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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

SDEA Theatre Arts Conference Keynote Interviews: Drama lessons in a pandemic (Part 1)

By Sarah Tang

SDEA is holding its first fully online Theatre Arts Conference this year from 22 to 30 May. Expanding from the traditional weekend format to an 8-day event, the conference will feature 70 presentations, workshops, and masterclasses by 64 practitioners from 14 countries. [View some highlight events here] ArtsEquator catches up with two of the conference keynote speakers, Dr. Phoebe Chan and Professor Helen Nicholson, both distinguished drama educators in their own field, to find out more about their philosophy of drama and education, and how it may have been disrupted in recent years.

The interviews have been edited for length.


 

Dr. Phoebe Chan
Founder of Chan’s Applied Theatre Lab in Hong Kong 

What does creative disruption mean to you? How has your notion of theatre been disrupted in your own practice since the pandemic started?

I would actually go as far as before the pandemic and say that all along, as drama educators, we always ask challenging questions. We question how traditional education has been like and whether that can be changed or challenged. That’s very much the foundation of drama education for me, where we begin to look at how might young people be taught differently, by getting them to ask questions and turning them into active learners. Drama education is about how we can turn that classroom into a space where the students can actually be exploring ideas actively, and owning the knowledge they gained through what they do rather than through what you tell them. If you ask me about the notion of disruption, I think that’s pretty much what it is.

Teachers [have been] challenged worldwide with everything moving online, but perhaps particularly more for drama educators. I always say that the online platform is a much flattened space, while the way we are used to working in drama is much more three-dimensional. This flatness, the flattened state of education, is bringing a lot of challenges to drama educators. I see many of my colleagues trying different ways to continue the work they’ve been doing. While there are some aspects of drama which have been diminished or flattened, there are still things that can be done through an online platform. I also notice that the questions people are beginning to ask have been very much affected by what’s happening in the society, because drama education is always answering the needs in society, or needs of students. Topics like isolation, or how we actually connect with people without being really able to connect in real life, are becoming something that people are beginning to look at in theatre. 

How has your philosophy of drama and education changed with time or in recent years? What are some things that you had to learn, or unlearn?

I think there are some fundamental values that haven’t changed, and won’t change. I believe drama changes people’s thinking, ways of learning, ways of seeing things, and ways of connecting people. But I think there are things that I need to reinforce. Although I might have my own political stance, as a drama educator I need to be able to not push that forward so that I can provide the space for participants to explore. If I believe that drama education is not about didactic learning, then pushing forward my own values and beliefs defeats the purpose. When I come across someone who has a very different political stance from me in my workshop, I need to put in more effort to remind myself to be able to distance myself and try to listen to his views. If I believe that what is required in a democratic society is the patience to listen to others, then I need to be able to do that in my own workshops. I don’t believe that anyone can be neutral, and I don’t want to pretend to be neutral, but at least I need to be able to open my ears and listen, and provide the space for different ideas to be heard in my workshops.

How do you think the political change in HK has changed demands on artistry and theatre? 

[In] the keynote I’m planning to give, I will be sharing one of my friend’s projects. In response to the political situation in Hong Kong, where people are becoming more divided, she is finding ways to collate different political views and turn them into a piece of documentary theatre. The theatre work then becomes the medium for people to channel these different ideas, it becomes the vessel for containing these opposing views and allowing these different views to dialogue. Theatre provides the distance and also the artistic form, so that stories are not just told on a surface level but in more poetic ways using metaphors and symbols. So I think the arts, or theatre, does have a role in that. The other project I will be talking about is how drama can provide an arena for people to deal with their emotions. The protest has actually brought about a lot of emotions, if not trauma – not just in young people, but everyone in society. Drama might be a space where people can air these emotions safely.

In your experience, how has drama and theatre kept its relevance in times of political and social upheaval?

That’s an interesting question. That was the pain a lot of us went through when the protest was heated. During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, we went to the streets to do forum theatre and performances talking about how we feel about the society. But as the social unrest developed, I think a lot of us felt at one point that we don’t really have a place, because drama seems to be too soft. We ask ourselves questions like, ‘Why am I spending time in the rehearsal room or in the workshop space, instead of going out in the streets?’ Well, I don’t have a very concrete answer yet, because we are still in the middle of it, but I’m beginning to think that what drama does is something more long-term, or maybe more like behind the scenes. It gets people to reflect on questions, build their own resilience, and to make sense of how they are seeing and perceiving things. These things won’t be immediately relevant in the heat of a social or a political protest, but they might help us to develop into socially active citizens. 

What do you hope participants can take away from your sharing at the conference?

I hope the participants will be stimulated to make dialogue on the role or roles that the arts play in the present world. The masterclass I’m going to conduct at the conference is based on the fairytale, Pied Piper of Hamelin. I’ve just done a version of it in Hong Kong yesterday, and through the story, people were starting to question, why are young people bearing the consequences when it is the adults who have not performed their role properly? They were talking about the [fairytale], but in a way that is also expressing or questioning what is happening in Hong Kong. So I think drama has the power to allow us to share and talk about our different views comfortably as a society, and in the process it provides a way for people to really make sense of how they are feeling and what they are thinking about right now. 

