As the second phase of Asian TYA Network Programme (the first phase was the invitation to ricca ricca*festa 2016 and networking), the first field research was carried out from the 21st to the 24th of November 2016.
The members 3 and 5 participated in ricca ricca*festa 2016. Caleb and Kung Yu joined in this research both as researchers and local coordinators.
The purpose of this visit was to investigate the environment and current situation of TYA by visiting the practitioners and venues of TYA in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, such as artists, theatres and organisations doing TYA related activities as well as funding bodies. With the coordinators great help, we managed to have meetings with a wide range of practitioners within the tight schedule, visiting two cities in four days.
The rough schedule was as follows:
Mon 21 November Morning: Arrival in Singapore
Afternoon: Meeting with Esplanade Theatres on the Bay
Tue 22 November <Singapore>
Wed 23 November <Singapore>
Evening: Transfer to Kuala Lumpur
Thu 24 Novermber <Kuala Lumpur>
On the first day, we started the research in the afternoon since the arrival of the members from Japan and Malaysia was in the morning. We visited Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. We first did a tour of the site and then had a meeting with the team who is responsible for the programs for the young audiences.
Esplanade is a theatre complex representing Southeast Asia which opened in 2002. It consists of two symmetrical buildings, built under the themes of music and performing arts. It is the national performing arts centre devised by the Singaporean government. Although it is funded by the National Arts Council (NAC), the operation and management of the theatre is done by a private organisation.
Esplanade has a concert hall with approximately 1800 seats and a theatre with 1950 seats as main halls, and a recital studio with 245 seats and a black box theatre studio (220 seats can be placed) as small spaces. In addition, there are also a lobby stage and an open-air stage where they present various open performances. What was surprising to us was the fact that there was only one rehearsal space despite the size of this complex. In order to solve this problem, Esplanade got a space that used to be a nightclub and started renovating it as a rehearsal space. However, during the renovation they realised the potential and flexibility of the space. Since they had another issue that they did not have a medium-sized space (with approximately 400 seats), they decided to renovate the space so that they can use it both as a rehearsal space and as a medium-sized performance space.
The space that we, as TYA practitioners, should remark on is an activity space for children called ‘PIP’s Playbox’. It used to be a dead space behind a theatre studio which was used only for receptions and special occasions. They renovated it into a space where they can do handcrafts, workshops and storytelling. In collaboration with architects, they re-created a long and narrow area into a space that stimulates children’s curiosity by utilizing the different height and bumps. It is free to enter the space, and families can enjoy various activities related to the theatres main programs. When we visited, the theatre had an Indian focus, so there were colouring books with Indian designs. The space was just opened in February, and they said that there was still more to improve. However, they were already trying out various things in the space – for instance, they put a screen there so that those who do not like to be in a dark space or those with disabilities can also enjoy what’s happening inside the theatre without going inside. Another example is that they decorate the space under the same theme of the work presented in the theatre, which was functioning as a great introduction to the theatre. Those ideas and use of the space was already very interesting for us.
After the site tour of the theatre, we had a meeting with the Director and staff of the Department of Children and Youth. Esplanade has approximately 400 full-time staff, and there are 40-50 people working only for the program departments (divided into the sections of dance, theatre, and music). They work in cooperation with each other, and at the same time each department has their main seasons. So Esplanade’s annual program is determined by and consist of the main seasons of each department. In the meeting, they were mainly talking about three main programs that the Department of Children and Youth has.
The first program is the series of theatre programs for young audiences called Playtime! It was launched in 2007 and is held three times a year targeting 2-4 year-old children. Under the theme of comprehensive and immersive experience, they work with Singaporean writers and artists to create a local work by the method of devising. From this year, they started doing ‘sensory friendly’ performances (adjusting the volume of sound and intensity of lights or allowing the audiences to move around for those who are sensory sensitive) three times per each work so anyone can enjoy the program. Since there are no artists belonging to the theatre, they work with different independent artists, theatre directors and actors in each project, and do creations under the production of Esplanade.
