Chng Yi Kai ’18 (he/him/his) is a Resident Artist at Drama Box, a socially-engaged theatre company known for creating works that inspire dialogue, reflection and change, located in Singapore. He graduated from Yale-NUS College in 2018 as an Anthropology major, with a minor in Arts and Humanities.
Hamid: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! To start us off: you minored in Arts & Humanities but you majored in Anthropology. How do you think your education at Yale-NUS helped you in what you’re doing now?
Yi Kai: Being an anthropology major has been useful for the work I’m doing now. In fact, at Drama Box we like to say that our work can be quite anthropological! We use ethnography, work with communities on the ground, interview people, and get to know them. And from there we create a show. It’s similar to what I did as an Anthropology major in that I’m still interested in social dynamics, power relations, and group behaviour.
Our work also has a lot to do with participation and citizenship—and these are really big concepts that require unpacking—which were all things I picked up within anthropology, or even within Modern Social Thought in the Common Curriculum. So it all came together quite nicely.
I actually did want to major in Arts and Humanities but at the time the major had a limited number of modules. If you, for example, wanted to specialise in theatre, there weren’t too many options. And I was also concurrently interested in anthropology.
One thing that I appreciated about Yale-NUS College is the way we had conversations. I felt that we were all learning how to disagree with one another respectfully, but also in a meaningful way. We didn’t just agree to disagree. We were all struggling to talk deeply about conceptual stuff, and with personal examples, to better understand things. It was about facilitating conversations like that on a day-to-day basis. Not as a group discussion, or a debate, but as a normal, daily occurrence in which we tried to make sense of the world together.
Hamid: As I am talking to you I realise that it’s important for us to help our readers understand what a socially engaged artistic practice looks like. Could you help sketch it out for us?
Yi Kai: Of course. So the term “socially engaged art” comes from the visual arts, though it should not be confined to a particular discipline. The main element of a socially-engaged art work is that it engages with a particular community, or at the very least with a social issue. This also often means that it contests the power dynamics within these particular social groups. The term “community” is a big one; it can refer to society at large, or specific communities. There are also different levels of participation: from working with the community through interviewing them and observing them in their daily lives; to forum theatre, where audience members can change certain outcomes in a theatre show; to instances where people create a new work, with an artist facilitating that process. The pieces themselves don't need to be so in-your-face. The process can be drawn-out and subtle, but the core intention behind it does not change.
Hamid: Why was it important that you pursued a career in the arts?
Yi Kai: Why ah? (Laughs.)
Hamid: (Laughs.) No need to have a big reason lah. Sometimes people also say, “I fell into it”.
Yi Kai: I have a funny story about this. I got into theatre when I was in Primary 5. And I was “forced” into theatre, actually, because my parents wanted me to try something more expressive. In Primary 2, they tried to get me into dance and I refused. I’d been refusing them for a while. So I joined theatre to prove to them that I wasn’t going to like it. Needless to say, that was it. I had an amazing teacher, Judy Ngo, who’s still a practising artist. And since then I haven’t stopped doing theatre. So that was the first turning point for me.
The second was when I enrolled into the Applied Drama and Psychology diploma at Singapore Polytechnic. There, I realised that theatre and drama was much more than simply high art, or mainstream entertainment.
So when I started at Yale-NUS College, I continued training outside, and I eventually realised that it was something I wanted to do, that I could give a lot to it, that I wanted to give a lot to it, and it gives a lot to the world around me. So that’s why I felt like I could do it even though it’s long hours for very little money. (Laughs.) You would know!
Hamid: I know, we can definitely talk about that later! (Laughs.) I want to talk a little more about what you said about wanting to give something to theatre, and that theatre would also have that wider impact on the community. Do you think of your practice as having a social impact? Your background in the arts is quite interesting because it’s art-related, but there are these other disciplines that have shaped your understanding of what theatre can do. Not just in terms of providing us with an outlet for creative expression, but also to tackle issues in the world, and to interact with communities in a non-technocratic way.
Yi Kai: That’s a tricky question to answer, right? The idea is that we strive towards our work having a social impact. I’m not interested in theatre that doesn’t know what impact it wants to create.
Whether or not the work makes an impact is one of the big questions in applied theatre. Honestly, I think the impact of this work is not immediate. There’s a saying that the arts plants the seed for change to take place in the next generation. That’s how we see our work. But it’s difficult to track these changes without some long-term research in this area, which I’d like to see.
You mentioned something interesting about artistic expression as a creative outlet. I think the whole idea about the arts having social impact is very much about that. The government encourages citizens to be more empathetic towards one another; our work builds that capacity for empathy by being critical of what we see in the world around us. Not in a cynical way, obviously. But to be able to see how people adopt different perspectives because of their particular contexts, that’s empathy at work. So having that creative outlet allows us to achieve that particular critical outlook. I think that’s the impact of the arts.
Hamid: The word critical often comes with the connotation of being cynical, but what you’re proposing here is a very generous way of being critical. How did this understanding come about?
Yi Kai: I don’t know if there was a specific moment. At Drama Box, we look at texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Augusto Boals’ Theatre of the Oppressed, which are internationally recognised books for critical pedagogy, social engagement and applied theatre. The way I’ve read those books is that we should constantly ask ourselves if we are in positions of power, and if we do, whether there’s something else we can do about it. Freire wrote another book called The Pedagogy of Hope, which basically says that hope exists as long as someone is thinking about how to make things better.
