Beyond just an act of social service

Beyond Social Services community worker Noor Izzaty Ishak (second from left) watching as programme participant Suffrie Sarifee, 10, takes part in a short demonstration before the Sayang forum theatre piece. The play explores issues faced by the renta
Beyond Social Services community worker Noor Izzaty Ishak (second from left) watching as programme participant Suffrie Sarifee, 10, takes part in a short demonstration before the Sayang forum theatre piece. The play explores issues faced by the rental flat community, such as broken families.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who take up the cudgels on their behalf. This is the fifth in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times will be spotlighting.

On a sultry Saturday night in early January, about 50 residents in Jalan Bukit Merah sat, picnic-style, on mats and blankets at a Housing Board pavilion as a domestic drama unfolded before their eyes.

Teenager Jamil has lost his mother to cancer. As his father retreats into his own world and starts dating another woman, Jamil finds himself faltering under the weight of problems at home, including his sister Sabrina's refusal to go to school.

It is not a television series but "Sayang" - a forum theatre piece staged for residents from rental flat communities in the area as part of The Community Theatre, a programme by Beyond Social Services.

A technique pioneered by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, forum theatre allows audiences to intervene in the narrative of a play, stepping into the actors' shoes to transform its outcome.

Performed and devised by young people from rental flat communities partnered by Beyond, and others from more privileged backgrounds, the play delves into common issues faced by the rental flat community, such as schoolgoing issues and broken families.

The decision to bring theatre into communities came from the realisation that the depiction of such social issues resonated deeply with these groups, many of whom have had first-hand experiences of being marginalised, said Beyond community worker Noor Izzaty Ishak, 25.

The alumna from Singapore Polytechnic's applied drama and psychology course set up The Community Theatre in 2014.

Work on Sayang began last March. Participants in Beyond's programmes from the rental flat communities in Bukit Merah, Whampoa and Henderson, as well as youth from various schools, volunteered to take part.

The group of 12, aged between 17 and 20, interviewed residents and their friends about issues that have been flagged by a team from Beyond as common problems, including the issue of "parentification" - when a child is obliged to act as a parent to his own parent. They then began piecing together a script that drew on these experiences.

The play is presented without a conclusion, and the pavilion becomes abuzz with discussion when the question of what is needed to get Sabrina to go to school is posed.

A girl shyly raises her hand, suggesting that she can be homeschooled. Ms Izzaty in turn prompts: "But who is going to teach her? What is the real problem here - is it the issue of her not going to school? Or is there something else?"

Another audience member volunteers to intervene in the play, replacing a neighbour who had made a scathing comment about the upbringing of Jamil and Sabrina - as he falls into bad company and she continues to avoid school.

Instead of condemning the siblings, the new participant invites Sabrina to her house, as part of the play. The two end up having a heart-to-heart chat, alleviating Sabrina's emotional isolation.

Lengkok Bahru resident Muhammad Danny Azrin Abdullah, 17, who acted as Jamil's father, drew upon his own experiences of living in a rental flat community to contribute to the play's script during the devising process. "(Jamil) was like me... whenever I felt lonely I would mix with bad company and pick up habits like smoking. But I can teach people that there are other solutions (through this play)," said Danny, a first-year finance services student at the Institute of Technical Education College Central.

Singapore Polytechnic student Ong Si Ying, 18, who volunteered as a stage manager for Sayang, said that being involved in this production has made her more sensitive to warning signs in at-risk youth.

"(Hearing their stories) has opened my eyes and made me realise that I am too sheltered... we should take note of these small signs and make sure that we get in touch with them before it is too late... you think (such situations) only occur in drama serials, but these things happen in real life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'Beyond just an act of social service'. Print Edition | Subscribe