National Youth Council sorry over ‘disrespect for work’

Drama Box's two-year-old work, The Lesson, was restaged here in July. In it, the audience pretends to be residents of a township who want a new MRT station, and they mpust vote on which of seven landmarks, including a marsh and a columbarium, must be
Drama Box's two-year-old work, The Lesson, was restaged here in July. In it, the audience pretends to be residents of a township who want a new MRT station, and they must vote on which of seven landmarks, including a marsh and a columbarium, must be destroyed to make way for it.PHOTO: MATTHEW WONG FOR DRAMA BOX

Theatre group says National Youth Council appropriated its work without consent

Drama Box yesterday called out the National Youth Council (NYC) for appropriating the theatre company's forum work, The Lesson, without prior consent and in a manner that "perpetuates prejudices and discriminations".

On Sept 4, the NYC held a public engagement programme in which youth participants, who played the role of members of a community, got to vote on which three out of four families would get an HDB flat in their community, as the group relocated from its current estate.

Some members of the audience later told Drama Box that they were reminded of the theatre company's two-year-old work, The Lesson, restaged here in July.

In The Lesson, the audience pretends to be residents of a township who want a new MRT station. To get it, they must vote on which of seven landmarks, including a marsh and a columbarium, must be destroyed to make way for the station.

On Sept 6, the council sent an e-mail apology to Drama Box, and its chief executive officer David Chua apologised on Facebook for "the disrespect our team has shown for your work (The Lesson) in adapting it for our youth engagement".

He added: "In the excitement to find new ways to connect with our youth, we were too hasty in putting into action what we had learnt and did not consult with Drama Box and its partners. This was not right - please accept our apology."

Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun, who is a Nominated MP representing the arts sector, responded on Facebook, saying he appreciated the apology, but it reflected a "lack of understanding of the issues at hand".

He said "it is either arrogant or ignorant to believe that one can emulate the same idea without appreciating the critical approach The Lesson embodies".

He also called the council's scenario "patronising" as it seemed to prioritise heterosexual family units and imply that alternative families "deserved to be displaced".

Towards the end of his post he concluded: "NYC has appropriated The Lesson and that is why we are upset. The Lesson was meant to create space for dialogue, to understand, to negotiate, to allow everyone a voice, and embrace diversity. What has happened is disrespectful because it went against the fundamental belief of this work, of the artists involved and Drama Box."

Audiences voting on how a play ends is not new - the 1985 musical The Mystery Of Edwin Drood had seven possible endings determined by viewer preference.

As a legal expert told The Straits Times, copyright does not protect ideas, it protects the form that these ideas take, for example, a published script or novel.

However, Mr Kok told The Straits Times: "It's a matter of how you approach engagement. It's easy to see something and be excited and jump on board. When you jump on board without actually understanding it, you do more harm than good."

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the NYC said in an e-mail statement that it "takes a serious view towards intellectual property and copyright issues".

"When NYC realised that we had failed to consult and acknowledge Drama Box in the adaption of The Lesson, we reached out to acknowledge and apologise for our mistake."

"We hope to collaborate with various arts groups to co-curate and co-deliver programmes that can positively impact our young people," it added.

Mr Kok said he is looking forward to discussing this issue with the council.

The Straits Times understands that both parties are arranging a meeting for further dialogue.

"They are trying very hard now and we have to keep open minds," said Mr Kok.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2017, with the headline 'Council sorry over 'disrespect for work''. Print Edition | Subscribe