Putting the art back in heart


WHO could ask for a more subtle revolution?

Communication, reflection, imagination & catharsis are ideas at the heart of the arts directly relevant to the human problems social workers confront.

The FamFest 2001 arts festival in Marine Parade, which ended last weekend, saw veteran theatre group The Necessary Stage (TNS) plugging their repertoire of skills into the gritty, grassroots world of community work ('Drama can heal', Project Eyeball, May 3).

Strike one for the notion of the arts as an expensive, ivory tower self-indulgence, divorced from real-world issues.

Strike two for the hereditary divide between edgy artists, stuffy authorities, and the rest of us plebians.

There are plenty of reasons to cheer the involvement of the arts in community work here.

The idea isn't exactly new. In fact, dramatic techniques like role-play - where participants literally put themselves in someone else's shoes to think about issues - have been used to good effect in classrooms and management training for some time now.

It's hardly surprising. Communication, reflection, imagination and catharsis are ideas at the heart of the arts - and directly relevant to the tricky but very human problems which social workers, counsellors and educators confront.

But it's one thing to theorise about the value of the arts and quite another to put it to practice - and for pragmatic, untrained audiences to find the experience worthwhile.

The authorities should be given due credit for supporting the effort, which is a non-traditional approach to social work, at the least.

In a different time and place, the whole concept of interactive theatre - with its shades of taboo, scriptless forum theatre - might have been turned down by the heavy-handed or the jittery.

FamFest 2001 has pushed the envelope, indicating that it's alright, in principle, for people to get hands-on with difficult topics they care about, like sexuality and singlehood. At the least, they're more informed about where the issues lie.

And if we want to encourage a thinking community, any kind of active engagement with issues is preferable to the passive absorption encouraged by the goggle box or mainstream entertainment.

And that's another achievement - community arts is a great way to wean us off the unhealthy bond between artistic endeavour and commercial entertainment. Sure, laughter, good fun and big business have their place in the world.

But it's easy to forget, in a world of big-name musicals and flashy theatre tours, that a Renaissance city is more than watching top-class opera or exporting our shows overseas.

It's also about making the arts, and the values they advocate - from critical thinking to creativity - a part of our cultural fabric and way of life. And that means getting comfortable with the arts as thinking tools and platforms for discussion, not just fillers for fund-raising efforts, or luxury leisure for the elite.

All that from a scant three weeks in Marine Parade? Well, it's a start.

And it gives working artists the quiet legitimacy Singaporeans appreciate and respect - the sort that comes from contributing to the community. Writers giving talks to school children during Library Week. Musicians playing for welfare homes. Digital artists in support of Aids awareness.

Getting involved in actual social work can only throw up fresher and more authentic fodder for artistic efforts, as TNS' Alvin Tan has pointed out.

To be fair, serious arts types have been grappling with social issues on their own terms.

What was missing was a way of communicating those efforts and their potential benefits to the public at large so that they come across as thoughtful and refreshing, and not obscure or condescending. And it doesn't have to mean dumbing down or diluting the artistic content if the issues are real and handled with honesty and compassion.

The community arts approach of FamFest 2001 seems a promising way of returning the arts to its social roots.

If the method works, it could heal more than the families and individuals helped by the programme.

It might even bridge the long-standing and unnecessary rift between the lofty arts and ordinary Singaporeans.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl