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Theatre Music Dance

Dismantling privilege, widening access

Renegotiating art-making in a post-pandemic world


Published: 24 Nov 2022

Time taken : >15mins

Esplanade organised a recent conference with the theme ‘Future Forward’, bringing together cultural thought leaders and representatives from Asia Pacific performing arts centres. Benjamin Harris, an undergraduate from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music was selected to attend the three-day event as a youth representative. Below is his reflection on the issues discussed and what they might mean for future arts professionals like himself.

As a teenager, the muses of Apollo and Dionysus—the ancient Greek gods of music and theatre—were always at my beck and call. Their sphere of influence enveloped the Harris household and they were also present whenever my dad and mum would sit down to watch me perform the opening monologue of Henry V. With bated breath, they waited for me to begin my weekly Sunday afternoon matinee from the confines of my room. At piano lessons, they cut hopeful figures, huddling around the ever-patient instructor and I at the piano, celebrating every semi-successful passage played. As a teenager, I grew up in a household filled with music and the arts; the lessons that I have learnt from engaging with some of the more important works of arts in the theatrical and western classical music canon will always stay with me and remain a part of who I am today.

However, what remains a fact is the privilege that I enjoyed as a teenager to have such unbridled access to the arts. Mum, in an attempt to make sure that my education would be holistic, would send me for music classes; the depth of my musical engagement was thus not limited to the paltry recorder lessons in secondary school. Additionally, I hardly considered or could imagine a world of art-making beyond the confines of the canonic works that I was exposed to as a child. My recent forays as a researcher studying music-making along the intersections of inequality, identity and politics have led me to question how and why people make music as well as the social conditions which allow people to make music. 

I am now cognizant of the fact that the equality of access to the arts can be contingent upon the various identities that we embody and identify with as well as an individual’s socioeconomic realities. 

This paradigm shift in the ways in which I viewed the arts has allowed me to examine and critique the privileges that have granted me opportunities unavailable to my peers. That is why I firmly believe that the conversations pertaining to how we can best mitigate these issues are sorely needed today.

Accessibility: More than a word

From 19–21 Oct 2022, I attended the Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres (AAPPAC) Conference. With the theme Future Forward, the conference aims to “explore new considerations and possibilities for arts centres and artists”. This is done amidst the backdrop of a seemingly endemic and post-Covid world. One of the recurring themes that came up throughout the course of the conference was accessibility, the subject of both a panel discussion as well as a small-group breakout session. This allowed various dimensions of the issue to be aired.

The breakout session, Accessibility—Expanding the Transformative Experiences of Artists and Audiences was facilitated by Esplanade’s Head of Customer and Community Engagement, Grace Low, and the Chief Executive of Sheffield Theaters, Dan Bates. It tackled the issue of how arts venues can aim to be more inclusive. This was done through a series of case studies of the venues helmed by Low and Bates respectively.

Low began by conceding the enormity of the notion of accessibility. Having done so, she then outlined some of the ways in which Esplanade centres accessibility in their modus operandi. This includes dementia training for staff members, a substantial number of shows that are free for all as well as accessible marketing. For Low, accessibility is not seen as something extraneous but to be constantly worked into the ways in which Esplanade is run. Bates began by exploring what the word “everyone” meant; it is as he says: “an easy word to say”. This raises questions about sustainability on the accessibility front; how do we stay relevant with ever-changing social contexts? While Bates concedes that it may prove a tall order to consider everyone, access for Sheffield theatres starts from day one of any given project. This includes dementia training for actors and staff, setting aside a production budget for sign language interpreters as well as prioritising the casting of performers of colour or disability in every production.

Chief Executive of Sheffield Theatres, Dan Bates, in a sharing session with AAPPAC delegates.

The theme of accessibility continued on day two with the panel talk, 360 Inclusivity: Dismantling Barriers to Accessing the Arts. Moderated by Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of The Necessary Stage, the panel featured some of the leading thinkers and shapers of accessibility in the arts. This included Koh Hui Ling, the Co-Artistic Director of Drama Box (Singapore), Caroline Bowditch, the CEO and Artistic Director of Arts Access Victoria (Melbourne), and Adjjima Na Patalung, the Artistic Director of Bangkok International Children’s Theatre Festival. Koh kicked off proceedings by discussing the accessibility of the arts in public spaces and she asked the pertinent question: Who gets to decide or debate what gets performed in any given space? In this vein, she sought to reimagine what public space meant by bringing the arts and theatre as an artform away from the theatre as a space, ensuring that its reach is expanded. Adjjima’s work considers accessibility in the context of providing children in Bangkok an avenue for expression, and seeks to provide tangible outcomes for underrepresented communities. Noteworthy is Bowditch’s notion of “Cryptime”, a conceptual framework to mold any given performative space to fit the body. Bowditch, an advocate for disability arts, ended the panel discussion on a thought-provoking note: seek out the demographic who was not at her shows and seek to ask how that can be changed.

