Exploring Cultural Identity at the Asian Youth Theater Festival
story | Amanda Leong, Contributing Reporter
photo | Amanda Leong, Contributing Photographer
Hidden in the fifth floor of *SCAPE at Somerset, The TreeTop is a world away from the rest of *SCAPE. It almost seems to be a secret place—you are invited only if you already know what is going on. This was where the Asian Youth Theatre Festival, helmed by Buds Theatre Company, was recently held from Oct. 13–15.
Claire Devine and Rebecca Lee, artistic directors of Buds Theatre Company, wanted to expand their youth network beyond Singapore, and hence conceptualized the Asian Youth Theatre Festival, which would be held annually for five years. They hoped that this could create opportunities for youths passionate about theater to interact with their counterparts across Asia, learning from each other and breaking down cultural boundaries. I watched two plays that explored the festival’s theme of “cultural identity”: The Three Questions and Lines.
The Three Questions
The first play that I watched was The Three Questions by The Young Co., the youth wing of Singapore Repertory Theatre. Written by Daniel Jenkins, the plot of The Three Questions centers on James—a boy who has a tendency to run away from all his problems, such as failing his academics and disappointing his parents. However, he soon realizes that running away from his problems will not help to solve them.
The play is surely relatable to many Singaporean students. However, these questions and tensions have already been engaged with at length in the media and national conversations. The play did not add any additional nuance or perspective to the dialogue, and seemed to fall flat at times.
Also, there were too many characters and situations for any of them to be developed sufficiently. The playwright included as many “typical” Singaporean themes as possible, from the Primary School Leaving Examination being too unforgiving and high-stakes for mere children, to Singaporeans’ trademark apathy and the resulting “Singapore Kindness Movement”, to discrimination against foreign workers, especially by “aunties” in MRTs. While all of this situated the play within a local context, it made the play rather messy.
However, the immense energy of the cast made the play more enjoyable to watch. The cast was playful, running around in a blur of bodies—clothed in black—to increase tensions at points of emotional escalation as well as to express conflicting emotions.
Granted, I might be overly critical of the play as I, as a local, am already quite familiar with the conversation of our country’s faults. For some foreign audience members, this play would probably have revealed some of the cracks behind Singapore’s perfect, pristine image. Nevertheless, I found it saddening that these problems are the first things we think about when defining a Singaporean identity.
Another play I watched was Lines by Deep Acting Youth Theatre, a bilingual theater and education company from Ho Chi Minh.
The play revolves around a mother, who, after losing her child during the Vietnam War, clings onto the unlikely possibility that her daughter is still alive. Her desperation makes her prey to exploitation by a crooked policeman and an unreliable fortune teller, who collaborate on a ruse: they pretend that they have found her real daughter. In fact, this girl has no biological relation to the protagonist—she is merely an orphan looking for the love and safety of a family.
Slowly, it is revealed that the policeman has a reason for his cruelty—his wife had died trying to protect this main character’s daughter from the bomb. He refers to this long-past event rather soberly, “You will remember the pain of your loved ones with holes in their faces.”
These experiences mar the characters with pain and loneliness, and this is expressed in different ways: the policeman through vengeance, the mother through her inability to let go of her happier past, and the orphan through her willingness to carry out questionable actions to get the family and love that she wants.
The play was beautifully staged, from the use of Vietnamese folk songs to the pacing. The scenes were appropriately slow or fast according to the moment, and each one was heart-wrenching and impactful. The play showed how universal themes such as pain, loss and maternal love indeed carry across cultures, even though they manifest differently. In the post-show dialogue, the scriptwriters explained that they chose this theme as they felt the calamity still permeated and shaped the current Vietnamese society, and thus was an appropriate story to showcase Vietnam’s identity.
Intercultural engagement—a success?
“The post-show dialogue was too short to promote extensive dialogue,” Iliya Izzudin, a cast member of another show, Can’t Get Enough by Buds Youth Theatre, said. Cast members of each theater show were also too busy with their own productions to mingle with other theater companies.
On the other hand, Ruth Chee, a crew member also from Buds Youth Theatre, found that the workshops held by the various companies fostered greater engagement with the visitors. However, as some of the workshops were held at the same time as plays, it is unclear how effective they could be in capturing the visitors’ attention. Furthermore, the festival is only held yearly, with little collaboration among groups in creating individual plays.
However, it is perhaps too harsh to say that the Asian Youth Theatre Festival was not a success in promoting intercultural engagement. The mere opportunity to watch plays by youth theater groups from other Asian countries creates visibility and recognition within the often-overlooked Asian youth theater scene. Watching plays put on by youths of different countries really did drive home the fact that theater is a universal language for storytelling.