Different Strokes For Not-So-Different Folks

Published on 26 October 2017

As various art events taking place this month show, sometimes, simple shifts are all it takes to embrace difference, whether physical or otherwise, and to unearth profound talent.

By Jo Tan

Made to Move You Tailored to engage children with learning disabilities, Bamboozle Theatre Company's performances use sensorial encounters, including recreating the experience of rushing through a field of birds. (Photo: British Council Singapore)

Educator and award-winning artist Peter Sau wants to be absolutely clear about something. Some people, he says, think art bridges the gap between the disabled and non-disabled. “It doesn’t,” he insists. “Most of the art we know is like other facets of mainstream society – it just widens the gap. You can’t usually go with a visually-impaired friend to the theatre. And there’s the representation – a wheelchair user goes to a show about a ‘wheelchair-bound’ character and, like much art, it portrays disabled people as victims, or tragic heroes for overcoming their disability. This stops people from seeing him as just a real individual. Perhaps worst of all, the actor in the wheelchair then stands up to take his curtain call.”

This explains why Sau’s theatrical work-in-progress, And Suddenly I Disappear…the Singapore ‘d’ Monologues – an Unlimited International Commission, the largest supporter of disabled artists worldwide –

which previewed to a small audience in October, includes captioning for the deaf or hard of hearing, soundscapes embedded with audio description of the stage action for the visually impaired, and other creative access for the disabled. Also, its script, written by the project’s lead artist, the British playwright and author Kaite O’Reilly who works extensively in the disability arts scene in the UK, was inspired by interviews Sau, the project’s lead collaborator and Associate Director, conducted with over forty people in Singapore living with disability. The next phase of this international collaboration will include interviews with those in the UK.

Sau says this community is tired of being portrayed as sad victims. “All of them want to be heard as individuals like any other with songs, dances and stories; dreams, aspirations, and sexual desires. This includes people with invisible disabilities such as mental health conditions; or chronic conditions such as those of the kidney, that require regular dialysis and often result in high fevers, meaning they might face blowback at work for constantly taking medical leave.”

In September, the National Arts Council and The British Council brought members of Bamboozle Theatre Company to give workshops to artists and educators. Bamboozle makes theatre especially for learning-disabled children – ranging from the autistic to those with profound and multiple learning disabilities, and who are often wheelchair users and not capable of much spoken language or movement – to help them access the world. While some programmes are also suitable for neurotypical children, they are all highly multi-sensory, invoking smells, textures, sounds, and a high-degree of interaction. Says Bamboozle’s educational coordinator Nicole Arkless, “We observe the whole person for responses. These can be very subtle – the blink of an eye or the wiggle of a foot – and we build on them. The show structure is elastic so that we can spend more time on something that gets a larger response. What’s most important is communication with the audience. If a kid yells in the middle of something, maybe we’d yell with them.”

Crowd Seeding In the Dreamseeds Arts Fest, the diversely-skilled young talents of Club Rainbow show audiences that the chronically ill aren't all that different from you and me except, in some cases, being much more talented. (Photo: Philip Au)

This approach of letting children enjoy theatre on their own terms, rather than through conventional standards of appreciation, has had spectacular effects. Says Bamboozle’s Artistic Director Christopher Davies, “During the ‘Goodbye Song’ to conclude one particular show, a child said ‘Goodbye’ back. The teachers fell off their chairs because he had not spoken for two years. We believe he had recognised this was a safe space where he wasn’t being asked to accomplish anything, so he didn’t have to hold back because he was scared he’d get something wrong or displease a teacher. It was an environment where he could be free and excited to explore.” In some of these customised environments, disabled children have happily played with non-disabled children. “When the conditions are right, kids will be kids,” Davies says.

Sau is, likewise, a firm believer in the capabilities of individuals when you meet them on their own terms: the entire multinational cast of And Suddenly I Disappear identifies in different ways as disabled. “Many think the disabled can’t be artists beyond the amateur level, but that’s because they have no access to education and art appreciation in the mainstream world. So, their artistic literacy is at an all-time low. We have good infrastructure when it comes to wheelchair access and other hardware, but our attitudes lag behind. Where are the teachers and classes for someone who wants to learn to dance when they are blind or in a wheelchair?”

Drum and Sass While young Adli Irfan (far left) has been learning drumming from his mentor Martin Kong (left), he's also been going for singing classes and teaching himself to beatbox. (Photo: Club Rainbow)

In Project Tandem, Sau’s Singapore-based professional theatre training programme supported by the British Council Singapore, he trains thirteen members of the disabled community for the professional theatre scene. In fact, four Project Tandem trainees have been invited by O’Reilly and the project’s director, Phillip Zarrilli, as guest performers in And Suddenly I Disappear, as part of their experiential learning. One is the visually-impaired Lim Lee Lee who has also helped Sau direct two shows for The Necessary Stage.