Another program also started in 2007, called Feed Your Imagination/FYI, a program for schools and local communities. The target age is 7-16 year-olds, and it is held 7-9 times a year. This program includes performances as well as packages for teachers to be integrated into the school curriculum. The package focuses more on the educational aspects, including learning materials for 2 to 4 weeks under the same theme as the performance the children watch. For the 7-13 year old, it is programmed to deepen their understanding of the history, culture and traditional performing arts. The program for the 13-16 year old looks further into social issues such as bullying and identity. They say it is particularly important for the Singaporean children to think about ‘being a Singaporean’ as there are a variety of people in the society such as immigrants and the second-generation. For example in Playtime! they use books written by a Singaporean writer, or show the children Singaporean-themed works created by Singaporean creators during the playtime. From those activities, it feels that the programs for children at Esplanade emphasise very much on having an identity as a Singaporean.
The last program of Department of Children and Youth to be mentioned is the festival called Octburst, which is held every October. It starts on children’s day, and has been held every year since 2003. Based on the theme of a festival for the children by the children, every year they have arts programs, contests, performances, as well as inviting works from abroad such as Unicorn Theatre and La Baracca. The target age of Octoburst is 5 year-old and over, so they have programs that are covering all the age groups – Playtime! for age 2-4, Octoburst for 5 and over, and FYI for 7-16.
Since all the creations of Department of Children and Youth are produced by Esplanade, they started the capacity program for the artists who create TYA works, in cooperation with NAC in 2015. In this capacity program, they also invite artists who are not specialised in TYA so that they learn and understand creative process and language that are unique to TYA. In order to improve each work, they also invite dramaturgs to the program. They are aiming to build a good relationship with the artists and to support them in the aspect of knowledge while they create what they want. However, they sometimes find it difficult to do so without interfering their creativity or their motivation for creation.
What I felt when I visited Esplanade is that the programs, at least the ones of Department of Children and Youth, are perfect to a certain extent. It felt that each program was very well thought out in terms of the balance and contents. They said that they would be happy to consider other possibilities if there are any suggestions, though it seemed that they were more interested in improving the existing programs. One thing that surprised all of us visitors was that the staff of Esplanade kept saying ‘we only have the limited space, so what we can do here is limited as well’. For those seeing it from outside like us, it looks like the complex has unlimited space and possibilities; however, it is not difficult to imagine that there might be restrictions that are invisible from outside as it is a big organization and they have a lot of departments. Anyway, it was very impressive that all the programs were planned and carried out in consideration of their backgrounds and long-term strategies, and there was so much to learn from the meeting. At the same time I could not help feeling a little jealous, as all those programs and systems were realised and achieved because of the great space they have as well as the good relationship and cooperative system of NAC.
In the morning of the second day, we had a meeting with National Arts Council (NAC) and Luanne Poh, the director of the Children’s Arts Centre that is opening next year, at Goodman Arts Centre (GAC). GAC was originally a campus of LASALLE College of the Arts. Utilising the same structure, now they have the office of NAC, offices of art organisations, studios, rehearsal spaces and black box theatres there. Children’s Arts Centre will also be created there by renovating the former lecture hall.
NAC is the governmental funding body as the name says. They have long been funding art projects for young people, but the strategy report published in 2012 brought activities for young people to the highest priority of NAC. For these two years, their focus has been especially on activities for infants. The participants of the meeting are staff of kindergartens dealing with arts or theatre educational programs as well as the Director and Deputy Manager of Arts & Youth and Strategic Planning. Other than their funding schemes, NAC has the arts educational program in cooperation with kindergartens and schools (schools buy the programs curated by NAC. If it’s a stage performance, NAC provides support), artist-in-school program (teachers and artists work together for 3-6 months), and workshops for artists. NAC created an award in 2001and Children’s Theatre Award in 2016, aiming at better recognition of TYA and fostering audiences. Although there are many TYA theatre companies, most of their target age is 4-10 years old, so they pointed out the necessity of non-verbal works or works for infants. However, according to the coordinator Caleb, since Singapore is a consumer society, changes in ‘fashion’ happen very quickly. Therefore, even though there are currently many organisations starting programs for young audiences or focusing on infants, this fashion might change in a few years time and there will probably be more demands for programs for teens. It is very interesting that the speed of changes in society can also be found in the activities of performing arts.
