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Culture Vulture

Time to let theatre for the young show up

Works that deal with complex coming-of-age issues should be open to young adults

This month, an R18 rating for a ticketed show about paedophilia, targeting audiences aged 12 and older, has highlighted the constraints faced by arts companies trying to create theatre for young adults.

Theatre practitioners point out that works created for teens in Britain and Australia, which discuss topics such as race relations, self-mutilation and domestic abuse, would likely get a rating in Singapore that would not allow these works to be shown to the age range they are produced for.

The show that started this conversation is Five Easy Pieces, presented from Aug 18 to 20 during the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Festival director Ong Keng Sen is known for programming edgy content.

Five Easy Pieces has child actors aged eight to 13 mimic adult performers in five sketches inspired by the crimes and trial of the infamous Belgian sex criminal, Marc Dutroux. The work is developed by Swiss dramatist Milo Rau and his International Institute of Political Murder, with Ghent-based arts centre Campo.

Like it or not, it is not just people over the age of 18 who think about sex and death and loss and love and politics and religion and other such weighty matters.

Dutroux's arrest in 1996 for a series of child sex crimes shook Belgium and led to calls for an overhaul of the justice system. His existence is a sore spot for Belgians and his name is known by Europeans young and old.

Five Easy Pieces was developed in part to introduce a difficult topic that European children would wonder about. Rau worked with child psychologists to ensure that the child actors in Five Easy Pieces were not traumatised and understood the difference between role play and reality.

The play was shown to audiences aged 12 and older in Berlin in Germany, Oslo in Norway and Utrecht and Den Bosch in the Netherlands.

In Singapore, however, it received an R18 rating.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) followed the Arts Entertainment Classification Code, which allows for mature themes with explicit content to be explored under the R18 rating.

The rating prompted an outcry from festival director Ong. He said on Facebook: "The strongest reason to do this work has been lobotomised."

Before issuing the rating, MDA consulted the Arts Consultative Panel, a 40-member panel of housewives, artists, educators and working professionals, which can make recommendations on ratings for arts shows.

Are Singaporean parents unwilling to take their children to such shows?

Not necessarily. Anecdotes from festivalgoers reveal at least a handful of parents here who wanted to take their children, aged below 18, to see Five Easy Pieces.

A more informative comparison cannot be carried out because shows for young adults here that push the boundaries are very rare.

In Singapore, theatre for young viewers has come to mean productions for children aged 10 or younger. Re-creations of fairy tales and myths are popular.

Less common here are works of young adult theatre which, like young adult fiction, deal with complex coming-of-age issues through interesting narrative.

At best, this niche is filled by classics such as Lord Of The Flies, a post-World War II story of bullying and savagery restaged from March to April by Sight Lines Productions in collaboration with Blank Space Theatre. For explorations of teenage sexuality, there was Romeo & Juliet by Shakespeare, restaged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre from April to May.

Absent are new works of young adult theatre that speak to the problems teenagers face today.

In Australia, there is Sugarland (2011), developed for younger audiences by Australian Theatre For Young People. Sugarland weaves issues such as poverty, racial tension and self-mutilation into relationships between 16-year-olds.

In Singapore, Chong Tze Chien's 2010 play Charged, about racial tensions in an army camp, received an R18 rating even though the issue of race relations may be considered here at any age. National service, certainly, looms large in the minds of boys aged 16½.

Theatre has long been education as well as entertainment. Some theatre practitioners say they are invited to secondary schools to conduct forum theatre workshops on issues such as bullying, body image, maid abuse and sexual trauma.

Director Danny Yeo has overseen students working out ways, through theatre, to help a friend who confessed to being molested or bullied. He says: "Secondary school students face a lot of issues, but may not know how to deal with them. We don't give model answers through theatre. We give options and empower students to make a choice."

There are barriers to staging such works outside schools. Theatre troupes here depend on government funding and private sponsorship to develop new works or even stage existing plays.

Popular British playwright Philip Ridley has written a sequence of one-act dramas for younger audiences about issues such as sexuality, bullying, broken families and grief. His work Fairytaleheart is the story of a homeless 15-year-old who meets another from a broken family. It was staged here in 2000 by Imaginarts and in 2009 by iTheatre. iTheatre founder Brian Seward would love to stage other plays by Ridley, but doubts they would appeal to sponsors.

Theatre-makers say a play on teenage sexuality targeting a teenage audience will attract fewer sponsors than a play about filial piety or getting better grades.

Yet, more teens are likely to respond to honest shows about sex, love and dating, than a show about getting better grades.

The next big hurdle would be ensuring the young adult play gets a rating that allows it to be seen by the intended audience. Would it be possible to create a play about teenage sexuality, for example, and have an advisory about the content rather than a flat-out R18 rating?

An advisory would put power back in the hands of parents about what their children watch. It would also empower younger audiences. Like it or not, it is not just people over the age of 18 who think about sex and death and loss and love and politics and religion and other such weighty matters.

Young audiences will eventually grow up. It would be good if theatre here was allowed to grow along with them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Time to let theatre for the young show up'. Print Edition | Subscribe