By Kei Franklin
The Arts for Good Fellowship (A4G), organised by the Singapore International Foundation, is an annual programme organised to grow the Arts for Good ecosystem by fostering a community of practice that harnesses the power of arts and culture to create positive social change. The A4G Fellowship brings together artists, arts administrators, creatives and programmers from the social sector from around the world to take part in an exchange of ideas and best practices across a four-month period.
The fellowship consists of a series of webinars, as well as two exchange programmes in Singapore and Delhi, India. This year – the third iteration of the A4G Fellowship – focuses on the theme of Creative Empowerment for Children & Youth. In November, 26 Fellows from 11 countries joined 7 Fellows from Singapore for four days of co-learning that would spark collaborations which will grow and evolve over the coming weeks before the Fellows reconvene in Delhi in February, for their second exchange programme.
On the eve of their final day of the Fellowship, I sat down with SIF Arts for Good Fellows Shaza Ishak (SI) and Nilisha Mohapatra (NM), to discuss their artistic practices. We ended up speaking about many things – from what feminine leadership can look like, to the role of food in building community, to their respective journeys of deep-diving into personal vulnerabilities in order to hold space for others to do the same.
Shaza is the Company Director and General Manager of Teater Ekamatra, a Singaporean ethnic minority theatre company. She programmes the company’s seasons and manages the financing and other administrative aspects of producing a show. She has just returned to Singapore from completing her Master’s degree in Creative Producing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in the U.K.
Nilisha describes herself as a creative facilitation trainer, learning designer, and adult learning specialist. She leads programmess designed on experiential learning methodologies that are focused on reimagining the way people learn, thus breaking routine ways of thinking and doing. This, to build critical 21st century skills. She worked for many years in education sectors across the USA and India and has now expanded her practice to work with communities outside of education.
I specifically requested an audience with Shaza and Nilisha, because their practices – theatre and facilitation – intersect with my own curiosity about the potential for creative ‘space-holding’ to invite transformative experiences in people that, in turn, can contribute to positive social change.
What follows is a re-telling of our conversation, edited for clarity and flow. I hope that it inspires in you a moment of hope, curiosity, or self-reflexivity which can be valuable to your own practice, whatever it may be.
It’s 8pm on a Thursday evening, and we’re seated at a table outside of a kopitiam near Bras Basah, in Singapore. Shaza and Nilisha have just finished their penultimate day of the Fellowship. While both women are A4G Fellows, Nilisha has also been involved in facilitating various sessions throughout the day. They are clearly tired, but in good spirits. We begin our conversation in between taking bites of dinner, raising our voices in order to hear each other over the rumble of traffic.
KF: I’d love to begin by asking you both about the intersections of your work. Are there ways that your practices – creative producing and creative facilitation training – might resemble one another? For example, are there elements of your work – Shaza – that resemble facilitation? And, Nilisha, are there performative or theatrical elements of your work?
SI: Definitely. As a producer, I ‘hold the space’ like a facilitator would. That’s why producing from London over this past year was very difficult because I wasn’t there to make sure that everyone was okay. Being in community and feeling like family is a huge part of our work at Ekamatra. Everyone is always there, everyone has very close relationships with everyone else that we work with, and even if it didn’t start out that way, it usually ends that way. It makes for beautiful art.
SI: We try to break any barriers between the creative team, the production team, and actors. Food is such an important thing, and it makes everyone feel like they’re part of the team, because we’re always eating together. We have very little money, but we make sure that there’s always food – that we always eat together.
KF: So it seems like the act of bringing people together – especially around food – is a sort of fundamental form of ‘holding space’ in your work, and this then facilitates community building?
SI: Definitely, and it works. Ekamatra is home for so many people, that’s why they hang around so much – they feel seen.
KF: What about for you, Nilisha? How would you articulate the intersections of your work with Shaza’s?
NM: I definitely believe that facilitation is a performance in itself. I find it extremely vulnerable. I do it all the time, but I still feel it’s pretty nerve wracking. Theatre too, is very exposing. People can see through us. To be able to manage this process and create safety for myself and the group is where facilitation comes in.
Nilisha speaks with a kind of gentle firmness – confident yet humble – her presence is one of a person who knows herself very well. She pauses thoughtfully before she speaks, and – once she decides what she wants to say – the words tumble out with a measured certainty, at once intense and engaging.
NM: I ask myself ‘how safe can I make you feel, so that you’re willing to take this risk, even if it is nerve wracking? I work to create a space where people feel willing to be brave.
