Brack Editor Kei Franklin chatted with Izzaty Ishak, artist curator of The Community Theatre programme (part of Beyond Social Services). The Community Theatre stages forum theatre plays, in which spectators intervene directly in the dramatic action or act, and can take over the role of actor or actress if they have an idea or disagree with what is happening onstage, or direct what is to happen instead or next.
This conversation looked at two of Izzaty’s ongoing and recent projects, The Community Theatre and her work as a Clown Doctor, and is part of the ARTIST-WRITER PAIR SERIES
Sayang, one of their recent works, is about the struggles of teenage boy Jamil. He becomes the backbone of his family after his mother dies from cancer while his father is frequently absent from home out with a girlfriend and his sister plays truant from school.
This excerpt is part of a longer feature in BrackMag #4 The Energy Issue.  Purchase the issue here.

Featured image: The Community Theatre Facebook Page

… Community theatre is a [solution], a space where people can talk about just anything. They don’t feel judged, they feel it’s relevant, they feel they are learning something.

[On Beyond Social Services, an organisation that works with youth from rental housing areas]

I: Beyond Social Services […] is very different from any family service centre. Firstly, we’re not very connected to the government, a bit like an NGO in itself. We believe in community building.

[On the safe environment that Community Theatre provides to participants]

I: […] There are these times, when I question why people share, on the stage, in front of strangers. And I guess they felt safe.

K: How do you go about making that space?

I: By firstly, telling them that it’s not a happy ending kind of story. Managing expectations, telling them that there’s no right or wrong answers, we’re just evaluating the situation. Appreciating every single contribution. And then… I think when the piece is very relevant to the community, the more they want to change it. The more they want to contribute it. Like “hey this my story! I know what to do actually! Because I’ve been there before.” It’s how close the story is to the community.

There was a quote about this from a book, but I forgot where: “The closer the story is to the community, the more they want to participate and be part of it.”


K: I feel like there is a profound part of empathy that you’re bringing in. You’re basically teaching people how to empathise. Which I think seems to be much more effective than the narrativisation of some issues we have in Singapore, like racial equality.

How do you deal with the issues of agreement and disagreement? Because I would imagine at first you have to clarify there’s no right and wrong answers, coming from an educational system which dictates so. Do you feel there’s a tendency for people to want to agree with each other? Or is there healthy disagreement, and how do you manage that?

I: I would think that there’s not much disagreement at the moment because the things they are sharing are things that are never said before. So for example like, things that people would want to say but they always keep it inside. And others would reply aye yah that’s quite true.

I’ve worked with families with five children and a single mother. Every child comes from a different father. How do we appreciate these stories? … It’s so easy to blame the mother, but we never knew what is her side of the story. That is the tension that I try to create in the room.

I guess they disagree with the ideas that are being shared. Like for example, the last conversation we had was why parents hurt their children, relationship-wise, like divorce. Why would you force your child to have parents who live in separate houses? Why does a father run away? And I think when they have those ideas, my role is to let them say the other side of the story. It does help to understand why the divorce was important for the parents also. Was it because they really can’t understand each other? Were there disagreements they couldn’t work out? If they stayed together for longer, would it be worse for the children?

I try to get them to understand the whole picture. And it’s true, it’s bad to hurt the child, you never understood why the parent is doing it too.

I’ve worked with families with five children and a single mother. Every child comes from a different father. How do we appreciate these stories? Is it that the mother didn’t know family planning? Or the mother was just alone? It’s so easy to blame the mother, for bringing up her children like that, but we never knew what is her side of the story. That is the tension that I try to create in the room.

K: So essentially you are upping the level of complexity. You are not asking to come out with an answer, it’s more like, this is much more complicated than we thought.

I: Yes, it’s so much more than that. So even when the father [in Sayang] is out looking for a girlfriend, I will ask them like why do you think the father is out looking for the girlfriend? And we never ask that question, we always blame the father. Maybe as a guy, he needs a woman in his life. To care for him, to treasure him.

It’s about provoking the complexity of a situation even more. Every human being is not just bad, there is goodness too, but some of them make different decisions.

K: And even to put the word of judgement on that is not productive, not fair.

I know many artists believe that they should be able to do their work just for the sake of their art. “I am an artist, I should be able to just make my art.” It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have any social relevance.

But it seems your work is very grounded in social issues, and social relevance. How is it for you to be an artist, you have an artistic background and training, but it seems like your work is for a different purpose. How is it like for you to navigate that?

I: In my Singapore (polytechnic) course [Applied Drama and Psychology], it asked the question “how do you use art for the community”? I went to the prisons to do children’s theatre; my friend went to South Africa… So it’s already we are trained to tell people that art doesn’t change the world, art just allows people to see what they can change for themselves. You [think] “oh, my art is so important”. We’ve already learnt within that course that community comes first, then the art. For me as an artist in Singapore, it really depends on your intention [with respect to the] artwork.