A new arts centre NAC is planning to open next Summer (or at least by Autumn) is Children’s Arts Centre (CAC). It was announced that Luanne Poh, who attended this year’s ricca ricca*festa, will be the Director of the centre, so we managed to ask her about its design of the space and program plans. Under the theme of ‘curiosity’, the centre aims to create a space where all the children from families and schools can visit and enjoy (accessibility is one of the most important keywords), and a space where artists can try out various ideas, not only presenting completed works. Recently there are many festivals and seasons for young audiences held by theatres, arts organisations and museums in Singapore. However, the role of CAC is not to be their competitor, but to fill the gap that has not been filled by those other festivals, by always being child-centred and by creating an inclusive space where disabled, poor or disadvantaged children can all enjoy the arts. The programs of CAC are arranged based on 4 ‘S’s – Society, School, Service and Seeding. For instance, all programs are free of charge for the Society, and anyone can join the activities of the centre. They also employ young people as members of staff so that they can learn various skills as well as experiencing the arts, which is part of Service. For Seeding, they let artists present their work in progress at CAC for free. It also becomes a place for the artists to encounter children by setting small rules such as that the artists who develop their works at CAC must spend some time with children. There is also a small space outside. It will be designed to have nature that merges into urban environment under the theme of sustainability, which will be very important for the children of the next generation. I am very much looking forward to its opening next year since I believe that the centre will be not only somewhere children can experience the arts, but also a very ambitious place that contributes to the society, community and development of artists. After the opening, it will be managed not directly by NAC, but by another organization that is funded by NAC. However, NAC will keep supporting them so that all of their programs can be free admission. The fact that such an experimental facility can be supported by a national institution and that the country understands the significance of those facilities must be a great help to Singaporean TYA scene.
In the afternoon of the second day, we visited Japan Creative Centre (JCC) and then had a meeting with the Singaporean TYA artists. In the space of GAC, which was also provided by NAC, approximately 10 artists and producers who work for TYA gathered together for this meeting. We started with their self-introductions, and then had discussions of various topics such as their thoughts on TYA, the relation with Singapore’s social and historical background, their multi-culturality and thoughts of parents. Since there are Chinese, Malay and Indian oriented Singaporeans in the country, it was especially interesting to find out the issues that are unique in Singapore (such as languages used in performances and inheritance of culture). Those issues and discussions on them could be good tips for the artists in Japanese TYA scene, where it is getting more and more globalized. Here are the three main points that were mainly talked about during the discussion:
1) Relation with education
Even though some artists said that TYA and education could not be separated, the majority said that it is important that children purely enjoy the arts. However, in Singapore parents’ motivation and demands for education and school are very high; thus even when NAC emphasises the significance of the arts, it is often difficult to be understood by the schools who focus more on academic and educational aspects. Therefore, it seemed that they needed to propose programs with more appealing educational benefits. In addition, to many of Singaporean people, theatres are for learning languages. Schools therefore often recommend their students to watch performances in English (especially performances from the UK are in great demand even if the ticket prices are high) and in Chinese (the country tries to set Mandarin as the standard Chinese language in Singapore, so they tend to avoid performances in other Chinese such as Cantonese). On the other hand, they said that the schools normally do not appreciate non-verbal works as much.
2) Relation with parents
In Singapore where a lot of parents are enthusiastic about education, it seems that they want their children to understand the arts. Or even, they seem to believe that they should make their children understand the arts. However, many artists believe that children have more skills to be open and to enjoy the arts, so some of them think that arts education for parents is more needed. In addition, some artists also mentioned that the most important influence TYA could give children is not only the work itself but also the communication and human relationship that occur as a result of children sharing their experience of seeing a work with their parents. Especially in this modern society where adults are extremely busy, it means a lot for children when their parents ‘do something with them’. Therefore, the artists insist that it is necessary for the parents to understand that communication, such as children talking about their thoughts on a work or asking parents what they did not understand in the theatre, is the most significant part.
