Bridging the great divide

Bridging the great divide
A forum art theatre show, Project Mending Sky: US (2012), held at Bukit Timah Railway Station by Drama Box.

SINGAPORE - In October this year, patients at the Singapore General Hospital will be serenaded by professional and amateur musicians as part of the annual MusicFest@SGH, organised by home-grown musical theatre company Sing'theatre.

The arts have a range of uses, from entertainment to therapy to education, that could help voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs).

But while there have been more collaborations between them and arts groups in recent years, Sing'theatre says it still encounters closed doors when it approaches VWOs to work together.

Sing'theatre artistic and executive director Nathalie Ribette says that only about 10 per cent of the organisations are receptive. She adds: "The others don't reply or say that they're not interested or that they have other commitments. Some think it's a nice idea but they have other priorities."

Lack of awareness about what the arts can do is just one of the challenges, even as more VWOs are starting to deploy painting, dancing, music and theatre to help their beneficiaries, alongside the usual forms of assistance and care.

Such arts programmes have been boosted by the Government's recently announced $1.5-million WeCare Arts Fund, which will be disbursed over the next three years. An initiative by the National Arts Council and the five community development councils, it will grant each VWO up to $10,000 annually to run arts-related programmes.

VWOs engaged in the arts have been scaling up their projects. Last year, over 20 senior citizens from the Henderson Senior Citizens' Home and two Asian Women's Welfare Association centres performed in a contemporary dance production, backed by a full orchestra.

The work was The Rite Of Spring by the Arts Fission Company and The Philharmonic Orchestra, staged at the Esplanade Concert Hall, which has a capacity of 1,800.

Such arts programmes with community groups can take many forms, from Very Special Arts' visual arts classes to Drama Box's use of forum theatre to explore social issues. The visual arts classes help in the rehabilitation and social integration of people with disabilities, while Drama Box's interactive forum theatre shows, in which audience members can participate, have been used to explore issues from violence against women to race and terrorism.

While the number of such programmes is increasing, the process of getting such projects off the ground is still difficult. As the field is relatively young, there is not much precedent to follow or infrastructure in place to pave the way.

Both arts groups and VWOs lack people with experience in managing community arts projects. As a result, a lot of the time, both artists and VWOs are reaching out to each other but cannot quite craft projects in a creative and sensitive way to meet each other's needs.

Drama Box associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling says: "The social workers are very good at what they're doing, which is engaging the community. And the artists are very good at what they're doing, which is creating art. The question is, how can we partner these people, such that they can support each other?"

In the first place, it is not easy for artists and VWOs to establish a working relationship. Koh says the lukewarm response is due to a lack of understanding and adds: "The biggest challenge is to get people to understand what we're trying to do. Some people think theatre or drama must mean only acting, while others ask if it's going to appear on Channel 8."

Drama Box has been working with the community since 2000 and it usually puts up between one and three projects a year. Its last project, Both Sides, Now, was a multi-disciplinary arts experience that addressed dying well and end-of-life issues.

Incorporating short films, conceptual art pieces and a multimedia play, it took place at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital last November.

Some arts groups may also be resistant to working with VWOs, as they are worried about being pigeonholed as a community arts group. Contemporary dance group Arts Fission Company conducts creative movement-based sessions at eldercare homes, and it is developing training manuals and instructional DVDs to facilitate the teaching of the programme at other centres.

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