Drama Box was established in 1990 and works across Singapore creating socially engaged theatre in communities, both to be performed in public space and in the company’s own portable, inflatable venue: GoLi – the Moving Theatre. Its eight staff are jointly led by artistic director Kok Heng Leun, resident artist Han Xuemei, and associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling, who joined in 2004 and takes responsibility for youth and community engagement. In keeping with government funding cycles in Singapore it plans its activities within three-year blocks; its annual turnover is roughly $1m SGD, of which 60% is received from the government and the rest raised through commissions and sponsorships.
Mission: socially engaged theatre in dialogue with taboo or marginalised issues
When Koh Hui Ling first arrived at Drama Box as a freelance actor, in 2001, the company was just expanding its repertoire, from “doing socially based performances in theatre spaces” to “including the community in the creation of the work and more participatory forms of theatre”. In particular it was influenced by Augusto Boal’s forum theatre techniques, but whatever its experiments in form, its content was “always based in social issues about Singapore. We wanted to have dialogue about taboo or marginalised issues in public.”
All of which, says Koh, has presented problems for the company in a country that, as recently as the 1990s, had put an entire theatre group under surveillance for practising forum theatre, and refused to fund art that was “political and radical”. Koh recalls: “When I was first freelancing with the company, we felt that we constantly got police in the audience and media recording us secretly.” Combined with the funding deficit, the result was that Drama Box “had to cease full-time operation in 2003”.
Much has changed in the 15 years since – in Singaporean society, in the Singapore theatre scene, and for Drama Box itself. The clampdown on communism that began in the 1970s, led to many people being “detained in prison for years without trial”, and left people “less confident about speaking out loud, because you never know what will happen to you”, has gradually lifted. This is particularly noticeable in schools, says Koh: previously students were instructed to “just keep quiet”, but now they are encouraged to “participate more in class, ask questions, be curious”. Not coincidentally, forum theatre has mushroomed as a form in Singapore – so much so that in 2015 Drama Box was able to curate an entire festival, inviting “all the young people and social organisations involved in creating forum theatre, and professional groups from overseas”. Drama Box has gradually evolved how it approaches working in communities, from first developing a “co-creation process” because “nothing beats people telling their own stories”, to addressing “the importance of sustainability” by “extending the length of time that we spend in each community”, and in particular finding “partners that we work with on the ground, who can continue supporting” the community after Drama Box leave.
Talking to a community, talking to Singapore
Since 2005, Drama Box has thought carefully about “the definition of what community means. Because Singapore is really small, and sometimes a housing estate in the north is not too different from one in the east. Is the voice of the community that we are talking about just the people living in this town – or actually are we talking about people living in Singapore in general? That has helped shape our programme design, so certain parts we will be directly involving the people who are living in the vicinity, and then there is another part of the project that includes the larger Singapore community in a lot more dialogue.”
“Because Singapore is really small, and sometimes a housing estate in the north is not too different from one in the east. Is the voice of the community that we are talking about just the people living in this town – or actually are we talking about people living in Singapore in general?”
Although it works in every compass point of the country, there are communities Drama Box has returned to annually since 2000, deepening engagement with each project. Initially, Koh admits, the company would be greeted with “a lot of suspicion and uncertainty: they would say, who are these people? Are you from the government?” Similarly, lack of familiarity with the form of forum theatre meant they weren’t sure how to interact. With time, the company has built up “a small group of people in each area that we visit, who have seen something and become the demonstrators of what to do and how to do it.” That process took roughly four years.
How Drama Box works with communities has also changed, and key works in its evolution include:
1: The IgnorLAND series
“We wanted to use this series to bring people back to alternative narratives,” says Koh, and to get them to think about “the sustainability of a community”, especially considering “the constant tearing down and rebuilding in Singapore, which is in connection with the erasure of personal memories and sense of belonging and ownership in Singaporeans”. One iteration took place in a housing estate, Bukit Ho Swee, which had experienced a major fire in 1961; from conversations with residents about “concerns or issues that they have within the area”, a promenade performance was built, led by a tour guide and weaving historical text written by a playwright and performed by professional actors, with “the real life of everyday people”.
A later iteration took place in another housing estate, Dakota Crescent, that was due for demolition. For this, “we started to use more community mapping and participatory methods of doing inquiry”, with Drama Box’s youth group involved in collecting information about the community – not just through conversation, but inviting, for instance, song dedications. This performance invited the community to make decisions for itself about what should happen to the land it had lived on, in the hopes that the discussion might in turn inspire “social action”. In late 2017 it was announced that six blocks of the estate would be conserved.
2: The Lesson
This work continued that dialogue approach but aimed to be “a whole city engagement exercise”. Based on the premise that seven sites had been selected for potential demolition, to be replaced with a metro station, The Lesson gave audience participants roles as residents and members of the public and invited them to vote for a site for eviction. “People have to share their thoughts about why they chose what they chose, and then convince each other: it’s getting people to question, and really think about civic responsibility and the whole concept of democracy – and we hope this propels them into practising how to take action.”
People have to share their thoughts about why they chose what they chose, and then convince each other: it’s getting people to question, and really think about civic responsibility and the whole concept of democracy
3: Both Sides, Now
This project thinking about “palliative care, advance care planning, and living and dying well” began in hospitals but has since been taken to housing estates where Drama Box work regularly, where the company aimed to “understand what the community wants and how they take the concept of death”, making the subject less taboo. A big shift with this work was the involvement of Drama Box’s volunteer training programme, both in “supporting elderly people to create the art work” and in “sustaining the dialogue in the area after we leave”.
4: The We Can! plays
Commissioned by the gender equality group AWARE, this set of three short plays looked at “sexual abuse across genders”, through the lenses of “date rape, domestic violence and the work place”. Crucially, it was not in fact created as a commission but “in partnership: there was a whole process of skills transference to this civil society group”, such that, since 2012, AWARE has been able to continue performing the piece itself.
Through all this work, Drama Box has faced a fundamental challenge: “We are still convincing the people in Singapore that the arts is integral to our lives and can play a role in the formation of communities”, rather than being a luxury to be experienced occasionally. The fact that Drama Box’s artistic director has spent the past two years as a Nominated Member of Parliament (a system in Singapore that allows members of the public to join parliament for a fixed term) means that there has been someone at the heart of government “constantly using the lens of the arts to critique our national policy” and supporting the arts community – but there is no guarantee that there will be another arts representative there in the future.
That lack of voice at governmental level exacerbates another major challenge: working in public space. “In Singapore we don’t really have public space: it’s usually managed by a government agency or private property” – and that creates a lot of legislation that the company needs to negotiate before it can perform. In response the company has created its own pop-up theatres: three self-funded, flexible, inflatable structures in which it can tour.
Koh takes a lot of inspiration in her work from the Australian group Big hART: “They spend years and years in the community, the content really comes from the community, and more importantly they are able to go to the national level.” As Drama Box continues to hone its engagement and dialogue tools, she hopes the company will similarly reach the point where “our work can influence or inform political decisions”. It has already begun moving in this direction with the Both Sides, Now project, through which Drama Box formed “a creative consultative committee made up of medical social workers, artists, dramatists etc”, which could work with health foundations to shift thinking around new advanced care planning systems.
Aside from that, Koh’s key focus for Drama Box is “youth development – because who is going to continue this work in the future? We believe it should be the next generation of young people who can use the theatre to do something.” And the company is taking seriously its responsibility for this development through its youth group, ARTivate, which trains its participants for three years in socially engaged theatre projects, after which they are ready to graduate directly into the industry.