3) Relation with children
There are some artists saying that TYA is not just to make children have fun and that sometimes children do not trust artists because the artists do not respect children. It is necessary for artists to perceive children as one human who is in the equal position as them, and to face and understand the complex society they are living in now. Moreover, it is also important for artists to believe the capability of the arts and children who have ability to appreciate the arts. For children, there is no distinction, superiority or inferiority in commercial theatres, TV programs and TYA. Even in that situation, it is important for artists to bear in mind that what performing arts can do is to share the feelings and lives of various people, and to help acknowledging other people or outside of the society.
For the research members, this visit was to know and understand the current situations of TYA in Singapore. At the same time, the Singaporean artists said that there were not so many opportunities to gather together and have a deep discussion on TYA (only once every a few years) even though they see each other during workshops and other events. So especially the second half of the discussion became very lively and enthusiastic. I believe that it is very important that the artists exchange opinions like this, and so I think that it could be a very effective way to develop TYA if organisations like Children’s Arts Centre or Asia TYA network continue to provide this kind of opportunities regularly.
On the third day in Singapore, we visited LASALLE College of the Arts. First we had a meeting with Michele Lim from a TYA research group called stYar (Singapore Theatre for Young Audiences Researchers). Mr. Lim founded the research group in 2015 with Caleb Lee, who is the Singaporean coordinator in this project, for the purposes of investigation on TYA and sharing of the outcome. They emphasise the importance of collecting the material and sharing the value and history in the Singaporean society, which prioritise consumption and convenience. In Japan, there is also almost no research done on the significance of TYA with an academic or numerical evidence, but the proof by this kind of research would become very persuasive when convincing the significance of TYA to those who are not interested in the arts. Therefore it is very important for the recognition and evaluation of TYA that organisations like stYar spread within Asia.
After that, we had a meeting with the Head of Performing Arts Department and several professors of LASALLE College of the Arts. The college is aware of the recent growth of TYA and strategically reflects it to their curriculum so that it can lead to their future career. They are also very positive about working with national and international artists, so they invite professional artists to do workshops or creations with the students. In this meeting, we talked about possibilities of collaboration and cooperation for the future in detail. We are hoping to keep this discussion going for the collaboration from the next year.
After the meeting at the college, the members moved to Kuala Lumpur. On the next day, which was the final day, we visited Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KL PAC) and The Play Haus which is managed by a children’s theatre company. We also had a meeting with TYA artists there.
KL PAC is a private theatre run by a theatre company called The Actors Studio. After their former theatre was damaged by flooding, KL PAC was founded in cooperation with a group of housing developers who were trying to make the neighbourhood into a residential area with the arts. The building was originally constructed 160 years ago, and it was expanded by adding another building which is the current theatre. There are a main theatre with 500 seats, a black box space with 190 seats, as well as rehearsal spaces, recording studios and workshops to create props. As The Actors Studio has been involved since the planning of the theatre, it is made easy for artists to use. For example, the rental fee is cheaper than normal, and if a performing arts organisation would like to use the space they have a discount. Because of this usefulness, the black box space is already fully booked for the next year. They hardly receive support from the government, so their income is from the sponsors, donation and the rental fee of the theatre. They try to manage it in a self-sustainable way, by doing activities with as small budget as possible and sharing the benefit with the artists. They also run a theatre academy where people can learn theatre and dance aimed for little children, teenagers and adults.
