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Empowering Youths Through the Arts

Socially-engaged artists and groups working with diverse communities


Published: 6 Mar 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

For young people, the world can be a confusing and stressful place to be in these days. They face a deluge of information both online and offline about the world that they live in, and it can be challenging to feel empowered and heard. The question then arises: How can the arts play a role in navigating young people through the complexities of the world around them? This is where socially-engaged arts come in.

Socially-engaged arts is a way of describing art tools or methods, be it theatre, music or dance, as a way to talk about society, and the challenges that people face living in it. These applied arts tools help young people build their skills in dialogue and conflict resolution and to build connections and positive relationships with the people around them. 

From theatre collectives and grassroots initiatives tackling inequality to groundbreaking individuals celebrating the potential of art in shaping society, here are five exciting names to keep in mind when it comes to the arts and social change. They include Tak Takut Kids Club, which is running an activity at March On 2024. Whether it be climate change, or helping those in need, everyone needs to pull their weight in making the world a better place. 

1. Grace Kalaiselvi

Grace Kalaiselvi is a theatremaker who seeks to provide a space for young people to process challenging and often unspoken emotions through puppetry and metaphor. An alumnus of the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI), she then made her foray into theatre and TV, before truly finding her passion in theatre making for young audiences. She has worked on several productions for young audiences, including creating works for the PLAYtime! and Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I) series that are created with young audiences in mind.  

Her works have always centered on minority voices and giving young people a sense of representation and reality. They range from Meera, the lovable brown-skinned puppet that spoke about her unique experiences growing up as an Indian girl in Singapore at the children's activity space PIP’s PLAYbox at Esplanade, to Stories and Songs from the Bow with the late Anandha Kannan as part of F.Y.I.

<em>Stories and Songs from the Bow</em> presented as part of Feed Your Imagination 2017. Photo credit: Echo Entertainment

Her first directorial move into theatre for young audiences began in the thick of the pandemic as part of the first iteration of PLAYlab, a developmental platform at Esplanade that provides opportunities for research and development in the form of performances, workshop and other activities specifically targeted at children 12 years and under. She sought to highlight the plight of young people today who were experiencing a hard time, growing up especially in single parent households. Drawing heavily from aspects of Indian culture, Amma’s Sarees was born. Collaborating with fellow artists Ruby Jayaseelan, and Mumtaz Marican, she wove an immersive theatrical work that spoke of a young girl who has to grapple with the grief of losing a parent. The play uses music, dance and shadow puppetry to convey their journey through feelings of sadness, anger and eventually focusing on their love for one another despite the odds.  

She then continued her practice of speaking about social change in The Indigo Jackal at Kalaa Utsavam 2022, adapting an Indian folk story to highlight the perils of prejudice and bias and using metaphor to extend the idea of colourism. Her work follows a throughline of always speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, providing children a safe space to process feelings of discomfort, sadness and anger, especially as a response to injustice and marginalisation.  

<em> The Indigo Jackal</em> presented at <em>Kalaa Utsavam</em> 2022. Photo credit: STUDIO ZNKE

Grace Kalaiselvi helms Act Today Theatre, today, a company that had its beginnings in providing quality and engaging drama education programmes for adults and youths with intellectual disability. Through process-based applied drama, she removes the emphasis on putting up a performance so that participants can explore learning social skills and socio-emotional balance. Recently, she worked extensively with MINDS employment centres and training centres, using drama to cultivate social skills and confidence amongst clients with moderate to severe intellectual disability. She introduced puppetry as a way of channelling their inner voice, and non-verbal gestures as a way to teach those who were non-verbal. Many of her participants enjoyed the programme and took back social awareness skills that can be applied in their everyday life. She hopes to continue to expand her practice by reaching out to more marginalised communities.   

2. BUDS Youth Theatre

Buds Youth Theatre (BYT) serves to provide programmes at schools and within the small enclaves of Drama CCA Clubs that focus on youth, as well as, theatre for change. Theatre for social change is one of the many frameworks that they use to teach young people how to imagine alternative realities, to dream of the impossible, and to confront hard truths and feelings around social issues.  

Youth members of Buds Youth Theatre in rehearsal. Image courtesy of Buds Youth Theatre

One of their programmes, From Scratch, is a platform for youth members of BYT to write and stage their very own plays. The company offers them support and guidance, all the way ‘from scratch’—providing them ownership in creative output, enriching their skills in theatre making as they work to put up their stories in their very own voice.  In the 2024 edition, they are working with Wisely Chow to put up a triple bill—Messiah, post. and The Window. All three productions touch on ethics, the struggles and dilemmas of working life, loss and grief. These three productions are created by the young people of Buds Youth Theatre, intended for a fellow youth audience.  

