Greater push for arts to engage audiences, art-makers of all abilities

Arts groups are stepping up efforts to enhance their programmes to embrace artists and audiences with special needs

Last week, Koko The Great, a play for children aged two to four, was staged with bright lights and no sudden changes in sound. Viewers were allowed to enter and leave the Esplanade Theatre Studio at any time.

Viewers with autism benefit from such a sensory-friendly format, regularly incorporated in the Playtime! series of children's shows presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

From theatre made accessible to viewers with cognitive or sensory disabilities, to training programmes for aspiring artists with the same challenges, there is a bigger push in Singapore to embrace audiences and arts-makers of all abilities.

The push has come from both the authorities and the community at large, but more can still be done in this field, say practitioners and administrators.

Mr Kenneth Kwok, assistant chief executive (planning and engagement) at the National Arts Council, says: "Inclusivity has always been an integral part of the Singapore story and so arts engagement should likewise extend to people with disabilities."

He adds: "The National Arts Council has been very heartened that more opportunities have opened up over the years for people to pursue their interest in the arts, even as a vocation, for example, with Very Special Theatrics, though, of course, more can be done."


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    WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 10.30am to 5pm




    WHERE: School of the Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

    WHEN: Sept 28 to Oct 21, Tuesdays to Sundays, 8pm; Saturdays and Sundays, 3pm. Oct 14, 8pm session has simultaneous translation in Singapore Sign Language

    ADMISSION: $40 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: Advisory 16 (some mature content and coarse language)


    WHERE: 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

    WHEN: Oct 11 to 14, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $35 from Sistic (call 6348-5 555 or go to

Some arts groups have consistently provided a platform for artists with disabilities to push boundaries.

TheatreWorks, for example, presents Off Kilter in October by award-winning Singaporean theatre- maker Ramesh Meyyappan, who was born deaf.

Last year, the theatre company presented French choreographer Jerome Bel's Gala, which challenged traditional definitions of a dancer. One of the performers was wheelchair-bound and another has Down syndrome.

TheatreWorks' managing director Tay Tong says: "Diversity is embraced and celebrated at TheatreWorks and our works represent that. We are interested in presenting innovative, interesting and boundary-pushing work, which Singapore audiences do not usually have a chance to watch and be exposed to."

Funding for such artists has also come from various sources.

Charities such as Very Special Arts have long funded award-winning artists with disabilities, such as Meyyappan or pianist Azariah Tan.

Their work is increasingly bolstered by other organisations such as the National Arts Council.

From Sept 19 to 22, the arts council and the British Council will offer artists and teachers workshops with Bamboozle Theatre Company from Britain, which specialises in creating multi-sensory art for children with autism and other complex disabilities.

The arts council's artist-in-school schemes have helped nearly 800 students in 10 special education schools learn dance or other art forms from practising artists.

For those outside the so-called normal spectrum, art is a safe space and one that allows them to celebrate their talents. It can also offer financial empowerment.

The Art Faculty at the Enabling Village in Lengkok Bahru sells art and craft created by artists with disabilities.

Then there is Cactus Rose, a band whose seven members have disabilities ranging from intellectual challenges to visual impairment. Mentored by music instructors from Faith Music Centre and funded by disability support agency SG Enable, the band play more than 20 gigs a year for corporate or public events.

Guitarist and lead vocalist Ken Wong, 29, battled depression and failing eyesight due to macular dystrophy and was unable to complete his degree in psychology at the University of Tasmania.

Playing music gave him a new lease of life, as did the chance to mentor more severely disabled musicians in Cactus Rose.

"It gave me confidence," says Wong, who is now an instructor at Faith Music Centre. He is married and has a young daughter.

But disabled artists do not want their disability to be the focus of their art. Events such as the Story Carnival, held on Friday and Saturday at the Enabling Village, aim to change the typical narrative around disability by highlighting unlikely heroes in fictional stories and through the real-life tales or performances of artists with disabilities.

Focus on talent, not disability

Organiser Roger Jenkins, 64, used to be president of the now defunct Hi! Theatre, a group made up of the deaf. He cautions that disability "should not dominate the discussion but inform it" when it comes to professional artists.

Similarly, theatre-maker R. Chandran wants his new troupe, Very Special Theatrics, to be judged on its acting ability and not "pitied" because the performers have physical or cognitive disabilities.

His actors performed a live-action version of Prokofiev's fairy tale for children, Peter And The Wolf, in June for the VCH Organ Series organised by Singapore Symphony Group.

Actor Peter Sau says: "I like the UK model where society is a disabling factor, not that people have disabilities. For example, we rely too much on visual signs or spoken language, which exclude those with sensorial disabilities."

Sau, 41, mentors several emerging artists with disabilities, through Project Tandem, funded by the British Council. The best three will be selected to work on next year's And Suddenly I Disappear... The Singapore 'd' Monologues, a theatre project featuring Meyyappan and playwright Kaite O'Reilly, and director Phillip Zarrilli. O'Reilly is a leading figure in disability art and culture in Britain.

Sau's students include Lim Lee Lee, 50, who is blind and assisted him in directing two plays staged by The Necessary Stage at the Esplanade in March: Haresh Sharma's Don't Know, Don't Care and Don't Forget To Remember Me.

Then there is percussionist Lily Goh, 38, who signs songs rather than sings them and will perform at the Story Carnival this week. She made it to Singapore Idol in 2004, but her musical career was cut short despite media interest because her mother, a cleaner, could not afford the fees for music school.

Goh now runs her own business, ExtraOrdinary Horizons, offering sign-language interpretation, and is doing a degree in sociology through the Singapore University of Social Sciences. She also plays percussion in Purple Symphony, a community orchestra.

An avid arts watcher, she says more arts-makers should consider the needs of people like her in the audience. "There's a little improvement now."

She caught Wild Rice's Grandmother Tongue last year, during a show that featured simultaneous interpretation in Singapore Sign Language. A similar show will be restaged on Oct 14.

She enjoyed the street theatre act Globe by Close-Act Theatre at the recent Singapore Night Festival because of the acrobatics and colourful costumes worn by the performers. With a hearing aid in one ear, she registered the bass beats of the music, but not much else.

It was much better than the year-end party at Sentosa she attended for the first time on New Year's Eve. "It was so boring," she says. "The DJ's music mix had the same bass again and again. My friend interpreted the music for me, but I was like, 'Okay, okay, whatever.'"

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline Greater push for arts to engage audiences, art-makers of all abilities. Subscribe