SDEA Theatre Arts Conference Keynote Interviews: Drama lessons in a pandemic (Part 2)

SDEA is holding its first fully online Theatre Arts Conference this year, since its inaugural run in 2011. 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. [Read our highlights here, and Part 1 of our Keynote Interviews here]

In addition to the strands of education and citizenship, the upcoming conference will also explore the theme of “Creative Disruption: Exploring New Ground”  through the lens of community and health. ArtsEquator dives deep with Dr. Jennifer Hartley (UK), and Koh Hui Ling and Han Xue Mei, keynote speakers who will be sharing about their participatory and applied theatre work within communities, as forms of healing and change.

The interviews have been edited for length.

Koh Hui Ling and Han Xue Mei
Co-Artistic Director and Resident Artist of Drama Box, respectively

What does creative disruption mean to you?

Koh: I think broadly, creative disruption is an opportunity to rethink and relook at the practice that we have been doing so far. Generally at Drama Box, we always see our work like we are disrupting the middle of an ants’ trail. It is important to know the intent of our work, and so broadly speaking, creative disruption to me is an opportunity to rethink and relook at why we do what we do. 

How has your notion of theatre been disrupted in your own practice since the pandemic started?

Koh: We don’t have an answer yet, to be honest. I think we are still figuring things out. But one of the opportunities that the pandemic opened up, was the chance to do deeper engagement and participation in smaller groups of project design. 

Han: We were also experimenting with ways to engage and connect with physical distance. When we did SCENES – our festival on participatory practices last year, we had to adapt to a different way of looking at [distance and how we could] still form communities across physical distance. [One] project Jamie (Lewis) did was to get participants to cook for one another. The food was passed from one person to another person by a taxi driver, who was also the artist’s father. This helped us see that there was still a temporary kind of community that was formed because of this gesture [of cooking] that people were doing for one another. 

We also realised that even though we say we work with communities, the fact was that the pressing issues on the ground were more bread and butter issues when COVID broke out. Like whether people had masks, for example. In that moment, the question we were asking ourselves is when does the arts take a pause or a step back, so that people who are on the frontline can do the work they need to do while we support them? But then that also allows us to see that the networks that we build allow us to still keep in touch with what’s going on on the ground, even [when] you can’t be physically there. That becomes important in any kind of community engagement work.

IGNORland of Its Time. Photo courtesy of Drama Box.

Can art really create change in communities? 

Koh: I think it depends on how you define change. For us, it is a constant question that we always ask ourselves. What is this change that we want and would like to see, what is this impact of the work that we do? I don’t have a direct answer, but I think there’s this ideal that we are working towards whereby people in general can – through theatre or the arts – learn skills where they can rethink, and reimagine the way in which they connect with the rest of the world that they live in. This is something we hope to achieve with the work that we do, to open up certain perspectives and possibilities that might have been overlooked, or forgotten from before.

What are the kinds of social change Drama Box is interested in?  

Han: I think we can look at change in three layers. Starting from the level of individual change: oftentimes when we are creating works, we are looking at how we can increase our individual capacity to listen and to create. All of us have some sort of creativity within us, and [we are interested to] exercise that, the capacity to listen, to create, and have compassion and care. These are some of the things we hope to influence on an individual level. These things on an individual level can then lead to community change as well, [where] we are able to come together in a group, and everyone is exercising these different things; and when we can have communities coming together to engage in difficult issues that they care about. Which then actually leads to a society that is able to engage, and really exercise our responsibilities as citizens or residents living in this place. 

What are 3 of the most important things to remember when it comes to creating deep and meaningful engagement with a specific community?

Koh: Firstly, I think it has to be relevant to the people whom you’re speaking to and dialoguing with. With a socially engaged theatre piece versus a “theatre-theatre” piece, the main difference is that it needs to connect with the people who are supposed to participate in it or watch it. For people who are coming across it, we need to hook them in and the only way is that the invitation to participate must be clear. It has to be relevant because if not, they will just walk away. 