Youth members of BUDS also get to experience travelling, touring with their productions to the Asian Youth Theatre Festival every year. This year, they are gracing the land of smiles – Thailand, that is hosting this year’s edition of the festival centered on climate change. Annually, they get to experience meeting youth from other Asian countries, exchanging ideas and making meaningful connections through their theatre presentations. 

Asian Youth Theatre Festival. Image courtesy of Buds Youth Theatre

Their current artistic director, Mastura Oli, was an alumni, and was part of the first batch of young people in 2011 (she joined when she was only 15!). She has gone on to helm the company and continues to pave the way for the younger generation of theatre-makers. She is excited to continue to inspire the new generation of youth, saying that the new plays are getting "more exciting" as they come, as they are created by the youth themselves for their fellow youth audiences.  

3. Drama Box

Drama Box, founded in 1990, is a socially-engaged theatre company known for creating works that inspire audience members to engage in healthy dialogue and reflection. They hope that by shining the spotlight on marginalised narratives and making space for the communal contemplation of complex issues, that audience members can explore the complexities of Singaporean culture, history and society.  

One of their notable works was The Lesson, an interactive theatre production that provoked audiences into thinking about ideas of governance and community decision-making processes. Created by Drama Box and playwright-director Li Xie, and first presented as part of the trilogy It Won’t Be Too Long at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 to critical acclaim, the production was lauded by local media as one of the best productions of 2015. In particular, The Lesson was praised for effectively engaging the public in the discussion on land use issues in Singapore. The production has toured overseas to audiences in Taiwan, Rotterdam and Macau. The Lesson was re-run locally in 2017 at three community spaces. It was then specifically adapted for youth for Esplanade’s F.Y.I series—complete with resources for both teacher and student to navigate the issues raised in the production. 

<em>The Lesson</em> presented at <em>Feed Your Imagination</em> 2019. Photo credit: Zinkie Aw

This younger sibling of Drama Box, ARTivate was established in May 2007, after the team recognised that there was a need to provide a specific platform for youths to explore and gain insight into socially-engaged theatre. This youth wing aims to nurture a budding group of theatre practitioners into socially aware, sensitive and responsible youths of Singapore.  

Their most recent graduation work was Dancing with Fish, an original play about loss and healing, put up by the graduating batch of ARTivate. Directed by Koh Wan Ching, the play was screened online in 2021, through the pandemic.  

4. SEEDLINGS by Faye Lim and Chong Gua Khee

Faye Lim and Chong Gua Khee are known for endeavours that centre the child and their aspirations. This is no easy feat considering how children are now living through more complex times than before and need more avenues where their feelings and thoughts are centered. Faye Lim is one half of the team behind Roly Poly Family, a dance outfit dedicated to creating programmes that support the creative and socio-emotional learning of young children and their families. Chong Gua Khee is a director and performance-maker who has also worked with Drama Box and Centre 42. Her most recent foray into research performance has been Tactility Studies, a long-term performance project that centres on a radical form of care for the body in the performance space.  

With their combined efforts, SEEDLINGS was born as a programme under March On, Esplanade’s annual children’s festival. SEEDLINGS was designed to provide children with a platform that afforded them agency and empowerment in thinking about programmes within the festival. Children are involved in every aspect of planning—setting ground rules together, deciding how to discuss at each session, coming up with the right questions to ask visiting artists, and planning their recommendations to the producers for the following edition of the festival. In this space, adults are mere facilitators and provide loose parameters and guidelines that allow children to explore their ideas—there is no right or wrong when it comes to the imagination. This programme provides participants with a voice, keeping the programme curation grounded in children’s imaginations and ideas and changing the way children’s programming is approached.  

<em>SEEDLINGS</em> workshop at <em>March On</em> 2023. Photo credit: AlvieAlive

Lim and Chong’s work in SEEDLINGS has been crucial in keeping the festival’s mission of being children-centric. The programme has been ongoing since its first inception in 2021 and carries on to be an important way for children to engage with artists and artworks from different genres. The 2024 edition will conclude with an exciting showcase at the Esplanade Concourse entitled Pastcode to the Future, a public programme for festival goers of any age. This showcase will bring together all SEEDLINGS alumni, from every run of the programme since its pilot in 2021—all of whom have been through the creative process mill and have a wide-ranging set of experiences garnered from all the behind-the-scenes access to March On programming.   

