Organized by ACO Okinawa, and co-hosted by the Japan Foundation Asia Centre, this year’s Asian TYA Network Programme invited nine participants and four facilitators from the South-East Region to take part in a week of cultural exchange, artist discussions and performance appreciation. With the aim of connecting South-East Asian practitioners and cultural producers with one another and finding points of connections and synergy, participants came to the festival with open hearts, minds and a spirit of learning. Even though the countries are geographically located reasonably close to one another, it was heartening to see diversity in language, traditions and ways of thinking that the participants brought along with them. Importantly, it was against this culturally vibrant backdrop that made dialogues meaningful and poignant throughout the week, with every discussion, analysis and story pulsating with insightful perspectives.
Unlike last year where the exchanges were more fluid and informal, this year’s programme was structured with two groups of participants watching selected performances, speaking with artists and participating in various symposiums and table discussions. Being one of the facilitators, I had the honour and privilege of initiating some of these dialogues and it was particularly enriching to see the depth and quality of the conversations. It was in the spirit of criticality and not criticism that I was highly conscious of creating a safe space where participants could freely share their opinions and views. Not only did the participants learn from the productions, but they also appreciated the views and ideas from other participants. One of the advantages of having a range of participants from different disciplines is that it opened new ways of thinking and introduced a range of performance vocabulary which made the discussions particularly rich. It was also a refreshing change that not all the participants came from TYA backgrounds, which resulted in an even more lively and multi-faceted discussion. In particular, the discussion on Goodbye Mr Muffin was extremely interesting in revealing how important discourses can arise for TYA. By triggering and evoking emotional responses from the participants, this bitter-sweet production led the participants to draw on their own artistic knowledge and experiences, and in return activated a lively debate of how story-telling, set design, music can converge and effectively engage the audience on various levels. These spaces of exchanges also provided a useful platform for participants to connect the work back to their cultural background and personal experiences. While we informally and jokingly nominated the production as ‘The Festival’s Top-Pick’, the conversation reflects the interdisciplinary nature of TYA and its potential to engage audiences of all ages if calibrated and presented appropriately.
These spaces of exchanges also provided a useful platform for participants to relate the work back to their cultural context. As Kung Yu, one of the co-facilitators shared, it is very important that participants were given the opportunity to reflect and talk about the work instead of merely rushing from performance to performance. By analyzing the productions in relation to the participant’s cultural sensibilities, it raises further questions surrounding the notions of aesthetics, ethics and efficacy of the production. Alongside this, the post-performance dialogue with the artists also provided an added dimension for the participants to consider starting points of the process, creative impulses and challenges/considerations for young audiences globally.
The participants were also given the privilege to observe and participate in the Asian TYA Meeting programme, which expanded their knowledge and understanding of TYA on a larger and different scale. Through a series of table discussions and sharing, these sessions were informative and tackled crucial themes that were relevant and highly urgent to the South-East Region. Topics such as TYA and Education, Collaborations, Festivals and Funding provided a stimulating discussion and importantly provided points of contemplation and connections for continued conversations. It was especially heartening to see how these discussions turn into possibilities and partnerships across countries and cultures even after the sessions had ended. Importantly, the topic on ‘The Relationship on TYA and Society’ was particularly insightful as it provided an opportunity for participants to engage on both the global and regional level. In short, these dialogue sessions alongside the performances, provided the participants a useful way to think through complex and issues that are prevalent in the ecologies of TYA. It also allowed them to articulate some of the challenges and concerns, and at times, voice their frustrations about the socio-political climate in their own contexts. It is through these shared experiences that can foster a tighter bond and sense of camaraderie amongst the TYA community.
It was appropriate and pertinent that the programme concluded with the participants reflecting on the ‘provocations’ that the facilitators identified from the week’s conversations and sharing. Through the creative ‘fish bowl’ sharing, the participants were invited to share their thoughts, ideas and reflections that focused on the four themes-Creativity and Content, Creativity and Management, Creative Practices and Creative Reflections. The emotional and robust session resulted in many cross-pollination and germination of potential ideas. TYA has always associated with notions and dimensions of creativity and it was particularly symbolic for the participants to end the festival on that note to question their own views and creative experiences.
I have shared previously in my Cambodia field trip report that TYA is predominantly a ‘western’ concept that is relatively new to the South-East region, with the exception of a few countries namely Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and The Philippines. Even so, the practices and understanding of the field is still limited and is open for contention and exploration. Rising from the discussions during the festival, I propose that TYA should be considered as a set of shifting practices that responds to cultures and context across time and space, instead of formalizing it as a fixed category in the region. Evidently, the work with/by/for young people is embedded in individual communities and practices though not always articulated in the region. Hence, it is important for practitioners to continuously find new ways to challenge themselves and reflect on their own practices while navigating through complex systems of funding, educational agendas and socio-political factors. It is important that we are aware of their own audiences in our given context before we can even consider TYA’s philosophies and ideologies.
A common question that echoed during the last day was “what’s next”? I strongly believe that the Asian TYA Network as a platform has the potential to become a network of hope and possibilities. While we are immensely grateful for the generous support of ACO Okinawa and Japan Foundation Asia Centre that had brought practitioners of different backgrounds and fields together to participate in an international arena, at the heart of it, it is the responsibility of the individuals to pave the way since successful partnerships happen between like-minded individuals and not countries/organizations. Given the rapidly changing culture of childhood in most of the countries, it is highly urgent that TYA practitioners of South-East Asia continue to participate and engage with complex context and ‘messy realities’ of communities, theatre, tradition, artistic practices, education and young people. Social change, economic reform and political re-engineering can only happen through multiple voices, flows and networks of understandings. In this increasingly globalized second decade of the 21st Century, intercultural and international exchanges are already embedded in our everyday lives. I propose that the TYA conversations in South-East Asia and beyond should continue to draw on its unique geographical and social-political positions for it to remain relevant and distinct. It is only through continued conversations that we can continue to have a greater understanding young audiences, society and art and challenge the boundaries of what we term TYA.
Caleb Lee (Singapore)