Secondly, it is designing with the audience in mind. Many times, what we think the audience wants is what we think they want. But in actual fact, the work needs to really understand the audience’s perspective. The whole participatory process of research, of connecting with ground partners, building relationships – these things then become very important. They are the checklist to help you realise whether you’re on track to creating a piece that is relevant and speaks to them, and is important to the community. So the sensitivity of the artist becomes very important. 

The third thing is to know that you don’t know. Because the community doesn’t exist only when we enter, the community existed before we entered. They are not ignorant and stupid, and they already have a depth and history and legacy of dynamics, issues, thoughts, assets. To have that humility when we enter any community is to acknowledge that, and know that we are there to learn from each other rather than thinking we are here to give them something. 

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

Koh: The world has become more divided, making the work doubly difficult. More recovery, healing, and bridging work needs to be done. Maybe in the past we have actually already reached a certain stage, as a whole society, but now because we are divided and more broken, that patching needs to be done first before we can continue that conversation. It is an interesting period of time when we are still going through evolution and transformation, but I hope we are moving forward in a more constructive way, and that we can have better and more critical conversations as we move forward. 

Sun, 23 May 2021: [COMMUNITY MASTERCLASS] Arts with/in communities
Sun, 23 May 2021: [COMMUNITY KEYNOTE] Arts as a Practice for Individual, Community, and Social Change
Sun, 30 May 2021: [COMMUNITY MASTERCLASS] Do-It-Yourself: Designing Participatory Performances/Experiences
Sun, 30 May 2021: [KEYNOTE PANEL DISCUSSION] Discovered Ground: Unearthing the Possibilities
Dr. Jennifer Hartley
Founder & Director, Theatre Versus Oppression (UK)

What does creative disruption mean to you?

I would say creative disruption for me is using applied theatre to disrupt people’s tranquility, of accepting things without question. There’s an education element, of trying to get people to look at things and be more aware of certain things, certainly in the work that I specifically do. So it’s often about disrupting the status quo, or the acceptance of things without questioning.

Why did you start Behind the Label?

Behind The Label is a project looking at who people are, behind the label that society has given them. It is specifically aimed at people who were marginalised by society mostly because of addictions, homelessness, and mental health. It was considered a groundbreaking project because we work with people with addictions. The only rule we had was that they couldn’t use drugs or drink alcohol onsite. It was a project to work on what their stories were behind these labels, and for them to process their stories and come to terms with their stories. As they go through the workshops, there is an option for those who want to, to create a production to tell their stories. But they’re not actors, what we do is that we embody the stories into a theatrical concept and they come on and tell their story that they’ve now processed, if they want to. 

I want people to see them as people, not as labels. I wanted to look at not just educating. but [also] a way of preventing or supporting. Because for many of these guys, if they had been supported at key moments, in their teens for example, their life story could have been very different. And Behind The Label was a great way to do it. From how it has developed and the response we got, we have managed in a smart way to do what we set out to do. I’m not saying that we changed everything massively. We’re one tiny organisation, but it has had an effect on a lot of people.

It seems like the first few years of trying to get Behind The Label funded was very trying. How did you manage to persuade funders and the state to support your project? 

The first year when we approached funders with the concept, we got told we were crazy. It was absolute madness to do this project. [We were told] it was dangerous, that there were too many risk factors, and nobody would touch it. So we made the decision that the whole team would volunteer their time. But nobody was giving us a theatre. So we actually went to one of the biggest commercial theatres in Wales and asked them to give us the space to put on the project. We were just really quite bold and went and asked for it, and they agreed. They knew our work from other things and they liked our work already, so we were quite fortunate. We got a couple of homeless organisations to help support – they paid for their transport to come to the group, and helped to provide lunch money for them to get a sandwich and a soda. 