5. Tak Takut Kids Club

Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC) is an exciting children and youth centre situated in Boon Lay Drive. An initiative by 3Pumpkins, a socially-engaged arts organisation, they are an innovative outreach outfit that designs programmes that are aimed at building a community of happier youth. To counter systemic poverty and to remove barriers towards success, they have chosen the hard job of putting themselves right in the heart of the community, where they can make the most impact. They hope to build safe spaces for youth from vulnerable circumstances to develop and grow well. 

Located in the heart of a rental flat estate, TTKC is run by wonderful, fun-loving, empathetic adults whose sole purpose is to bring about positive change to young people living in the area. Did you know that TTKC is actually a half-shop space, and currently shares space with a laundromat? This unique space allows them the visibility needed to access the community in a ground-up manner that really allows for more impactful connections with the young people living in the area. Members of TTKC can drop in during opening hours to engage with peers or with caring adults who will lend them a listening ear. Members of the club are also encouraged to create initiatives that help support one another. To date they have their very own lion dance troupe, and getai nights with raucous singing that brings together the young and old.  

<em>Kiap Kiap Revolution</em> at <em>March On</em> 2023. Photo credit: AlvieAlive

TTKC has been putting up interesting, thought-provoking child-centric work that provide insight into how people from diverse communities live day to day. In their first collaboration with March On 2022, they worked on putting up an installation that looked at food. Seemingly mundane, This is What We Eat at Home showcased how food can be such an integral part of people’s lives—defining their socio-economic status, heritage and value systems. This work breaks boundaries between the private and the public, allowing viewers an intimate view into what is considered voyeuristic, looking into people’s homes. Food is a powerful entry point into how people conduct their lives, especially when they have insufficient food safety. This project humanised the community members of TTKC, giving others a way to access their thoughts, ideas, and dreams. One could also get a sense of the complexities and intricacies of their family relationships, as well as relationships amongst neighbours and within the neighbourhood. They also presented Kiap Kiap Revolution in 2023 an installation that featured creations that were deconstructions of these dolls, with a process of reconstruction that allowed participants to form connections and make discoveries about themselves. Made from dolls that were donated to TTKC, the act of reconstruction of these monster dolls allowed for children to impose their own creativity and imagination in a safe and positive manner. Imperfection and flaws are celebrated in this project as a way to prioritise children’s individuality and sense of drive.  

<em>This is What We Eat at Home </em> installation at <em>March On</em> 2022. Photo credit: AlvieAlive

Following the same vein of connection, TTKC is back with I Draw You, You Draw Me for the 2024 edition of March On, looking at a platform for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with one another by drawing each other at the open grounds of the Esplanade Courtyard. Giving attention to others, seeing, and listening to them, are important parts of building a relationship that are often overlooked, or taken for granted in our very fast-paced society. Just partaking in the joyful act of drawing, or being drawn without the pressures of art class grades or being perfect, can be the perfect way to reconnect with friends and family, as well as other people in your surroundings.  

These five socially-engaged arts companies and individuals continue to inspire and motivate the community to get involved in issues they feel strongly for. Some of these endeavours continue to make waves in connecting youth in especially vulnerable or marginalised communities. 

Whether they extend a hand to those who may need a bit more for a boost in life with training programmes, or providing space for dialogue and discussion, these arts practitioners encourage young people to take a stand and to use their voice to help one another. There is something for everyone, whether young or old, to feel involved, to participate in, to share their thoughts and feelings, and to take heart that we are all in this together. 

Tak Takut Kids Club will be back with an interactive live interaction drawing activity, I Draw You, You Draw Me, at March On 2024 from 8 – 17 Mar 2024. 

Join SEEDLINGs alumni for a walk through of their public installation, Pastcode to the Future, on 16 Mar 2024.

Contributed by:

Sofia Begum

Sofia is a programmer, producer, writer, educator and all-round multi-hatter who has a passionate drive for pedagogies that centre on empathy and resistance. In her career in the arts education industry, her work revolves around creating pathways for artists and students alike to be aware of injustice and to channel their energies into meaningful and productive work that can allow for more safe and brave spaces for others. 

She is currently in the eco system fostering arts-based approaches as a tool for expression and engagement for adult PWIDs. 

Little Steps to Big Dreams

March On

March On is Esplanade’s annual children’s festival that explores relevant issues for the young through multi-disciplinary programmes and participatory arts experiences.

6 – 17 Mar 2024
Esplanade  Theatres on the Bay
March on with us and find out more!