My intention is to allow art to give more to other people, to express themselves, to see the world that they want to see for themselves. I have zero ownership of the art. I’ve already come to terms with that. The ownership of art goes back to the community, it is not ours.

This is the professionalism in the work that we should do as community artists. This is what we are supposed to be like, if you want to work in the community, versus what artists will be like if you want to work in the art industry.

[About her work as a Clown Doctor.]

I: I do it because when you go to hospitals, everyone is just on the bed. I saw this video in which children are allowed to play with [broken] teddy bears and fix them, in the process becoming doctors even though they are actually patients. So you bring back that sense of self-ownership and empowerment to the patient.

During the course of getting my Clown Doctor certification, I found out how there is a hierarchy in the hospital where patients are the last ones. Because patients do not make decisions for themselves. The family members or the doctors or the nurses are the ones controlling their time to sleep, to bathe, to eat, what kind of medicine they should take. They are already dehumanised upon their first step into the hospital.

How the clown doctor comes in, is that we are lower than the patient. We want the patient to see that “hey, you have someone to bully. Which is us. You have someone to play with“. We create that space and opportunity for them to make decisions for themselves. And if we tried to be funny but they don’t laugh and we get sad, it’s perfectly fine. Because they choose not to laugh. We let ourselves fail, so that they feel that they are succeeding.

Now you realise there is a lot of complexity at the hospital. For example, especially in children’s hospitals, some of them are there for the longest periods of time, not because they’re sick, but because of child protection issues. Their home is the hospital. So having a hospital as a home means you’re constantly treated as if you’re sick. Which is not a good environment for a child. It’s the same for elderly also. You’re a long-term stayer because you have nowhere to go. Some of them purposely call the hospital because they’ve got no food at home. So if they stay at the hospital, at least they’ve got food, no need to think of the bills and things like that. So the hospital is either a safe space or a dumping space. For many of the patients, it’s not a place for healing at the end of the day. I think this is also happening in other parts of the world. I only learnt about this when I was a clown doctor. I thought I was just there to talk to sick people. Then you listen and think, why is this child here when there’s nothing wrong with her? Then you learn that there are no parents to pick her up. Or they are waiting for a space at the orphanage. Or the social worker is waiting to do the legal requirements. And some are there for months. And they never go to school, get no education, no exposure, never go out. For me, I can’t even stay at home for one day.

That’s when you realise the clown doctor work is just a relief, to allow them to keep playing. There’s nothing to laugh at or about for them, but at least there’s a clown to laugh at. So I’m just basically providing that role of the joker.

Many people tell me I should do this for free. But no, it should be a paid job. It is a job as important as a social worker’s, a doctor’s, a nurse’s. It takes a lot of emotional effort. It is professional work. We are trained to understand peoples’ psyche. It is not just volunteer work.

I want to firstly understand what society is first before telling people what to change. I want to do my groundwork.  I’m still learning so much, even though I’ve already been working around four years in this work.

K: So you choose to work on the youth for example, or the community. I wonder why them and not the policy makers. Why work at the level of society you choose to work from? Is it because of access? Or is it something you see change comes from?

I: I want to firstly understand what society is first before telling people what to change. I want to do my groundwork.  I’m still learning so much, even though I’ve already been working around four years in this work.

And only two weeks ago, one of my kids was telling me:

“Izzaty, do you know the charges of a rental unit and a public flat are very different? For my small flat, they charge us a hundred to two hundred dollars. And how much is yours, Izzaty?”

It’s the same, but mine is a mansionette.

“Exactly. Why is yours the same as my water bills when we don’t use that much, and our house is so small?”

And I asked, yes why? “It’s because they want to push us out of the rental flat.” Meaning that, you have to work hard so that you can get your own HDB. But how am I supposed to work hard when all these bills keep being put on me? And my water bill has reached a four-digit now. Because when they gave us the bill of 150, we could only pay 80 dollars. Or 70 dollars…so it keeps accumulating, accumulating, accumulating. This is the reason why some youths decide to quit school and would rather have a full-time job.”

You keep learning. You never will know things like these until you know what the youth are going through. It takes years for you to cultivate such a relationship where they are willing to share with you the truth of their living situation. I think only from there can I tell people what’s really happening.

Another reason why I don’t do policymaking is that I feel I’m inadequate. I feel like I’ve not yet reached that level where they’d want to respect me yet. But slowly, very, very slowly. I need ground experience for that.

If you go down and listen to what is happening, you’ll fight more for the youth or the underprivileged. But if you don’t know anything, and you pitch something, you don’t even have the heart of pitching it. It’s very superficial without ground experience.