Asian TYA Network Programme [ricca ricca festa 21-30 Jul 2018]: Geographies of Hope

I would like to stress that TYA in Asia is not entrenched in place but is fluid and open to change.
Caleb Lee (Singapore)

The Asian TYA Network Programme at this year’s ricca ricca *festa invited five participants and four facilitators from the South-East Asian region to take part in a week of cultural exchange, performance appreciation and critical dialogue. This was part of the festival’s continuous efforts to connect and engage with artistic activities in South-East Asia (SEA).  As with previous years, this programme was organized by ACO Okinawa and generously supported by the Japan Foundation Asia Centre. Being an open platform, the programme also hosted additional SEA members and international delegates who expressed interest in learning more about TYA in SEA. Since the participants came from diverse backgrounds and cultures, it widened the scope of the discussions to include international perspectives and practices. Even though there were fewer participants this year, the intimate nature of the programme allowed the opportunity for deeper engagement amongst the participants. Importantly, the common passion and respect of one another’s cultures inspired insightful and thought-provoking conversations throughout the week.

The programme this year was structured around a series of performances, post-show discussions and symposiums. 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 a very lively and multi-faceted discussion.

Reflecting on past conversations and through findings from the research trips, it was evident that using theatre as a tool to enhance and booster civic participation and engagement was a very pertinent area for practitioners engaging in work with/by/for children in the South-East Asian region.  Hence, it was a very deliberate choice that the focus of this year’s programme was on TYA and Social Change. While the subject matter is inevitably broad and contested, it provided a useful provocation for the participants to reflect on their practice in relation to the intersections between ‘social’ and ‘change’. Since the paradigm of change is unique to each community and context, the participants were encouraged to reflect on their own histories and ask how these histories inform their current practices. One of the most significant sessions of the week was the Social Change workshop where several of the participants were invited to share their methodologies in which they operate in. This was not only meaningful, but also reinforced the fact that theatre as a tool when activated appropriately has the potential to empower children regardless of context and cultures. Importantly, the idea of social change seemed highly urgent and relevant for many SEA practitioners.

There was also a focus on Scotland at this year’s festival, which saw a spotlight on four exciting and high-quality productions, and a Scottish market day. The round-table session provided the opportunity for participants to interact with the companies: Barrowland Ballet, Catherine Wheels, Imaginate and Red Bridge. Theatrically, White by Catherine Wheels, was perhaps the favourite amongst the participants. More significantly, White as a metaphor, aptly reflects the diversity and ‘colourful’ dynamics of the situation in SEA. The performance follows the journey of two bird-watchers who secretly love colors but are afraid of expressing them. Unable to contain their passion, they finally embrace and admitted their love for colours to each other. The performance prompted a robust discussion amongst the participants and with the artists. This performance does not only represent a spectrum of practices that exist in the region but also paints a very hopeful picture for theatre and children.

It was appropriate and pertinent that the week’s discussion culminated in a dialogue on ‘TYA and the Future’. Building on the idea of dimensions of creativity (e.g. creativity and management, practices, reflections and content) that was discussed in last year’s programme, this session focused on ‘Creative Solutions/Actions’ as a way for participants to think about the practicalities and realties of their practices. The session explored four main themes: commercial and citizen, vernacular and specialized spaces, tradition and contemporary, local and global. Instead of thinking of these terms as oppositions, the participants were encouraged to think of the points of negotiations between these spaces of tensions that change can happen. While understandably these themes are very broad, it was necessary to start chipping away at some of these issues and concerns.

In the discussions, conversations and research trips, the term TYA seemed to have its limitations in SEA. As I have highlighted in my previous reports, TYA is a western construct that is often defined as a performance (of high artistic values) that is performed by adults for children audiences. Inevitably, the term has its own set of cultural, artistic and political implications that is often rooted in the west. Other than Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, the idea of theatre (e.g. purchasing tickets, watching performances) is still sorely lacking in the other SEA countries. Hence, in order to embrace the diverse and varying practices in which theatre for young people happens in the context of South-East Asia, I propose that the network consider using the term ‘Theatre and Young People’ instead. I am not suggesting that the work under this umbrella term lacks quality or professionalism. Instead, this shift in perspective and terminology can include a wider set of working practices that occur across cultures, and removes the pressure of thinking only about performances for children. In doing so, it celebrates and embraces theatre that might be rooted in social change, development and communities that is more applicable to most SEA practitioners like Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Importantly, this shift nuances the perspectives of theatre with/by/for children and locates theatre as a process, rather than a product.

This is the third year that ricca ricca *festa has hosted the Asian TYA Network programme. What is most heartening is that practical steps have been taken to propel the network forward, with the SEA members taking more responsibility and concrete actions. As a collective, the participants felt that a more fluid and mobile network would be more suitable and appropriate for the region due to its economic and political challenges. Instead of a formalized structure and an elected committee, it has been proposed that the network would be divided into working groups where participants can contribute to the network based on their strengths and interests (e.g. management, social media, collaborations, funding, policies). In doing so, it allows for a more democratic, organic and ground-up approach of working. This methodology will hopefully strengthen the network and share knowledge, resources and opportunities on a horizontal level.

To conclude, I would like to stress that TYA in Asia is not entrenched in place but is fluid and open to change. It is a set of shifting practices and principles that responds to cultures and contexts across time and space.  Over the past few years, the Asian TYA network has illuminated some of the socio-cultural and political conditions and contexts that have implicated the role and place of theatre for young people in Asia. These contested spaces have opened new ways of thinking and have sparked many conversations. At the heart of the discussion of the future of theatre and young people for this region lies the following question: How does theatre for young people illuminate hope and how can young people be inspired by hope.  Yvette Hardie, President of ASSITEJ passionately argues that as practitioners, we all need to ask how theatre can bring about truly transformational experiences –wherever it can find an audience – and to make these a reality” (2018 World Day of Theatre, Message). Echoing this sentiment, theatre educator Kathleen Gallagher argues that “hope is practiced, not possessed”. And I think this quote in a timely reminder for us as researchers, producers, artists to think critically and a provocation to act. It is this idea of hope that needs to be negotiated and renegotiated in the twenty-first century where borders are shrinking. 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. Given the rapidly changing culture of childhood in most of the countries, it is highly urgent that practitioners in South-East Asia continue to participate and engage with complex context and ‘messy realities’ of communities, theatre, tradition, artistic practices, education and young people.

Caleb Lee
Five Stones Theatre / Rose Bruford College
Co-Artistic Director / Associate Researcher