Growing up in a rental flat at Lengkok Bahru, Danny Azrin has witnessed the effects of crime, drug abuse, and violence on his community.
He has even experienced some of that himself. At the age of 12, after being constantly bullied by other children, he joined a gang hoping to find security and protection.
It was only after a close brush with the law two years later that prompted him to worry about his family should he end up in jail, that Danny decided to leave the gang.
Now 18, Danny is using his talents to help youth-at-risk living in Lengkok Bahru.
Two years ago, he joined The Community Theatre, a programme set up in 2014 by Beyond Social Services (BSS). After hearing about it from friends at Singapore Polytechnic, Danny joined the programme as an actor and scriptwriter in hopes of shedding light on the social challenges and issues faced by low-income communities.
The initiative brought together youths from the rental flat community, BSS social workers, and volunteers to create a forum theatre, a type of performance that invites members of the audience to intervene and offer alternative solutions that are helpful to the protagonist.
BSS social worker Afri Ayub, 25, told The Pride: “It’s a way to hear the voices of the marginalised, as the audience can step into the character’s shoes and understand the issues others face.”
The group, which has about 30 members in total contributing on a voluntary basis, holds free performances at neighbourhood spaces such as void decks, badminton courts, and community centres. Each of their six productions to date have drawn an audience of about 100 people.
More than just entertainment, the productions tackle issues familiar to residents of rental flats. The youths also use their own stories and voices to start important conversations on issues pertinent to the community.
Pointing to the first performance he participated in as a scriptwriter and actor in 2017, a production entitled Sayang, Danny said he drew from his own life experiences to develop his character, Jamil.
A youth-at-risk living in a low-income, single-parent household who turns to bad deeds and habits to cope with his situation may sound like a TV drama cliché, but it hits close to home for Danny.
“Many of the stories come from the youth of the theatre, and represent the reality we live in,” he said.
And The Community Theatre provides a safe place for these youths to share their stories on these realities, which include unemployment, family troubles, violence, and marginalisation. These stories become the foundation for the theatre’s productions.
“Everyone works in solidarity, and together we acknowledge the problems in the community and begin working them into a script,” said Afri.
In working with other youths of different ages and backgrounds, they also learn to understand the characters, and by extension, themselves, better.
“It helps them to solve problems and empathise with each other,” explained Afri.
“Even if I disagree with someone’s perspective, the writers can take it into account and craft a better story,” said Zakia Fatiha, 15, another Lengkok Bahru resident and a scriptwriter for the theatre’s upcoming performance.
As a child she struggled to fit in with the children from more well-to-do families.
“I didn’t fit in with the others in the area. They just stared, and I felt like I didn’t really have anyone to talk to,” said Zakia.
“I’ve been told to ‘get over it’ by everyone in my life. That others have it worse, but it’s not about comparing, it’s about being heard,” she added.
While The Community Theatre’s goal is to reach out to the population at large, as of now most of their shows are attended by other residents of the rental flat community.
While theatre can be a passive experience, The Community Theatre challenges its audience with the ethical and emotional dilemmas faced by the characters and encourages them to intervene, and in doing so empathise.
“When an audience member steps into a role and feels very passionate about intervening, it may be because they see their own situation playing out in front of them,” explained Aaron Cheang, 21, a BSS volunteer and theatre coach.
“We don’t get the opportunity to rewind real life and correct our mistakes, but at the theatre there’s always a chance to show people that there is another way,” explained Afri.
In some cases, it can even bring people closer together as Zakia found out, after her father had an unexpected reaction from watching Sayang.
“I’m not close with my parents, so I was surprised when my father approached me after one of the shows,” said Zakia.
He asked her: “Are you alright, is there anything that you’re going through?’”
As surprised as Zakia was, it allowed her to pour out her feelings to her father for the first time.
Indeed, such is an instance of the kind of success The Community Theatre has had. But to reach a larger audience, the group has also collaborated with Temasek Polytechnic theatre group Theatro for a few productions, and, this month, with various schools in the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival.
This will help the stories of people like Danny and Zakia be heard, said Cheang.
“These are the people whose stories are underrepresented, who work hard despite their circumstances. But to many, they can be invisible,” said Cheang.
“They need to be dignified, heard, and counted – not cast aside because of the situation they were born into.”
When Cheang first joined the theatre group in 2014, he saw himself as a teacher, there to help those less fortunate than himself. Little did he expect to learn so much from “such strong, independent, and resilient people”.
“Within the community, we can only rely on each other. Sometimes we may need to babysit a neighbour’s child, so they can work without worrying,” said Zakia.
Such is the attitude – the kampung spirit, if you please – at The Community Theatre.
Keen to catch The Community Theatre in action? Their next show is at Leng Kee Community Club on July 28 at 7pm. Admission is free. For more information, refer to this page.