KF: It seems like – in a theatrical space like Ekamatra, there is a community of performers, and thus a shared ownership and vested interest in building trust. But in your facilitation work, Nilisha, the group typically comprises strangers, meeting each other for the first time, so there is no opportunity for a gradual building of rapport. That must be a bit scary – how do you as a facilitator go about creating trust in such a context?
NM: The most important thing is taking the risk myself, leading the way. The first hour of a session makes or breaks it. The more I can get people to laugh, be silly, and try things that are out of their comfort zones, the more buy-in they will have. This means that I have to be three steps ahead of them – in terms of modelling vulnerability. I also need to be very nimble in my facilitation – ensuring that everyone’s voice is being heard as soon as possible, that I’m hitting upon all the learning styles in the first two hours. Then they start trusting me to shape the process.
While I am technically leading the workshop, it’s actually the group. Once there is shared ownership and everyone feels included, the group starts stepping in to shape their own process, and I am stepping back and just enabling it. Sometimes even one-time contact is enough. It’s important to trust not only the process, but also the people you’re working with. We must remember that they’re very capable of managing their own experience, finding their own learning, and discovering their own wisdom.Nilisha Mohapatra
SI: As an observer to Nilisha’s work, I would just like to add that her humility brings people in. It’s clear that she wants us to be equals in the space. Even in a room full of sceptics – as artists tend to be – you can feel that she is sincerely wanting to share power.
Shaza leans forward to interject. Hers is a generous presence, one that makes you feel welcome and calm. She speaks with sincerity, relaxed and comfortable in her skin.
SI: Modelling vulnerability is also crucial to my own work. It’s important to be honest and vulnerable about your weak points. People can smell sincerity, and they’re always watching… way more than we think they are.
KF: Speaking of modelling vulnerability and sincerity, I am very curious about both of your personal journeys, and how your own lives may have intersected with or prompted your professional journeys.
Nilisha and Shaza share about their own traumatic experiences – from walking away from a marriage that wasn’t working, to finding the courage to confront the person responsible for childhood trauma.
NM: My work is all about investing in people’s imaginations so that they can find new ways of thinking and being… But during my divorce, I remember asking myself ‘am I a healthy person?’ and realising that I needed to start investing in my own imagination and asking myself ‘Now what? Who am I going to be now?’ Everything I knew to be true, wasn’t anymore. That was the beginning of my self-discovery, and leaning back on the world, because I knew that it was giving me the ground to walk on, but I had been rejecting it.
NM: My humility comes from this journey, it was my undoing; People who know me from this phase tell me I’ve turned myself inside out since then. I think I was arrogant and even unaware of myself before. I realised life is a constant dance – being present in the moment, investing in relationships; looking at who I am, and asking myself ‘who do I want to be?’
SI: I remember asking myself, ‘What is it that I really want to bring to the stage?’ and realising that I wanted to work with more women. You see, I had experienced sexual abuse as a young woman but kept silent about it. I soon realised that, in order to be honest about the work that I was doing, in order to be more ‘me’ – I needed to be honest about what had happened.
SI: So last year, after 17 years of silence, I confronted my abuser. This meant losing immediate family members, but I realised – this is bigger than me. I think I always knew that, but it was only when I wanted to work on this issue at Ekamatra that I realised – I can’t be hypocritical about this, I have to be honest. You need to want to do things for yourself; only then you can do things for others.’
KF: Thank you both for sharing those experiences with so much honesty and vulnerability. In line with the overarching theme of ‘Arts for Good,’ I would be very curious about how both of you would articulate the social impact of your work?
NM: To me, this whole journey – more than addressing any one social issue – goes a level deeper in terms of helping people realise that they have a choice, and what we choose has repercussions. Our choices shape the people and environment around us, and as we make different choices, our environment begins to change in response to that. The problem is that many of our choices are automatic. But fortunately, that is not the be all and end all – there’s a wide spectrum of choices you can make. The ability to step away from who you are and examine who you are, and choose who you want to be… I believe that the lack of this skill is crux of everything that’s happening in the world.
What happens when I look at myself and I choose differently? How does the ecosystem around me change? It is not about giving agency. It’s letting people see that they already have agency, and that their choices do not have to be automatic. In fact, they can exercise their agency to an immense extent, and this is what creates change. Beyond that, the creative elements of my work add a very joyful and expressive element. Engagement with art allows for people to express different parts of their selves.Nilisha Mohapatra
NM: I’m also recently looking for opportunities to do this work in non-education spaces. We need coordinated efforts across different systems; we need to be pursuing systemic change.
