Broaching social issues aren’t always easy for everyone. Through the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival, which is presented by ArtsWok Collaborative in collaboration with Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, youths of today are given a creative outlet to develop their original works into thought-provoking pieces that advocate for social change.

This year, the festival theme explores the often invisible issue of poverty in Singapore. Staged from 1 to 3 August at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, The Community Theatre’s full-length feature play The Block Party hopes to use the opportunity to shed a light on this otherwise hidden side of our little red dot. With a diverse cast that includes real youths who are living in poverty within rental flats in the Lengkok Bahru community, their true accounts have been adapted for the stage in a bid to spark conversations in today’s oppressive society.Youth-Community-Theatre-Interviewees

Ahead, we speak to four budding local talents – Syania Bte Muhammad Shahariddin, Aaron Cheang, Nur Rafeezah Nabilah and Nur Qistina – who shared their thoughts on how it feels like to present their stories on stage.

Hi guys! What motivated you to participate in such a meaningful project?

Aaron: “I first heard about the M1 Peer Pleasure Festival when I was back in school, where I had the chance to attend some of the shows, talks and engagement sessions. That piqued my interest to be involved somehow, as it’s not everyday that you find a youth-centric community theatre festival. It also serves as a reminder that we need to make this play an important one that audiences can reflect on after watching it.”

Syania: “For me, I’ve been in theatre for four years so it’s another opportunity to challenge myself. As I’m not from the Lengkok Bahru community, I need to take a step back and let youths from the community tell their stories instead – because this might be their only platform. After this project, I hope that these youths will feel brave enough to speak out and be proud of their roots.”

Are there any stories that you found particularly memorable?

Syania: “The stories that I found memorable are actually in the play itself. For me, it would be the scene with Qistina, which is also her own story. Her father actually raised her alone and he works as a cleaner. Whatever she needs – for example, if she needs a new bag – he would try his best to find it in the trash. I think that this is the embodiment of another man’s trash is another man’s treasure; we always take this phrase lightly but when you see the visual representation of it, it just hits you differently.”

The Block Party 1

Rafeezah: “I wrote my own personal story about my grandmother. It was particularly memorable for me as it was something I found hard to share as I still get emotional about it sometimes. When a person you love is gone, it can be difficult to come to terms with your grief. But life has to go on, right? I’ve learned to cope with my emotions by concentrating on other aspects of my life.”

When we mention poverty, people often assume it’s simply about being poor but it’s more than that. What kind of message do you hope to convey at the end of the day?

Aaron: “Many would immediately associate poverty with being financially unstable. But what people tend to forget are the social status of those living in poverty, the many invisible jobs they fill that others do not acknowledge, and the utter discrimination of their class within society. Personally, the message I want to convey is that they are human beings just like everyone else; not sympathy cases or stories to be exploited. On the contrary, they are some of the most adaptable and fast-thinking people I’ve come to know. I started volunteering in this theatre group thinking that I was going to help them, but they ended up teaching me how free and simple life could be sometimes.”

Syania: “I hear a lot of my peers say that it’s about throwing money at those living in poverty, but that’s not the issue we’re trying to highlight. Though they may be struggling financially, they also face challenges in strength and dignity because we, as a society, make it worse for them. I think it’s important we acknowledge that we are living in a meritocracy nation where the mindset has always been ‘you’re poor because it’s your fault’ – and this is a mental shift that we need to make because living in poverty is something that isn’t always within our control.”

Poverty is a topic that’s hardly talked about in our society, especially among youths. What do you think can be done to encourage more conversation?

Qistina: “I think it’s easy when you take the initiative to start the conversation. I’ve realised that when I approach the topic with my friends, they are more inclined to join in on the conversation.”

Aaron: “Building on Qistina’s response, I think it’s a good discussion topic for schools because it’s the place that shapes the lives of many youths. If the topic of poverty is being properly discussed and taught, students will then graduate with more vested knowledge and a more open perspective towards the issue of poverty.”

What role do you think theatre plays on social issues?

Qistina: “In the case of poverty, it helps those who are well-off to understand the lives of people living in poverty. Often, they seem to look down on the less fortunate, so using the theatre as a platform to address these issues would allow the audience witness the harsh reality of such problems.”

The Block Party 2

Aaron: “I feel that theatre is like a dramatised medium to bring the discussion of social issues to the masses. It also provides an emotional catharsis for the audience to see the whole situation unfold right in front of them. This leaves a lasting impression after the show ends where they can use whatever they felt, saw or learnt as a topic to be discussed with their friends.”

What are your thoughts on the youth theatre scene in Singapore?

Syania: “I feel like everyone should be able to access the stage. Through their experience with the community theatre, there are a lot of them in the cast who realise they have a passion for theatre – and I think that’s amazing because they provide a different perspective. When we talk about people coming from all walks of lives, these youths really come from different paths, backgrounds and social statuses. Moving forward, I hope that thecurrent theatre scene will feel less far-fetched for all youths.”

Lastly, what’s your biggest takeaway from this whole experience?

Rafeezah: “For me, it was learning how to focus on our emotions and let ourselves feel them. But above all, I learnt that teamwork is always important in any situation.”

The Block Party 3

Syania: “As much as we all want to be heard, sometimes you have to learn to take a step back. I found out about this during a sharing session where I was skipped from being able to relay my experience. At that time, I was hurt as it felt like I was being singled out because I wasn’t from the community. It took me a few days to realise that there wasn’t anything against me, but this just wasn’t my platform. It wasn’t about my story; it was about pushing the stories of others so they can be heard better, louder and clearer. Though it was a difficult lesson to learn, it really changed my mindset for the better.”

Aaron: “My biggest takeaway was the growth of the youths. I applaud them for being brave to take on this challenging task. Since starting out on this journey, I’ve seen them developing their performing skills and having more confidence in themselves. They’ve also learnt how to let go and see where the story on stage takes them.”

This article was adapted from our latest issue of Teenage Chapters 2019, where we shine the spotlight on youths who are changing the world – one chapter at a time. Out on newsstands now!

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