Earlier this month, I had the most interesting theatre experience ever. I went to watch ‘Disabled Theatre’, whose director is the renowned French choreographer, Jérôme Bel, at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). It’s not everyday that you get to see professional actors with learning disabilities on stage. Plus, the way that Disabled Theatre is presented gives you surprises at every turn. Starting from the beginning…
11 seats are placed in an arc facing the audience, and the translator, Chris Weinheimer, explains that Jérôme Bel would like the 11 actors to stand before the audience for a minute, one by one. So each actor came on stage, and then left, one at a time, to stare at (or stand before) the audience in utter silence.
People started shifting in their seats, some cleared their throats, most just didn’t know what to make of it.
The actors just came on stage and stared at us, and us back at them. Some took close to a minute, while at least one came up to the front, did an abrupt about-turn and marched right off, providing some comic relief.
I can only hazard a guess at what Jérôme’s intention is. But I came to understand that these actors with learning disabilities are not that different from us. Are we able to look upon them as equals? If you have to avert your gaze, or stifle nervous laughter, or find yourself shifting in your seat, then you have something to think about.
Then came the round of introductions. One by one, they told us their name, age, and occupation (which was either actor or actress). After that, they each performed a dance solo and you can see the immediate transformation of each actor and the unbridled joy in each performance. I love the pieces imitating Michael Jackson and Psy (in Gangnam Style)!😀
And that got me thinking, there is so much potential in the Singapore arts scene, great musicians, actors and actresses, sculptures, and the list goes on. Yet, theatre and acting has never been a flourishing industry in Singapore. Recently, the hot topic on ASPIRE addressed issues about moving away from this “paper chase” mindset to one that focuses on skills and experience. Also, it is not the first time we hear about the emphasis on skills and experience. The Labour Movement in Singapore has also been pushing for Singaporeans to respect every job and worker regardless of their paper qualifications. Mr Seah Keng Tia, Chairperson of Young NTUC once said “The Singaporean society must be one that respects every worker and every job. We must strive to create a culture that supports the pursuit of happiness and balance, as success is more than economic growth and wealth alone.”
Not So Different From Us After All
One actor shared that he has a fear of asking questions because he doesn’t know what the answer might be. And I thought that’s not too bad. Many students, even in University, don’t speak up in class for fear of asking what could turn out to be a stupid question.
These actors are not that different from us. We have similar fears, similar aspirations (get famous and travel around the world) and we just learn things differently.
The audience was, simply put, blown away by the cast of Disabled Theatre. In 90 minutes, we were made to confront our perceptions of people with learning disabilities, marvel at their unique skills and talents, and come to the realization that we each have our own weakness and there is no need to think any differently about people with Down’s Syndrome – they are just like us.
I noticed, too, that some of the actors had a really good sense of humor, delighted in making the audience laugh, and in general, just loved to have fun. One lingering thought remains though…
With ages ranging from 21 to 43, the actors truly succeeded in making us wonder – “Are these selves presented on stage fictionalised or real?” (Germaine Cheng / The Straits Times 5 September 2014)
It’s truly wonderful how people with learning disabilities can turn to theatre as an avenue to display their talents. I think parents of children with Down’s Syndrome would be comforted, after watching Disabled Theatre, in the knowledge that their children are not disabled, they are simply able in other ways.
I hope more opportunities open up in the arts scene in Singapore, especially for this community so that the next time we see someone with Down’s Syndrome, we’ll think ‘He/She has Down’s Syndrome. So what?’ and know that we are all the same – humans with our own fears and weaknesses.