SI: We need to embody our social values in our process as well as our end product. I see so much hypocrisy in the theatre scene, and it’s easy to become blind to the issues around you, because of the ‘bubble effect.’ There are often uncomfortable dynamics in the performing arts, because there’s a lot of physicality involved with working together. When there are instances of sexual assault, everyone around the perpetrator knows, but no one wants to say anything, no one wants to be difficult.
SI: I recently started including what people have referred to as a ‘No Assholes Clause’ in our contracts at Ekamatra which outlines the kinds of conduct we expect. It basically says that you cannot scream at someone you disagree with, that we don’t tolerate sexual assault, and that if there’s a situation where you feel uncomfortable, that there are people you can reach out to. There is still a lot more we can do as a company but I see this as a first step as well as the beginning of a conversation with everyone involved.
SI: During the A4G Fellowship, Nilisha got us to write a code of conduct, a document – generated by the whole group – that would answer the question: ‘how do we want to be with each other for the next 4 months?’ This is something that I want to do with my company, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to discuss difficult things that happen in productions like bullying, sexual harassment, or discomfort. This kind of process creates a sense of shared ownership over the production process that goes beyond basic questions of who’s controlling the money.
SI: We need more leaders who are willing to make it very clear upfront that they are ready to handle messy and complex situations.
Ekamatra has given me so much. I’ve chosen it as my family, and as the medium through which I effect social change. I want to expand the empowerment that we all feel at Ekamatra outside of Ekamatra. I want to work with the community to change policies that affect us. If I’m not being invited to the decision-making table, I’m going to force them to make space for me. I was always so afraid of having uncomfortable conversations, because I didn’t want to be uninvited. As an ethnic minority in Singapore, you learn how to keep quiet – you don’t want to be problematic so that the people with power will keep supporting you.Shaza Ishak
SI: We’ve been conditioned to keep quiet about our situation, to not complain because then we are seen as difficult. But I’m so okay with being that difficult person now. I don’t even mind when people tell me ‘can you just shut up about the ethnic minority stuff?’ because I want to use my social capital to call out racism and prejudice when I see it. Not everyone has that opportunity.
SI: As artists we are more visible than other occupations. This visibility highlights our responsibility to ensure that there is representation when we are doing our work or making decisions. We are lucky to have people watch us and listen to us – we need to use our visibility for the greater good. People are so afraid of being seen as activists, but there’s no such thing as being apolitical. You just need to own it. Trust that there is a community that is with you – and sometimes everyone is waiting for someone else to act, so you just need to do it.
KF: This is really fascinating. It seems like we are touching upon a multi-pronged approach to social change – one that starts with transformation of the self, and then expands to invite collective transformation. It seems that – in both of your practices – this collective transformation is guided by an initial setting of clear intentions and principles by the group, which can then act as a reference point for the group to return to and revise as they learn more from negotiating the ever-messy dynamics of relating to one another, live.
KF: It also seems that humble leadership is a crucial part of this process of transformation, as humble leaders can actively work to invite the group to exercise their creative agency and share ownership over what they have created?
NM: Absolutely. I often ask myself ‘Who are the women leaders around me that I can look up to?’ and there aren’t many. We need more. There’s a stereotype of ‘the female boss’ that I want to resist. Today, feminine leadership looks different. It is expansive, it is fierce, compassionate, an advocate for justice, and the power of the collective. We need that!
NM: I want to learn to embody the kind of leadership that I want to see more of. I want to model that you can have a career, meaningful relationships and find fulfilment. I’m playing with it, and it’s exciting. I’m lucky to have found people who are willing to invest in my journey. We have to lead ourselves into the big unknown, alongside each other.
I check the time, and realise it’s been more than an hour. Our plates our empty and there is a kind of resonant buzzing energy in the air, as ideas and experiences shared swirl all around us.
KF: As we wrap up the conversation, I’d love to briefly ask you what you both have gotten out of the A4G Fellowship thus far.
NM: Having been steeped in this form for over a decade, I feel like I’ve been in a certain space of my own, doing what I’m doing. This has been a wonderful opportunity to expand my toolkit, and to get different perspectives on how people are receiving my work. It’s given me new lenses with which to view my work, and that’s wisdom enough for me. It feels less isolating to find a group of people who speak the same language share the same values and sense of blind courage. We’re all saying, ‘this is what I’m going to dedicate my life to, and to hell with it!’
SI: I’ve learned so much from the different fellows about how they work effectively with children and youth, and I’ve already found collaborators (in Singapore and abroad) that I will absolutely work with. A big shout out to SIF for bringing us all together – I’m left feeling like I want to do even more.