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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Drama Lessons: Key takeaways from the SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2021

By Sarah Tang

The much-anticipated SDEA Theatre Arts Conference came to a close on 30 May after nine days of workshops, masterclasses and presentations by theatre practitioners and drama educators from 14 countries including India, Greece, United Kingdom (UK), Singapore and Australia. Adapting the well-established live conference format to the online medium, with programmes spanning multiple time zones and networking sessions in between, was itself a testament to the conference’s theme of “Creative Disruption: Exploring New Ground”, with sub-themes of  “Education”, “Health”, “Community” and “Citizenship”. 

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic is a main driver of disruption in the theatre education field today. Various speakers shared how it has exacerbated inequalities in society, how it affects young people and local communities, and changed how educators design their lessons. These sharings and strategies were also underpinned with a sense of hope of unearthing new possibilities as a creative community together. If you missed the conference, you can still catch a recorded version of it from now till 30 June with a post-conference pass

Here are six key takeaways of how we can creatively disrupt and unearth new ground in drama and theatre in face of the uncertainty we currently live in. 

1. Find spaces to listen

“We disrupt the earth to sow seeds to allow it to grow.” – Prof. Helen Nicholson

The conference opened with an illuminating (quite literally) keynote address by Prof. Helen Nicholson from Royal Holloway in the UK, titled “Throwing a light on theatre-making: Finding spaces to listen”, as part of the “Education” sub-theme. She highlighted how the pandemic has had unequal effects on different people, and how, in particular, children and young people have found the unpredictability of their lives distressing and difficult. As drama educators, the pivotal question then is: “How can we listen to the actual, lived experiences of young people through theatre, performance and drama? Can we find ways to represent their voices in theatre?” She suggested at the end of the keynote that perhaps, the role of drama educators at this time is to think about pedagogies of hope, and consider how an awareness of community, health and citizenship can play out in drama education. (She also cautions here against the desire for educators to go back to a linear and prescribed curriculum.)  

2. Be mindful of the inequalities amplified by the pandemic
Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Hartley and Theatre Versus Oppression (TVO).

One common thread which emerged was how COVID-19 had widened existing income gaps and further marginalised vulnerable groups in society. “Health” keynote speaker Dr. Jennifer Hartley of Theatre Versus Oppression (TVO) (UK) highlighted how differences in digital accessibility have caused people to be more disconnected than ever in the UK, and shared how the arts can be harnessed to re-shift power to these communities. Her powerful six-hour masterclass “Telling our stories – Confronting our label” directly addressed how we can use applied theatre to empower vulnerable groups to find their voice and process their stories. The masterclass introduced some of the strategies used in TVO’s Behind The Label project. For example, facilitators would get participants to describe their life story in five words, and to sculpt their bodies into a visible shape and form reflecting these descriptors. Through games and exercises such as these, they provide a safe space for the vulnerable to confront the labels assigned to them, and to rewrite their own narratives about themselves. 

Dr. Hartley concluded the masterclass aptly with the Greek legend of Diogenes of Sinope and Alexander the Great, where Alexander had offered to fulfil any wish in the world for Diogenes but was met with only one response by Diogenes: “Stand out of my light.” The anecdote served to remind us what applied theatre is about at its core: “To step inside the world of the groups we work with and understand what they need, instead of staying outside and offering them what we think they need.”

3. Understand that the community is not homogenous

“This thinking of “unearthing” actually reconnected us with this image of loosening the soil and how it then prepares for new growth and seeds to emerge.” – Han Xuemei (Drama Box)

In Singapore, “building communities” is a shorthand often used to describe the value of community arts. In their keynote on the “Community” sub-theme, “Arts As A Practice For Individual, Community and Social Change”, Drama Box’s Koh Hui Ling and Han Xuemei highlighted how that term may mean different things for different people. They challenged participants to consider artistic approaches that are not just about making people “feel good”, but more about opening up spaces of dialogue about important issues we face in society. She cited the example of The Lesson, a participatory experience by Drama Box about land contestation in Singapore which enabled participants to dialogue on sites they would sacrifice to make way for a new subway station in a fictitious town. Through this imagined, albeit very real scenario, the participants were pushed to think through the issues involved in order to come to a collective decision. The pair suggested three main approaches to engaging communities through art: to express criticality, to create opportunity for change through creativity, and to come together as a community in both physical and non-physical spaces. (Han and Koh also talked about acknowledging the depth, history and legacy of communities here.)