I think you’re right in that there’s a bad name attached to being critical. It’s often about complaining. I think that’s partially because of the way our government frames criticism and dissent; we all grew up thinking that criticism is not a good thing.
But being critical is also about being empathetic, questioning the way we see things, and realising how that could be completely different for another person. Maybe it’s come from reading these texts. I hear this from my other colleagues at Drama Box too. They are my mentors, and have been working for many years in this field.
But being critical is also about being empathetic, questioning the way we see things, and realising how that could be completely different for another person.
Hamid: There’s a lot here. You’re working with big issues that have a direct impact on the communities you work with, and it’s difficult work because the seeds you plant take a long time to come to fruition. What drives you to continue doing the work?
Yi Kai: I’ve been asking myself the same question. The quick answer is that I remember the moment when I joined theatre when I was 11, how that changed me, and I think that a work of art can bring this similar change to other people. I think that it’s important that people take something away from the experience of watching a show. Maybe not immediately. Sometimes you only experience the impact of a show one year later. But that’s still meaningful. I guess I keep that in mind, and it helps me feel like it’s all worth it.
Hamid: Do you recall a moment that reminded you of the impact of the work you do?
Yi Kai: A few years ago I worked as a performer in a Drama Box forum theatre piece called 'Exit', under the larger project titled 'Both Sides, Now'. This was a community engagement project that aimed to destigmatise talking about dying and death. The forum theatre performance took place in a basketball court, so no one needed to buy a ticket and anyone could watch.
The show was very emotional—there’s a story about an old ah ma (grandmother) who doesn’t want to go through another operation, but her daughter is insisting that she do it; and another where a father has a terminal condition, and a teenage son who wants to let him go, but his mother wants to them to keep trying other options.
In a forum theatre piece, any audience member can intervene during the show. They can raise their hand and step into the shoes of another character, and try to reach a different outcome. In one of the shows we did, there was this audience member who stepped in, and wanted to impose their particular way of doing something. But we tried to keep to the reality of the play’s world as closely as we could, and the audience member was taken aback by the intensity and urgency of the situation. Eventually, they agreed to honour the wishes of the main character. I found this impactful because at some point the audience member realised that it’s not just about the intellectual considerations, you know? It was also about relationships, people, and histories in a particular situation. I think that’s often the impact of this work. People come with the expectation that they will talk about the issues in a conceptual way, but it’s only when they’re able to talk about it in relation to a day-to-day situation that they realise it’s much more complicated. To see that paradigm shift happen in someone—that tells me the work is worth it.
I found this impactful because at some point the audience member realised that it’s not just about the intellectual considerations, you know? It was also about relationships, people, and histories in a particular situation. I think that’s often the impact of this work. People come with the expectation that they will talk about the issues in a conceptual way, but it’s only when they’re able to talk about it in relation to a day-to-day situation that they realise it’s much more complicated. To see that paradigm shift happen in someone—that tells me the work is worth it.
Hamid: That sounds intense. Is there any way that you manage the experience?
Yi Kai: When the show ends, we usually have someone facilitate a discussion about it. In the moment, the show can be quite emotional, but we step out of it when the moment has ended and that gives us some critical distance to have a post-show discussion. After this particular show, we also had trained volunteers who helped audience members decompress. This was also a good chance for us to see if anyone felt unwell or uncomfortable. If anyone needed any more help, we’d refer them to a medical social worker on-site.
Hamid: It sounds structured even as the audience is free to act however they want to in order to affect the outcome of the play. Last question: What are you currently reading? Is there something that you’ve been thinking about that you’d like to share with us?
Yi Kai: I’m reading a few books now. It’s a bad habit, but I think a lot of us do that! I’m reading 'Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage', edited by Carol Martin. The book is trying to examine what it means to present something “real” on stage like documentary theatre or ethnodrama, when theatre is all about “pretence” and the suspension of disbelief. I’m also reading 'Art as Therapy' by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, which helps me articulate for myself what the intrinsic value of the arts is, even though the book is coming from the visual arts. Then, I’m reading 'Exhale: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices', edited by Ng Yi-Sheng, Stephanie Chan, Andy Ang, Ang Jin Yong, Tan Boon Hui, Atifa Othman and Kokila Annamalai, because I think my next work is going to focus on LGBTQ+ issues. And lastly, which brings us very nicely back to anthropology—Matthew Engelke’s 'Think like an Anthropologist'.
I’m also currently rehearsing for a new show, 'With Time'. It’s a verbatim theatre piece (i.e. a form of documentary theatre in which dialogue is taken from the words of people interviewed about a topic that the piece is addressing) on overcoming suicidal thoughts and tendencies. It’s been an interesting rehearsal process because we’re unpacking a lot of things: for example, how to perform a mental condition onstage. As performers, we’re always trying to find ways to show that our characters are in a particular predicament. How do we do that when we are talking about a mental health condition, whilst trying to resist a stereotypical portrayal of that condition? We’re still exploring this, and I don’t have anything to share right now, except to say that it’s been on my mind for the past few weeks.