Making the arts more inclusive

Apr 07, 2024

, Straits Times

Mary Tan, 25, could not walk till she was 3½ years old because of her different foot structure and weak muscle tone due to global developmental delay. After graduating from Delta Senior School, she tried working as a packer in a bakery and as a cafe server but quit as the work was too demanding. Her mother, Madam Teresa Wong, 61, then started a home bakery to keep her busy.

But it was not until Ms Tan attended a puppetry class by non-profit organisation ART:DIS and a modern dance class in 2021 called RJKidz that she found her spark. “It’s really not easy, but she likes it. So a lot of things that she could not do, now she can do,” said Madam Wong, who runs her home baking business full time.

Ms Tan now bakes, dances and learns puppetry every week, and has joined at least six performances, including one where she was paid as part of a cast with theatre company Gateway Arts. In March, Ms Tan wielded villager, swordfish, bird and firefly puppets for the play alongside professional actors, together with five other puppeteers with special needs. The performance she was part of, called SmartyPants And The Swordfish, marks the first collaboration between ART:DIS Singapore and Gateway Arts.

The play included a relaxed sensory- and wheelchair-friendly setting, as well as creative captioning for the deaf, where text projected near the stage transcribed auditory elements of the show into English. The visually impaired had tours to be familiarised with the space via touch before the show, and creative audio description, where someone verbally described the performance live to them through earphones.

On how she felt about her performance, Ms Tan said: “I did a really good job.”

Madam Wong said the performing arts training has helped her daughter. “The meltdowns, her emotional control, have improved tremendously and I find she’s a much happier child,” she said. “So when she makes mistakes, it’s easier to correct her; she’s so much more receptive.”

Ms Tan has learnt to take the train and bus to Gateway Theatre in Bukit Merah by herself for rehearsals. From having a bad hunchback, she now walks more steadily, does not fall as often, and has learnt movements like straightening and bending, which she could not manage previously. Her physiotherapist, whom she sees every two months to improve her muscle tone, recently said she could stop the sessions due to her progress.

Ms Tan faced every performance head on, although the unpredictable audience interaction segment made her anxious. To stay calm, she dabbed from her pouch of essential oils. With each performance, she became more confident and less stressed, said Madam Wong. Teachers and cast members guided her on how to react to the audience and encouraged her after a good show. “The special needs kids know that they have people there to support them to perform the whole thing. I think that works very well.”

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