4. Keep Calm and Play On

In his presentation titled “Play as Organisational Value: Prospects and Hurdles in School Environment Post Covid”, applied theatre practitioner and educator Muneeb ur Rehman from Pakistan highlighted the value of play in a world plagued with uncertainty. He shared how it is necessary to have an exploratory mindset to stay relevant for a future we do not understand. Through dramatic play embedded in the curriculum, both children and adults can foster greater creativity and individuality, learning values such as strength and overcoming challenges in playful ways. For example, Rehman conducted play sessions where kids could create magic spells to kill the COVID-19 virus, and provided them a space to express how they can be compassionate in these times of trouble. However, Rehman cautioned against seeing the presentation of drama as an end in itself, and instead to see it as a means or an approach. For example, drama can be an approach to transform concerns that teachers face in the classroom or even an approach to enable parenthood support. Essentially, he stressed that the dichotomy between work and play is one which is artificial, and should be challenged.

5. Continue to make art despite the odds

“For me, art is like the air. You hardly notice its existence, but without air, you cannot survive.”  – Frida (pseudonym), a drama practitioner based in Hong Kong

Many arts practitioners are finding themselves questioning the purpose of making art at this time. In the “Citizenship” keynote “A Struggle in the Mist – What Can and Can’t Drama Do?”, Hong Kong theatre practitioner and educator Dr. Phoebe Chan invited the audience to contemplate on the needs which have emerged in the current socio-political climate, and to consider how drama and theatre can meet those needs. Taking reference from the political situation facing Hong Kong, Dr. Chan shared about a project in Hong Kong by Frida (an artist working under a pseudonym), which used playback theatre and documentary theatre to allow people with opposing political views to listen to one another. The project demonstrated the power of drama at a time like this: connecting people and providing a space for listening and mutual understanding through the artistic transformation of reality.

Instead of resisting change, we can look for new possibilities instead. Dr. Chan shared that  when Frida’s project had to move online because of COVID-19 restrictions, she managed to find creative ways of filming the monologues to portray the different tones and physical states of those interviewed, despite it being a mode of presentation she was unfamiliar with.

6. Let go of the old to make way for the new

In the closing panel discussion moderated by Izzaty Ishak from Beyond Social Services, all five keynote speakers shared their sentiments about the importance of embracing uncertainty and letting go of what we are familiar with as we move forward in our respective practices. In particular, Dr. Jennifer Hartley pointed out that the key should not be to make something old “fit into something new”. She shared how the ‘Behind The Label’ organising team ended up doing something completely new – partnering with a nightclub – after initially being stuck trying to think of technological ways to make their project work, while being aware of how the homeless community often did not have access to smartphones or the internet. It completely took her by surprise when an owner of a nightclub (where one of her homeless participants used to sleep outside of) heard about her struggle, and suggested that they could set up connection and streaming services on the large screens in the club. Dr. Hartley’s heartwarming story showed exactly how this kind of “thinking out of the box” is needed now more than ever before. 

Going back to the conference theme of “Creative Disruption: Exploring New Ground”, perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge that it is only when we loosen and break up the soil in the ground, that we create a more nourishing environment for plants to grow. While the truth is that it may be hard to grasp this feeling of chaos and change we currently find ourselves in, we similarly have to embrace this radical “unknowing” in order to find new pathways and possibilities ahead.


SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2021 ran from 22 – 30 May online. You can now get a post-conference pass for half the price of a full pass. This gives access to 4 Keynote Presentations, the closing panel discussion, up to 50 selected programmes and all on-demand presentations, from now till 30 June 2021. Read ArtsEquator’s other coverage on the Conference here. All conference screenshots are courtesy of SDEA.

This article is sponsored by the Singapore Drama Educators Association.

Sarah Tang is an independent arts writer, dramaturg and producer, with a special interest in working across various disciplines and mediums. Most recently, she was involved as a writer and dramaturg for PASSAGE, an interactive and inter-disciplinary digital experience presented together with Random Disturbances, a multi-disciplinary collective founded by Alvin Tan. Her practice centres around creating avenues for dialogue through art, and she believes in the power of collaborating with stakeholders across sectors to effect positive social change through the arts.

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