Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road), The Community Theatre, our creative team and resource panel!