Diverse performers take to the stage for landmark production

Aug 04, 2023

, Community Engagement

“Benchmark. Landmark. Dream,” shared Claire Teo. In three words, the lead actor of Chachambo: Taking Flight succinctly describes the essence of this landmark disability-led music theatre work. Indeed, Chachambo is about bringing an entire community together to set new standards for Singapore’s disability landscape. As the main cast moves into combined rehearsals with the rest of the ensemble performers, we spotlight the impact that theatre has on the Deaf and disabled community at every level of engagement.

Staged by ART:DIS at the height of its 30th anniversary celebrations, the main cast of Chachambo comprises 10 actors with disabilities. Many are graduates from the non-profit’s BEYOND DIS:PLAY programme, which offers professional theatre training for persons with disabilities, developing them to be artist-advocates who would champion disability representation and access in the performing arts.

Leading the Change

Such change must first begin with the artists themselves. At ART:DIS, lead choreographer Ali takes an experimental approach to dance and movement so that he can explore what each performer is capable of. “Working with their strengths is very important. Each performer has a different skill background, skill set and movement capacity,” Ali explains as he develops dance steps the performers can consistently execute. “It is my first time choreographing for visually impaired performers and I’ve discovered that using tactile conditioning such as holding them at certain limbs or body parts (with their consent, of course) or asking them to touch or hold items, has helped a lot in the movement experimentation,” he reflected.

To get a sense of how far he can stretch the actors, Ali collaborates with them by allowing the actor to take the lead on movement, before consolidating the moves into a dance routine with form and rhythm. This is particularly true for visually impaired actor Ivni Yaakub. “Ivni kept discovering more and more movements each week, which was exciting and inspiring all at the same time,” Ali recounted. “His newfound confidence in dance really makes him shine on stage.”

Uniting the Community

The efforts by ART:DIS to engage with the D/deaf and disabled communities extend far beyond the main cast of Chachambo. Community groups from all walks of life have also been invited as stage performers, adding diversity and vibrancy to the production. They include APSN Tanglin School, Lighthouse School, Down Syndrome Association, Y-Stars, Yong-en Active Hub, Ageless Bridge, Spring Wind Divas, as well as ART:DIS’s own Cajon and Choir groups. 

For many of the trainers who teach students with disabilities, Chachambo is a fantastic opportunity to showcase their students’ talents and push them to do more than is usually expected of them in everyday life. For instance Irwan Raman, the trainer for ART:DIS’s Cajon team (pictured right), is keenly attuned to the needs of his students and watching them take on this new challenge is a learning experience for him. “The senior students get better with every training session. We also have some new and talented students who progress quickly in class,” Irwan shared. 

Meanwhile, as the dance trainer for APSN Tanglin School, Arianty has had the privilege of watching her students (pictured below) grow over the months, developing soft skills such as communicating confidently with new people, alongside proficiency in the arts. “I am honoured to be part of this as there are different representations of disabilities on one stage,” Arianty said. She added that dancers from APSN are learning to adapt to changes during rehearsals, to create conversations with new peers and be curious about new experiences. Will these same performers become advocates of disability arts one day? Only time can tell.

Over at Lighthouse School, trainer Claire Teo (who is also playwright & lead actor) has already noticed signs of students taking their first steps towards connecting with each other. She shared: “I witnessed two D/deaf students, normally easily distracted, step up to offer sighted assistance to their visually impaired co-performers. The production is thus encouraging them to break language boundaries and form inter-disability understanding.” This may appear to be a small act of empathy, but it is clear evidence of how young Singaporeans are coming together to support each other. From these vignettes, one can glean the many ways in which Chachambo is becoming an accessible educational platform for students to hone their craft and soft skills regardless of their disabilities. 

Changing Perceptions

The world has become increasingly connected and informed in the last decade and while Singapore has kept ahead of the curve in many areas, we have still quite a way to go in terms of representation and access for persons with disabilities in the arts. Chachambo seeks to be a catalyst for this long overdue conversation and to envision what a truly inclusive society can look like. Indeed, even at rehearsals, the production has been an eye-opening experience for non-disabled performers, Greg and Gladys.

Greg, who is a trainer for community interest group Ageless Bridge (pictured right), shared: “Sometimes, someone will shed tears as the storyline and acting can be very emotional. I was particularly moved by main cast Wai Yee’s beautiful rendition of Both Sides Now – it’s better than the original!” However, it was his daily interactions with his fellow disabled performers and the camaraderie built between them that eventually broke the barriers of ingrained perceptions of difference.

Greg reflected that he was initially unsure of how to interact with performers with disabilities, and tried to be as cautious as possible. Surprising even himself, it turns out that he felt more at home working with performers with disabilities than he did in most places. “Once I got to know them, I found them to be endearing and sincere people. For over 60 years, I have experienced life and suddenly I found myself in the midst of heartwarming friendly people,” he added. 

Gladys, a trainer for elderly performers at Yong-en Active Hub, agrees with the idea: “I hope that there will be more awareness. Arts is a very powerful platform for expression, giving them confidence and belonging. I hope to be a part of this movement in Singapore someday.” She further added that the multi-talented cast of pan-disability performers opened her mind to just how capable and skilled actors with disabilities can be.

These reflections serve as shining examples of how a community can create a collaborative and empowering production that not only changes the societal perception of disability, but also enables individuals to strive towards independent and meaningful engagement with the arts. On a larger scale, Chachambo aims to deliver those same epiphanies to every audience member and to challenge the status quo.

Inspiring a New Generation

This journey of Chachambo has been nothing short of transformative for both the main cast and the various community groups involved. For Lighthouse School trainer Claire, her students’ experience highlights the profound impact that stepping into Victoria Theatre (pictured right) has had on them. “Describing and showing pictures did not compare to bringing them physically to another space with all other performers. It suddenly became real for them and they began to panic,” she observed.

Coming from the familiar and sheltered environment of Lighthouse School, the students are introduced for the first time to the challenges and demands of a professional production. Claire expressed that she hopes this experience would be the catalyst for the young performers, igniting in them the drive to work towards the rigour expected of mainstream artists, and the aspiration to become independent artists who are willing to take initiative for their own professional future. 

As an actor-advocate herself, Claire is aware of how the medical and charity models of society have resulted in a sense of complacency among artists with disabilities, who have been conditioned to expect applause for the bare minimum. She seeks to change this through advocacy in the arts, stating: “There is a sense of entitlement that comes with being disabled. Yes, society disables us but many times I question if we limit ourselves by playing into victimhood. This is why this production is important – to not only change society’s perception of disabilities, but to also navigate our own individual barriers and discover how much we can give and achieve as a community.”

This article is written by Jade Ow, contributing writer to Chachambo.

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