By Dr Natalie Lazaroo
"I never tell anyone my stories … I keep those stories for a very long time. Then when I saw my friend sharing his story in The Community Theatre, I was like, 'hmm, maybe they will understand.'" (Youth volunteer-actor in The Community Theatre project).
The topic of ‘poverty’ in Singapore is often met with surprise. The tiny island-nation with a population of roughly 5 million has often been described as wealthy and prosperous. Poverty in Singapore is thus not recognised by homeless people living on the streets. Rather, the poor tend to remain invisible. People from low socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly those living in rental flats, seem to exist on the margins of nationhood, especially with regard to nation-building narratives that focus on how home ownership gives citizens a stake in the country (Lazaroo, 2017).
There are a few things a reader unfamiliar with the socio-political fabric of Singapore should know: more than 80% of the population live in public housing, which is actually deemed ‘middle-class’; approximately 90% of Singaporeans who live in public housing own their homes, and; those who cannot afford their own homes and have no other housing options can apply for the Public Rental Scheme – these rental flats represent the social housing sector in Singapore.
In this article, I reflect on the work of The Community Theatre (TCT), a project that engages with families living in rental flat communities through the use of drama based workshops and forum theatre performances based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Supported by Beyond Social Services, a voluntary welfare organisation, TCT is led by facilitator Izzaty Ishak who works primarily with young people (called "volunteer-actors") from these communities. The group’s key objective is to use drama to bring residents from rental flat communities together in order to actively engage with the issues they face and to have conversations about these issues.
A key factor for me was to first understand how the young people constructed their own narratives of life in their communities. When I asked them to tell me something about their neighbourhoods, words like "stigma", "abandoned", "drug addicts", and "unsafe" emerged. Yet, there were also positive moments, where they talked about the strong friendships made in their communities, as well as feeling like they could depend on some of their neighbours to ‘protect’ them in times of trouble. I was curious as to why being a part of TCT was meaningful to the participants. What did it offer them that school, or involvement in other activities outside of school didn’t? Why did some of the boys in the group, who initially thought drama was ‘uncool’, keep coming back? One thing that struck me was how the young people found that that working through drama created a safe space where they could talk about their personal experiences, especially about issues they had tried to ignore or would not normally share with their friends, such as seeing their parents incarcerated. Even though such arguments about drama and safe space are not new, it is nonetheless important to consider how drama continues to provide a space for young people experiencing exclusion to find a sense of belonging, where they feel they won’t be judged for their experiences or backgrounds, or where they won’t be judged for expressing sadness, fear, or anger over situations of injustice.
More importantly, the young people in TCT were aware that the stories they shared during the drama sessions were bigger than themselves. They actively used their stories and experiences to give others hope, and hoped that by doing so, it would enact a change in their communities. As one of the young people said to me:
"This show is actually a platform for people in the community and the actors to build a relationship. To make them feel they’re not the only ones going through this at home … I still believe that maybe with this project, they see that there’s still hope – you don’t have to be in this cycle forever."
As a lecturer in Drama and having worked with young people both in Singapore and Brisbane, it gives me hope that our younger generation, particularly those who experience disadvantage, can have their voices heard. It makes me even more hopeful to see the love they have for their communities and their desire to use drama as a platform to make social change.
Lazaroo, N. (2017). Rekindling the kampong spirit: Fostering a sense of belonging through community theatre in Singapore. Applied Theatre Research, 5(2), 99-112.
Dr Natalie Lazaroo is a lecturer in Drama at Griffith University in Brisbane, where she teaches subjects on performance, theatre history, and drama for social action. She has previously written about how The Community Theatre worked towards building a sense of belonging. Her recent article: Rekindling the kampong spirit: Fostering a sense of belonging through community theatre in Singapore, is published in Applied Theatre Research, Volume 5, Number 2. She has worked as a high school teacher as well as a teaching artist in Brisbane and Singapore, and finds great joy working with young people. Natalie’s research interests include applied and community performance, feminist theatre, physical theatre, and research methodologies. Her current research looks at how through involvement in drama, young people are constructing their identities as agentic cultural citizens.