What my teenage teachers taught me on life and drama
Does poverty still exist in Singapore? What do the youth from privileged backgrounds understand about the struggles of poverty? In a society where inequality is increasingly topical, these are questions that the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival seeks to address through its works this year.
Keen to engage the youth and give them a voice, seasoned theatre practitioners Renee Chua, 39, and Iris Chia-Khanashat, 41, mentored students from Anderson Secondary School and Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) to co-create Wonderland and The Ground, respectively.
Part of a double bill, these two plays tell stories of poverty and inequality, urging audiences to rethink ingrained narratives on these topics and challenge their own prejudices.
After close to two years of mentorship, Iris and Renee unanimously agreed that the lessons learnt from working with these teenagers far outweighed those that the theatre-makers had imparted.
Was it difficult getting the youth to understand the topic of poverty and its nuances?
Chia-Khanashat: Initially, it was hard because we did a lot of heavy reading and research, but it became easier as we visited and interacted with the rental flat community. From the experience came very robust conversations about what was written on paper, as the students could now relate the experience with the words read.
Chua: I had assumed that the youth did not have the life experiences to fully comprehend the complexity of the issue. But in one of the sessions where I was discussing the book This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo Yeo Yenn with my students, their responses made me realise that I had underestimated their agency. It was amazing to see the students tackle a weighty issue and express it so simply, it would put many of us to shame.
What was most rewarding about working with these students on the project?
Chia-Khanashat: Seeing the ACS (BR) boys becoming socially-conscious gentlemen and the cast members becoming kinder to one another. They are now more aware of the country they live in and the advantages that they enjoy. They became less complacent and more empowered to be a voice of reason through theatre.
Chua: Some of my students went home to challenge their parents’ notion of poverty in Singapore, and there were students who cut out articles on inequality in Singapore and discussed it with their peers at lunch. When I hear about these examples, I think our work here is done.
What has working with the youth taught or inspired you – in life and in theatre?
Chia-Khanashat: They taught me to suspend my judgement and to let go of my need to always be in control of the artistic direction. Many times when I let go, my students surprise me with amazing work.
Chua: I was like some of them – so eager to be right and be affirmed, and, maybe, a part of me still is. So, whenever I remind them that it is okay to be wrong and to make mistakes, it is a reminder to myself too.
On hindsight, what advice would you give your teenage self?
Chia-Khanashat: Always try to see how everything connects to a bigger picture. Be humble and grounded. Learn from the aged generation and innovate based on their experience.
Chua: I would tell my pimply self that there is no one right way to do things, just like there is no one right way to portray a character or say a line. If you make a mistake, improvise your way out of it and fake it till you make it.
The responses have been edited and condensed. Details of Double Bill here.