When the arts do more than entertain: They heal!
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com 

March 1, 2010 

Singapore based Founder and Artistic Director of The Necessary Stage, Alvin Tan is the brain behind one of Asia's most important events, the M1 Fringe Festival.  Each February the curtain goes up on this festival  and the spotlight is on invite plays centered on a different theme.   This year's theme was Art and Law.  A few years ago, it was copyright issues and then Art and  Healing.   APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network, the NGO that has pioneered this work) talked about the role of theatre in healing, recently, to Tan.  He dwelt at length on the manner in which Theatre, the classical tool that is considered one of the best medium of catharsis, uses playacting as a medium of healing. 

In Completely With/Out Character, Tan and his longtime associate and renowned director, Haresh Sharma have created the play in collaboration with a person who was living with HIV.As much as it was not only cathartic for the central character, Paddy Chew, it was also a production that put a human face to the disease and brought about awareness of a person living with AIDS.   Since theatre is a social event, says Tan, the healing pertains to and deals with social ignorance leading to prejudice.  "Social theatre introspects, critiques singular and reductive perspectives, challenges established mindsets and liberates the imagination.  Abuse Suxxx!!!,  a play that deals with emotional and psychological abuse, the kind that is invisible, one of the vignettes deals with a gay person who, upon realising his coming out hurt his mother, decides to leave his boyfriend, seek treatment and finds a girlfriend.  In his epilogue, he says that his future is clearer for him now.  And if this choice makes his mother and friends happy, then so be it.  Although as creators of the work we may not agree with the protagonist's choice, we wanted to challenge liberal thinkers if we could respect difference enough to accept his choice.  Are liberal thinkers exempt from prejudice?"

In one of his best known works, godeatgod, a performance created in response to 9/11, God is on trial, accused for being the cause of human killing.  People die in his name.  God replies that it is beyond his/her control.  During a discussion segment (inserted three-quarters into the performance) the playwright who is a sound man on stage, throws questions at the actors who play themselves as characters.  One of the questions is - If your mother is kidnapped and you are instructed to bomb a Cineplex to save her life, would you?The discussion also includes the role of art/theatre.  Should we do theatre to challenge and create awareness?  A production costs a lot of money.  Why not give the money directly to people who need it?

Haresh and Tan believe that contemporary social theatre has to disrupt/intervene/rupture the familiar routine to be effective.  But to do so without self awareness or reflexivity is to risk making social theatre tiresomely didactic.   Besides, one of the objectives of contemporary social theatre is to create conflict between what happens onstage and the audience rather than  just manifest conflict or catharsis on stage. This shifts the experience of being just a witness to becoming a participant.  One actively participates in the interruption because it is concrete and is hopefully healed from the complacence of normalcy. 

There is a branch of theatre called Documentary Theatre, in which victims are made to live through their trauma while enacting. Real people with real incidents are directed to produce theatrical work. An example is another Singaporean, Keng Sen Ong, who used the actual person to relive her past as a royal court dancer of Cambodia during Pol Pot's reign. Does such a kind of theatrical experience contribute towards Healing?

Tan says that he is more familiar with Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre and prefers to see theatre being the facilitating medium for healing. Firstly, the participants can bring healing upon themselves.  Secondly, the collaborative engagement between the creators, the participants and the audience has the potential for social healing to take place. As long as people gather and have roles to play, theatre functions very much like religion with rituals that can heal.He is not comfortable with the idea of the theatre director being a kind of guru that brings healing to a community. "I find Boal's model of communal participation a more appealing healing process. This is because even a healer needs healing and a person in need of healing can heal. "    

While using theatre as a medium for Healing, how does one ensure that Theatre as an art does not become a medium of "social service" and retains its value as an essential form of entertainment?

The Necessary Stage does put in many elements into the festival that ensure healing of the "social service" kind such as the Bhutan project sponsored by UNDP where Bhutanese cloth is used by Singaporean designers to create garments and lifestyle furniture and sold.  It does attempt to develop cultural industries and open markets for Bhutanese cloth in the contemporary world and is, of course, a kind of social healing.  Another social healing is a forum called Detention.Writing.Healing.  For this forum they  bring together a few ex-political detainees who have written poetry and/or novel. They have in them a  playwright who has written a character based on an ex-detainee and an ex-detainee who is a subject of a film to be released soon in Singapore.  They read their art works that covered their detention period.  Here is where art and healing takes on a very interesting relationship.  

Tan says: "The possibility of healing takes place in how we see ourselves through other's eyes; whether they are those who behold us or those who view us with prejudice.  And that is where art still plays an important role.  It gives us that space to be beside ourselves, a space to play, an autonomous space where what is done can be undone, where what is sacred and precious can be treated with irreverence, where what can be sacrosanct one moment can be debased the next, where what has value in one context can lose its total value in another.  And that is how art heals because art is a space where absolutes end.

When your theatre doesn't subvert what is precious to you, then it becomes a propaganda pamphlet. To keep theatre from being a "social service" is to protect theatre's right to have the freedom to question all the time.  And to question all the time means choosing spirituality over religiosity, metaphor over literal."

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture. 

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. 

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions). 

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.