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Little children often struggle with big emotions. If parents do not talk about these feelings and help children understand them, the kids grow into adults with the same struggles, cut off from their emotions.
This cycle, noted by child psychologists and social workers, is the driving force behind the creation of The Feelings Farm, a theatre piece which runs from 12–14 Mar 2021 at Esplanade’s March On festival for children. Written and performed for children aged six and up as an adventure story, the play tackles the deep questions that often plague even grown-ups throughout life, and puts them in a language easily understandable and intuitive to our young.
In The Feelings Farm, three children (played by Shafiqhah Efandi, Ryan Ang, and Mehr Dudeja) embark on a magical adventure through shifting emotional landscapes, both together and alone. Guided by the mysterious Cloud (played by Pam Oei), the children explore familiar feelings in a poignant journey full of surprises.
Playwright Amanda Chong recounts her observations of the society she witnessed growing up.
She elaborates that while writing The Feelings Farm, she asked herself what she wished she had known as a child, and used her reflections as a jumping off point as she went on to develop the show. The result is a multidisciplinary work that uses music, movement, poetry and multimedia to help children name and understand emotions with compassion.
The child’s perspective is central to the production, one of the highlights of March On, a new annual festival focusing on issues facing the young of today. As part of the creative process, an open call was put out to the public for children aged 12 and below to submit their own works of art based on emotion prompts.
Chong and composer Julian Wong also incorporated visual art, writing and movement ideas from children in six Social Service Agencies (SSAs) invited to participate in a series of workshops organised by Esplanade. The workshops informed the artists' processes and decisions and were the starting point for the production.
The children were encouraged to draw, sing, dance and speak about different feelings and how they experienced them throughout their lives. For some, this was a cathartic experience as they relived those memories, but with the help of the SSAs and creators of The Feelings Farm, they could speak freely about their emotions by the end of the sessions. Chong explains,
She gives the example of how many children in the workshops “were initially hesitant to admit their own feelings. However, they were quick to speak about how they had seen people around them experience difficult feelings, and how they had helped comfort them. This became the point of access for the children to acknowledge they had felt the same way before and to come up with strategies for comforting themselves.
Creating the play and its music was a weeks-long process involving Wong, Chong, and director Edith Podesta. Chong would send sketches of lyrics and scenes to Wong and Podesta, and the three would spend the week brainstorming ideas before gathering at the end of the week to “jam” at the piano, as Wong says. He tells me that by the time the actors and musicians learned the music, it was at least his sixth rewrite. “At that point, I knew that I had to let my ‘baby’ go and take solace in the knowledge that in the hands of the wonderful company, The Feelings Farm will take on a life of its own."
Of the children the production team collaborated with, Wong says, “They had brilliant musical ideas, some of which I combined and used note-for-note in the score! My favourite ones are an echoing motif in the Longkang of Loneliness, an extremely layered Web of Worry, a stylised Anger that is characterised by unpredictable spurts of energy, and the music that underscores Mira’s interaction with the Elephant: a musical representation of a child trying to make peace with her Embarrassment.
The children produced art during the workshops to illustrate the emotional journeys they travelled as they participated in The Feelings Farm. The artworks they created convey a rich, colourful inner world, with worries big and small, simple joys and complicated fears. There are monsters and flowers, volcanoes and planets, families and friends, all of which contribute to big feelings that can frighten and overwhelm their young minds.
The production is supported by a resource guide which families and children can use post-show. It is written by Lee Yoke Wen, a qualified social worker with over 10 years of experience working with children, adults and families, and has worked in direct practice with vulnerable children, adults and families in the child protection system in Singapore.
At their tender age, our children have less experience, knowledge and language around their feelings.
"In my observation, it is challenging for parents and caregivers to help their children learn about feelings as they themselves may not have enough time or opportunities to access and understand their own feelings,” Lee says. She goes on to explain that many adults in our society today still resist conversations revolving around emotions, deeming it embarrassing or not important to address. As a result, it is common to see grown-ups who have walled off their emotions.
It is her hope that the play will be a starting point for parents and caregivers to support children to be curious about their feelings and the stories behind them, and to have conversations with each other about their feelings.
Joelle Cecilia is a female writer and photographer based in Singapore. She has been active since 2015, specialising in fashion, lifestyle, and arts writing and fashion, portraits, couples, and set photography. She likes cats and dogs both and enjoys a good cup of Teh Halia (ginger milk tea).