Drama Box calls out National Youth Council for 'appropriation'

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".
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".PHOTO: DRAMA BOX/MATTHEW WONG

SINGAPORE - Drama Box on Thursday (Sept 7) called out the National Youth Council 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 National Youth Council 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 their current estate. The fictional scenario set in the future put the onus of allocating flats on the community, rather than a balloting system.

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."

Artistic director of Drama Box Kok Heng Leun, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament representing the arts sector, responded on Facebook: "While I appreciate your apology note on this matter, I am disappointed that the note reflects greatly the lack of understanding of the issues at hand."

He said The Lesson is a work that Drama Box is willing to share but it had not been consulted before the event on Sept 4. The piece, he said, was the result of more than a year of hard work by a team of artists and "it is either arrogant or ignorant to believe that one can emulate the same idea without appreciating the critical approach The Lesson embodies".

Kok added: "But the most upsetting part of this matter is that NYC has set up an engagement programme that instead of embracing differences and diversity, perpetuates prejudices and discriminations."

He called the council's scenario "patronising" and "cruel". He said it seemed to prioritise heterosexual family units and say that alternative families "deserved to be left out". (The four fictional families include a single mother with children, a woman with a same sex partner who wants to adopt a child, an elderly and single person, and a couple with no children.)

Towards the end of his post he concludes: "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 has seven possible endings determined by viewer preference. As a legal expert told The Straits Times, copyright doesn't protect ideas, it protects the form that these ideas take, for example, a published script or novel.

However, in this particular case, 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 The Straits Times' queries, The National Youth Council said 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 appreciate the relationships and there is much we can learn from the Arts community in using these modalities for deep authentic engagement with young Singaporeans on complex issues."

"We hope to collaborate with various arts groups to co-curate and co-deliver programmes that can positively impact our young people," said the NYC in an e-mail statement.

Kok said he is looking forward to discussing this with the council. The Straits Times understands that the council and the theatre company are arranging a meeting for further discussion.

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