Sessions:
Sun, 23 May 2021: [CITIZENSHIP KEYNOTE] A Struggle in the Mist – What Can (and Can’t) Drama Do?
Sat, 29 May 2021: [CITIZENSHIP MASTERCLASS] Possibilities of a Pretext – The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Sun, 30 May 2021: Closing Panel Discussion

 

Prof. Helen Nicholson
Professor Of Theatre & Performance at Royal Holloway, University Of London (UK)

What does creative disruption mean to you? How has your notion of theatre been disrupted in your own practice since the pandemic started?

In the UK, we’ve hardly had any theatre for a year and schools have been closed for a long time. There has been a kind of – if you like – disruption imposed upon us. What seems to be really interesting, is that one of the things that theatre has always claimed in theatre education is that it is a disruptive force. It has always claimed that it invites people to think and experience things in new ways, and that in itself has got some elements of being disruptive. But when the disruption is external, then actually what you want to do as a theatre educator is to minimise that disruption, and ensure that young people are feeling protected, stable and secure. That’s actually a slightly different take on what creative disruption means.

How has the pandemic and recent events changed the way we listen or need to listen to others?

I think it has made us really acutely aware of the way in which we listen. One of the interesting things about working online is that there is both a distance and an intimacy about it. We found from working with young people that for some of them, there was a depth of listening that the intimacy of the online space really allowed them to engage with. One of the things that I’ve certainly missed is the ability to listen acutely with our whole body in a multi-sensorial way, which is what we often do in drama. When there are some aspects of our senses that we are able to engage with, and some that we clearly can’t, it encourages us to really listen – not just to the words, but also to try to feel the atmosphere. I think that was really difficult but also really necessary. 

It is hard to sense atmospheres in quite the same way, but it means we have had to really listen. We can’t assume anything the same way we could do in a studio or a classroom space. When we work [out of our homes], people’s domestic lives encroach in different ways, and there are going to be things going on in the background or happening in their homes that you would never know about – so there’s been a kind of blending there. I quite like welcoming people into my home as part of the process of working, but that sort of domestic statement has got all kinds of implications for how we listen and understand people. 

How are performative pedagogies of theatre-makers evolving in this current climate of living with the pandemic and isolation? 

I think it has been an evolving process in the last year. I don’t know what it’s been like in Singapore, but I think some of the certainties around what we do have really been disrupted, and the inequalities that were already there have been amplified. Alongside, there was also the Black Lives Matter movement, which has made a huge impact on performative pedagogies in universities and schools. There has been a whole range of different kinds of pressures that have brought us into a kind of melting pot, and I don’t know quite yet how it’s going to pan out over the next couple of years. What I think we all know is that things have changed, pretty much for good. What we need to really think through is how we can harness some of the things we’ve learned during the pandemic and make them stick. How can we really look at the ways in which inequality – both in terms of poverty and discrimination – has been made visible in the pandemic? And how that ought to make a long-term difference to how we teach.

 

 

With recent events throwing the world into disarray, it might be easy for young people to lose hope in the future. As an educator, how do you keep the spirits of young people up?

One of the things that has been obvious is how engaging with drama projects has increased young people’s sense of hope. Just that opportunity to take themselves outside of their home environment imaginatively and take themselves into a different world, has given them hope that things can be different. I think that’s been one of the most profound pieces of learning from the work that I have been part of, and been able to witness.

What are some of the biggest things you worry about, in relation to your practice at this point in time?

I am really worried about the long-term effects of this last year on young people. I’m concerned how as educators, we don’t just go back into the classroom and jump right back into examinations. I think my biggest worry is how we bring together, in a positive way, the experiences that young people have had, that we acknowledge them and we really listen to their experiences and help them move forward. I think that is going to be really challenging, because the temptation is to talk about catching up and putting on extra classes. I think that misses the point, and instead, what we actually need to do is to acknowledge and listen to those experiences, and move these young people on in a way which suits them, rather than go through a very linear and prescribed curriculum. 

What do you hope participants can take away from your sharing at the conference?

Just to say, I’m honoured and delighted to be part of this conference. I’m also slightly nervous – the disconnect between where we’ve all been for the last year in our different places feels to me to be bigger this time. I hope we will have an open dialogue about where the possibilities and opportunities are, and genuinely work together in workshops to explore new ways of doing things, despite the difficulty of not being there in person. You know the bits we really enjoy about conferences, talking to people outside of the workshops, finetuning your thinking by having conversations over coffee. So what I’m doing is plunging in and hoping that we can create that environment where we can share and have dialogue, and also learn from each other. 

Having said that, I will be bringing two workshops which have got very clear agendas. One of them is looking very particularly at the different kinds of environments that we have been working in, and the other is looking at building on the work that has been going on here in response to Black Lives Matter movement. [In the keynote], I am hoping to set up a conversation about where we are in drama education and theatre, as a result of this last year that we’ve all experienced. How can we shed a new light on this idea of creative disruption, based on the fact that we have already been disrupted?

Sessions:
Sat, 22 May 2021: [EDUCATION KEYNOTE] Throwing a light on theatre-making: Finding spaces to listen
Sat, 22 May 2021: [EDUCATION MASTERCLASS] Locked down: Illuminating spaces of learning at home
Sat, 29 May 2021: [EDUCATION MASTERCLASS] Ghosts and Statues
Sun, 30 May 2021: Closing Panel Discussion

SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2021 – Creative Disruption: Exploring New Ground takes place from 22 – 30 May online. Click here for more info.

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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