Our next visit was to The Play Haus, the first theatre to be run by a theatre company for children in Kuala Lumpur. It is a new theatre opened inside a shopping centre in September 2016, by a Chinese-Malaysian theatre company for children called Hong Jie Jie. They mainly do the company’s performances in the theatre, but performances and events by other theatre companies are also held there. The space is rented from the shopping centre. They made the rent a little cheaper than normal for the theatre, but still there is a charge to ticket sales, which makes it almost the same thing in the end. As there is not sufficient income from the theatre management, the company’s main source of income is the workshops and theatre camps for children. The directors, producers, actors and designers at the theatre are all very young – they started involving in the projects as part-time since they were still teenagers, and now they work full-time. It was very impressive that everyone was very enthusiastic about theatre for children. It felt that there would be more great works created if those young people could go see various TYA around the world.
The last activity of this visit was the meeting with TYA artists in Kuala Lumpur. With the support of the Japan Foundation of Kuala Lumpur, 6 companies gathered in their office. Each company introduced their activities first and then started a discussion. Like Singapore, Malaysia has several communities coexisting, so the discussion on languages was especially intriguing. There are mainly Chinese-, Malay- and Indian-Malaysians, but most of the TYA theatre companies are Chinese, so they say that there are more TYA works performed in Chinese. Although there are some companies using English for their works, TYA in Malay barely exists. There are hardly TYA works in Indian language either, but recently the centres that introduce Indian cultures have started programs for children and they say it is a positive change. In Singapore, there are people with various cultural backgrounds living all together partly because of the size of the country. On the other hand, there was a clear division of community depending on cultural backgrounds in Malaysia. This also applies to theatre, and many theatre companies present their works for a specific community. Even though there are bilingual companies (such as English and Chinese) and children are very adaptable to bilingual works, they say that most of the time parents tend to stick to their own language. Since there is almost no funding from the government, most companies find it difficult to manage only with the income from performances. As a solution, it seemed popular for the companies to hold an event of camp in order to earn more income because many children can participate in it at the same time. I think that it is also because of the high demand from parents and families.
Partly because of the different languages, there are many companies that perform only for a certain community (for example, advertisements of works performed in Chinese are all written in Chinese, so that already decides their targets). However, it is assumed that works and activities targeting a wider range of people will be necessary for the future, like in Japan. It seemed that the demands from parents are not as high as in Singapore, so there are probably possibilities of spreading TYA to a wider range of audiences by creating non-verbal or multilingual works. To achieve that, I think it will be a great help for the Malaysian artists to meet and interact with many other national and international artists. Like in Singapore, they said there were rarely opportunities to do discussions on TYA with other companies in Malaysia. Therefore, participating in a larger framework beyond counties and communities like Asia TYA Network will possibly create and activate not only an international relationship, but also national and local communities of the artists within Malaysia and improve the quality of TYA there.
During the visit, both coordinators from Singapore and KL said that after participating in the festival in Okinawa and functioning as a coordinator for this visit, they realised that they needed to know more about TYA artists of their own countries and regions and create a network, while also thinking about TYA in Asia. That is exactly what we were aiming at as the first step of Asia TYA Network. If each member who participates in a program of the network becomes a base of TYA in their region and becomes aware of and responsible for that, it will be a very strong foundation of the future development of this network. We believe that this visit made that awareness stronger by asking each coordinator to be the mediators to meet the local artists or practitioners. This achievement is as important as all the information we gained and all the meetings and connections we made with people during this visit.
We are also looking forward to seeing the activities and works of the members who participated in this field research. In particular, the two participants from Malaysia seemed to have gained many tips from the activities through this network because they are aiming to launch an arts festival for children which focuses not only on works but also work-related learning programs. We hope that this network continues to contribute to quality festivals and theatre works for young people in Asia. It was the first time after the festival in Okinawa that the members saw each other, and we felt the importance of meeting the same members regularly though the number of people who can participate is limited. Even if the network becomes larger, it will not be able to continue without the members awareness that it’s their own network. We hope that Asia TYA Network becomes a network in which each member can contribute to each other and enjoy the benefits by seeing each other, sharing their current conditions and progress, re-checking the same sense of purpose and discussing future prospects. It was a great pleasure that we managed to talk about the plans that will possibly be the first step of the next during this visit.