So in the first year we got the support which we begged for, and then everything else was [by] volunteers, and we didn’t have any money coming in at all. The reason we did that is because we were sure the project would work, and we were sure that the production would be memorable. When it came time for the production at the end of the project, we invited a lot of the funders who had refused to support us. We had a 400-seater theatre space, and we filled it, and the production just blew up after that because everyone was talking about it afterwards, saying that they’d never seen theatre like it. So the next year, we made an application to the National Lottery Fund, which is one of the biggest funders here and they had seen the production. They were interested in hearing more, and they have actually funded us since. We were very lucky that after that first year, we did get funding. But we had all agreed if we were willing to take that risk and all work for nothing, we knew we could pull it off.

How has your notion of theatre been disrupted in your own practice since the pandemic started?

What happened with Behind The Label was that it was disrupted totally, because we went into lockdown for a very long time. We discovered that COVID had further marginalised the groups that we work with, and brought in a lot of new issues about being able to communicate, and being understood. We were in lockdown for so long that suddenly, [more people emerged] with mental health issues, more people became homeless, and more people were suffering from addictions. The number of people attending this project increased dramatically, [so] we had to look for a lot of ways to work safely, but also make people feel that it was a safe place to be. 

Because [people] suddenly had to wear masks all the time, a lot of the client groups we work with weren’t being understood. People were misreading their facial expressions. And so we had to introduce a whole new aspect to our work about body language. We changed the project completely. Behind The Label this year becomes Behind The Mask. One of the big ways that we’ve changed the project is we now have doctors involved who have trained with us, who will give advice, support, and services to our client group who often don’t have [doctors]. 

In the last year [because] we couldn’t do theatre at all, what we did was a lot of filming projects. We adapted our applied theatre work to applied film, and we looked for ways for that to be interactive, [in the sense of] starting conversations, things like that. And we still had workshops and the discussions online. A lot of our client groups don’t have online access [or] technical facilities, and so we had to look for ways we could still include everyone. We worked with other organisations to have hotspots where they could gather safely. We had pop-up locations and pop-up meetings, and we took everything to our groups, unlike before when we would have a location and they would come to us. And that’s actually become a big way of how we’re changing moving forward.

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

Obviously, COVID has had an effect on us all. The client group we work with are very much the forgotten group. They already were, and now it’s kind of worse that they are being pushed further down the queue of support because there are other priorities. I am definitely concerned with how all the government cuts and funding is going to affect that side of things. We actually have more people in need of support than ever before, with a whole new group who have experienced mental health issues, addictions, and homelessness because of COVID. I think it has to be very tailored to almost a grieving process that people are going through, because of what they’ve lost in the last year. A lot of people have lost loved ones; the UK has the fifth highest death rate in the world. There is a lot of healing that needs to happen.

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

I’m very passionate about this project. I’m passionate about what it achieved and the voice that it gave to marginalised groups. So I’d like people to take away how applied theatre can do that, and how no group is impossible to work with. I think these methods work with any group, if you’re willing to understand the group and adapt it with them, and to them, but it has to be with them and their needs. I’d like people to take away that understanding of my passion for it, but also that applied theatre is life changing for people. Applied theatre can change people’s lives, not just the people who do the workshops, but also the people who see that work. People who saw our very first production Behind The Label in 2016 still talk about it. You know, it has affected people and I feel very proud of what this work can do. 

Sun, 23 May 2021: [HEALTH MASTERCLASS] Telling our stories – Confronting our label
Sat, 29 May 2021: [HEALTH KEYNOTE] Behind the label
Sun, 30 May 2021: [KEYNOTE PANEL DISCUSSION] Discovered Ground: Unearthing the Possibilities

SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2021 – Creative Disruption: Exploring New Ground takes place from 22 – 30 May online. Click here for more info. Read ArtsEquator’s other coverage on the Conference here.

This article is sponsored by the Singapore Drama Educators Association.

About the author(s)

Sarah (pronouns: she/her) is a bilingual writer, researcher and independent producer who has specific interests in working across genres to create new, immersive experiences through inter-disciplinary modalities and technology. 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. She most recently participated in The Greenhouse Lab, an action-learning programme by ArtsWok Collaborative which equips arts practitioners to design community development projects. In her free time, she enjoys reading new plays by emerging playwrights while sipping bubble tea.

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