SINGAPORE - There are many misconceptions about poverty in Singapore: that people are poor because they are lazy, or that there is no such thing as poverty in the island state.
A youth theatre festival at the Esplanade now seeks to counter these beliefs by delving into the issue of poverty with a slate of shows borne from over a year of research.
The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival, which returns from Wednesday (July 24) to Aug 4 after a break last year, features a double-bill of plays by students from Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) and Anderson Secondary School, and a full-length play by Beyond Social Services' The Community Theatre.
During a one-and-a-half-year period, students from ACS (Barker Road) and Anderson conducted face-to-face interviews with people from low-income families, spoke to social workers and took part in workshops. They also did extra reading, for instance by leafing through Singapore writer Teo You Yenn's book This Is What Inequality Looks Like.
For many of them, the experience was eye-opening - many students from Anderson Secondary School, for example, had not even realised there were rental flats near their campus in Ang Mo Kio.
Secondary 3 student Janine Ng Kah Min confesses she started out with "a lot of misconceptions" about poverty.
"A lot of us felt that way, because of the mindsets our parents passed down to us. For example, that people in poverty are in that situation because they deserve it."
But preparing for the production gave her a different perspective. After interviewing a family living in a rental flat in Whampoa, she says she learnt that "life gives you a lot of challenges and it's so unpredictable" with many things that are out of one's control such as the death of a family member.
The 15-year-old is part of the cast of Wonderland, a play about a girl who comes from a lower-income family and feels like an outcast in school.
"I hope when audiences see the play, they realise that it's so much more complicated, and that it's hard to give a definite reason why people are poor."
Festival producer Ngiam Su-Lin, who hopes the festival has made the youth actors more socially conscious, adds: "Problems can be systemic, they can be inter-generational, it could just be bad luck - from illness, to accidents, to having a child with special needs and having a lot of healthcare needs, all these issues could happen in one family."
"We are all complicit. It's our problem, and we are all part of that system and structure. We all determine how society evolves, it's not just the Government who decides."
"We have very much lost the interconnections between us as a society. It's very silo-ed and fractured. I hope the festival can also shift that in showing how we are all interconnected, and you cannot just lay blame on any one sector in society."
Aside from the three plays by young people, the festival also features a participatory theatre piece by theatre veterans, a directing masterclass by Nine Years Theatre's artistic director Nelson Chia, an experiential workshop on poverty led by social workers from Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre, and a community dialogue with all the festival groups.
"You really can't create a piece of work about poverty by pulling down the blinds and shutting yourself in the rehearsal room," says the festival's artistic director Jean Ng. "And because this is a youth festival, there is an added urgency for me, to push young people out of their apathy, inertia and ignorance."
Meanwhile, The Community Theatre, is staging The Block Party, a play inspired by the experiences of some of their actors - many of whom are from lower-income households. During the research process, the actors took part in workshops, and showed one another around their neighbourhoods.
Youth actor Muhammad Asnur B Asman, 19, who lives in a rental flat in Lengkok Bahru, says that in one of the scenes, his character picks up treasure for his daughter from a public rubbish bin. This story, which was inspired by another actor's experience, struck a chord with him too because his late father used to work as a town council cleaner. "He would go around the green rubbish bins looking for cigarettes," Mr Asnur recalls.
He adds: "I hope our play will help to solve the miscommunication... and help the audience understand what poverty is like in Singapore. A lot of people say the families don't work hard, don't put in effort. It's not just that."
BOOK IT/M1 PEER PLEASURE YOUTH THEATRE FESTIVAL
WHERE: Various venues at Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
WHEN: Wednesday (July 24) to Aug 4, various timings
ADMISSION: From $15. The community dialogue is free.
Other plays by young people
The Young Company - the Singapore Repertory Theatre's educational and performing platform for young people aged 16 to 25 - will stage an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984.
"The modern-day parallels are extraordinary," says TYC's programme director Daniel Jenkins, who is also SRT's associate artistic director. "The play is very much about the spreading of information, and how that information is expressed and passed around. That seems so relevant today, with all the fake news..."
WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road
WHEN: Aug 22 to 24, 8pm
ADMISSION: $30 (public)
Theatre group Stranger - founded by six artists who graduated from the youth wing of Drama Box - will present its first play as part of the Singapore Chinese Language Theatre Alliance New Works Festival.
Knots, which runs at the Esplanade in September, explores language politics and the rigidity of systems such as bureaucracy. It tells the story of a woman in the underworld who learns that she needs to rush through her application for reincarnation.
WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive
WHEN: Sept 13 and 14; at 8pm and 2pm (only Sept 14)
WHAT: The Hawker
The Second Breakfast Company will stage The Hawker at the Aliwal Arts Centre, about nine different people at a hawker centre on its last day before closing down. This comes about a year after the play was first staged at the Asian Youth Theatre Festival.
Audience members will sit at tables on stage with the characters.
Asked what topics he thinks youth audiences want to see in the theatre, artistic director Adeeb Fazah, 27, says: "Hot topics, new points of view from people from different walks of life".
WHERE: Aliwal Arts Centre, Multi-purpose Hall, 28 Aliwal Street
WHEN: Nov 13 to 17, timings TBC