Breaking the mold

Apart from conversations on issues pertinent to the world of performing arts today, there was plenty to look forward to in the conference with the presentation of works for the future with regards to art-making. As seen from the conference, there is an abundance of new cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary and socially engaged works coming to the fore. Thus, some of the works discussed at the pitching sessions on day two served to inspire and to provoke thought. For example, Singapore artist Sim Chi Yin’s One Day We’ll Understand serves as a stark reminder of the realities of the toll of human conflict on the subsequent generations to come; through the mediums of photography and theatre. Additionally, Glass Child presented by Australian siblings Maitreya and Kayah Guenther, tells the story of a pair of siblings who have to contend with living with autism, told through the lens of dance and theatre. This excites me on both a personal and artistic level.

First of all, this excitement is underpinned by the ways in which many of the works pitched during the session did not shy away from difficult stories. For once, people of marginal identities, disabilities and even political dissidents are able to see themselves on stage and to hear their stories being told in a different light. Secondly, it was exhilarating to witness the marriage of a varied amount of disciplines that included but were not limited to dance, theater, music and artificial intelligence. Such forms of art-making are not novel. However as a practicing western classical musician who has been trying to reimagine and consider music’s preoccupation with canonic works, it was inspiring for me to see artists attempt to break out of the mold and canon of their own respective artforms by presenting an array of new works.

However, this creative fervor cannot and should not end with AAPPAC. Having attended this year's AAPPAC and listened to the multitude of voices that have spoken, it is my hope that artists can continuously look beyond their immediate circles for collaborative opportunities with other artists. This allows artists to not only reimagine and reconsider what it means to make art but also build multidisciplinary bridges with other artists. In this vein, the works discussed and pitched at AAPPAC serve as a stark reminder of what the building of artistic bridges can do as well as shed light on the areas of opportunity still left unexplored and untapped.

Day 2 of AAPPAC: Singaporean producer Pearlyn Chua sharing about One Day We'll Understand at the pitch session.

Rethinking narratives of art and market

Going back to the theme of accessibility, I also hope for an increased participation and an engagement with the arts that is less tied to marketability and capital. In this vein, much of the conversation surrounding accessibility to the arts, be it an appreciation or participation in it, has centered on reach, with more and more artists asking: how can we monetise our art-making? While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make a living out of art-making, it must be remembered that there tends to be a degree of privilege that comes with art-making. Subsequently, this could potentially discourage participation in the arts among the youth who lack a financial safety net. As such, there is a need to recenter the narrative of art-making: how do we increase accessibility to the arts, not just for those looking to enter the industry but also for those without financial means who want to do so recreationally.

The last day of the conference concluded with several performances at Esplanade, one of which was experimental music icon Margaret Leng Tan’s Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep which was held at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre. Strolling out of the new Singtel Waterfront Theater, I received a Snapchat notification from one of my acquaintances. The snapchat was a snippet of the concert by indie band Sobs at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. As I made my way towards the main Esplanade building from the waterfront, I heard cheers and applause emanating from the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre; a performance by Singapore Ballet, in conjunction with the da:ns festival, was being played out to a packed venue. As I approached the Esplanade Concourse, I was sonically and rhythmically greeted by the sights and sounds of the traditional Indonesian Saman dance, presented by Sanggar Seni Seulaweut. As I inched towards the main entrance of the Esplanade, I was reminded that there was a concert entitled Daybreak, an Esplanade production that was co-produced with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra happening at the Concert Hall; audience members were piling out of the hall in droves, speaking in hushed tones excitedly over what appeared to be an exhilarating performance. As I left the Esplanade, I remembered thinking to myself how wonderfully diverse it was for an arts venue to hold multiple festivals and performances concurrently while showcasing an eclectic mix of art forms for a multitude of audiences.

Perhaps the future of art-making that happens in Singapore, with regards to diversity, accessibility and even the quality of works, is in safe hands with our artists and spaces like the Esplanade.

Contributed by:

Benjamin Harris

Benjamin is a double major in Voice, and Music and Society at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, National University of Singapore. As a researcher, much of his research interests stem from an interest in post coloniality, migration and politics as well as the ways in which they intersect with music-making. He hopes to pursue these research interests in a postgraduate capacity upon graduation from the YST Conservatory. Additional research interests include the music-making practices of transient migrant workers in Singapore, an issue he wrote extensively about in his Capstone paper, as well as the exploration of notions of chineseness in the vocal music of Singapore’s early composers. 

Outside of his research and the performing arts, Benjamin enjoys going to the gym and spending time with his pet rabbit, Toshiro. 

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