“She’s incredible,” Sau enthuses. “She is very fast to absorb directions and lines because when you can’t see well, your whole life is about memory work. And she’s a lie detector – she’s attuned to listening very closely, and told me when actors were not being honest with their performances. I’ve learnt so much from her, and all it took was a willingness to change how I normally work – to describe distances and spatial dimensions because she couldn’t see them, and provide ‘touch tours’ of props, costumes and sets based on tactile sense.”

As Sau points out, there’s no one-size-fits-all model when working with the disabled – only ways of deep communication, like connecting to expressions and body language when speech is not an option. The result is an innovative and exciting process, and an understanding that each person is a unique individual, rather than a tool to quickly create a product.

Plucky Thirteen - Peter Sau (fourth from left) is training thirteen people living with different disabilities in professional theatremaking through the Project Tandem programme. (Photo: Chong Chee Yin)

This month, Club Rainbow – a charity organisation that provides support to chronically ill children and their families – presents the sophomore edition of the Dreamseeds Arts Fest, where its young beneficiaries present various artistic talents to the public. Says the Club’s executive director Jerome Yuen, “We’ve had the Talent Development Fund for years, which provides monetary support to beneficiaries who want to pursue their passions. Then, we began organising programmes to let the kids discover if they had interest in various fields, and also to let those who had passion and talent in these interests continue training under professional mentors. A few years ago, we decided we wanted a platform to showcase all that talent that was emerging. This became the Dreamseeds Arts Fest.”

Yuen is not exaggerating about the artistic talent that’s surfaced. One Talent Development Fund recipient won the Best Student Award for her Bharatanatyam dance at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society and has performed as far afield as Chennai, while another recently got her ballet trainer certification. There’s also James Lau, whose medical condition of arthrogryposis means his arms are formed differently and some of his joints less mobile than most people, yet handles the drums with aplomb. “He’s a super awesome drummer who performed in the festival last year,” Yuen says with pride. “He’s now got an internship with Snakeweed Studios [a leading Singaporean recording studio] and works with recording studio, The Analog Factory.”

Another drummer is wheelchair user Jeremiah Liauw, who uses digital drum pads specially programmed by his mentor – the professional musician Jovin Lim – to more than make up for the fact that he is unable to operate a conventional kick drum.

There’s also Liauw’s friend with a less visible condition, nine-year-old Adli Irfan bin Mohammed Rino Shahril. Adli has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition, which he manages with long-term medication. His father says his previous dermatological symptoms attracted negative attention from his schoolmates, and adds that he was grateful for Adli’s friendships in Club Rainbow, where both Adli and his siblings understood that other children – no matter their medical conditions – are unique individuals just like them.

Now in remission, Adli is balancing getting good grades with teaching himself to beatbox, taking singing lessons at Club Rainbow, plus rehearsing weekly with his mentor Martin Kong, the drummer with celebrated Singapore rock band Caracal, who is teaching him to play ‘Imagine’ at Dreamseeds. His father says that music definitely makes his son happy, with Adli adding, “Even when I grow up and I am an engineer, I want to keep drumming.”

Yuen believes this environment of inclusiveness and personal growth “comes from finding people who understand the work. People like Martin and Jovin already work with children in Thunder Rock School and understand that every child has different needs. Jeremiah’s mother said that despite his longtime interest in drumming, they previously couldn’t find a teacher to take him on, but Jovin took the initiative to programme the electronic drums for him. In our karate classes, we’ve had trainers adapt instructions for children with learning disabilities or who can’t stand for long periods.”

For Yuen, the start-up time involved may take a little longer because adjustments need to be made for different children, and some children take a different pace to reach certain results, but he has yet to be turned down when he asks someone to help mentor. “The Singapore community is ready to help when they realise that what is essentially required is small changes in attitude.”

For Sau, these attitude changes can’t come soon enough. “There is a personal reason why I stopped acting for over two years to do what I’m doing now. Disability isn’t something that only certain people have, but a state all humans evolve into. With time, we weaken, we lose our sight or other functions. In years to come, when I become disabled, I hope there will be an ecosystem where I can still offer alternative types of performances that allow me to work on my own terms.”

Dreamseeds Arts Fest takes place from 18-25 November at *SCAPE.

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