Feature People

Performance With Purpose: This Elderly Theatre Troupe Shows How the Arts Can Engage Our Seniors

Senior theatre benefits our older generation — from the performers themselves to the audience. But could it be for the rest of us too? Listening to radio plays such as Chap Lau brings the older audience to a period of nostalgia, and the younger audience to a time we know less about. From currency to housing situations, things are constantly changing and getting replaced — but they are preserved in performance.

By Shannon Ling

In Singapore, we tend to hedge our sense of purpose heavily on work and productivity. As such, when we are not busy chasing academic achievements or progressing on a career ladder, we are stripped of that same drive and supposed impetus in life; perhaps even identities are even built upon this sense of purpose.

The senior citizens in Singapore are often plagued with loneliness, feeling socially disconnected even from people who were once in their life — migrated children, friends who have left, loved ones who are too busy. What this entails is the conflation between the lack of interaction with others, and a lack of purpose (that we have premised on work).

These impacts are also exacerbated by Covid-19; older folks who were once able to at least head to the wet market every day now stay within the confines of their four walls in fear of contracting the disease. They are removed from those whom they used to have banters with at the coffee shop, hardly having the means of connecting through online platforms such as Zoom or Houseparty like the younger generations do.

Never too old for theatre

Finding a way for seniors to enjoy their years after retirement isn’t an easy feat. Although nobody knows the perfect way to live our lives, the various articles online — with headlines narrowly ranging from “How to enjoy life after you retire” to “Things to do after retirement” — mostly indicate that we should be exploring what we have always loved and never had the chance to experience.

Though age may constrict our abilities (or reduce our interest) when it comes to extreme and intense activities, many sectors are conducive spaces for our elders to spend their time meaningfully — including theatre. 

In wanting to learn more about the (senior) theatre scene, I interviewed Ms Peggy Ferroa, a performance maker and applied theatre practitioner who works with corporates, senior citizens, inmates, ex-offenders, and people with special needs. She is currently the producer-writer for the Glowers Drama Group, a seniors’ theatre group that performs plays such as their most recent drama, Chap Lau.

Peggy Ferroa [Photo: Glowers Drama Group]

When asked about the origin of the Glowers Drama Group, she tells me that it “started off really as a project that fell from the sky.” 

She shares that they initially had funds to try out drama workshops for about a year, and members had acting lessons together.

When that closed down, the performers who still liked drama were at a loss. They approached Ms Catherine Sng, one of the trainers, who responded that if they “trust her,” “then follow [her].”

“[Catherine then] collected S$10 a month from all of them [and] got a space — which is now torn down and replaced by a commercial building — at the old Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. The place used to house arts groups,” says Peggy. 

“And she rented from a Teochew Wayang troop a rehearsal space, [where] once a week she would have her drama sessions or practice sessions — where they would do improvisations, small scenes, just to keep up the practice.”

Insofar as the members were able to continue their passion for drama, the plan was not sustainable. Fortunately, there came a day when Kampong Glam was looking for interest groups, and they didn’t have one for drama. 

Thankfully, the Glowers were provided a space to practise on Fridays, on top of a small room to keep props. This was under one condition — they had to provide two performances a year for the community. This was because there were a lot of senior citizens living alone in the area, and the community club was trying to engage them in activities, in hopes of checking on their well-being.

As such, once a month, the Glowers would invite the seniors to participate in engaging activities such as watching performances and singing together. Peggy describes it as “a nice tea time” where everyone bonded with one another. Through this, they often found out more about these senior residents and how they were doing.

Chinese narrator (L) and English narrator (R). [Photo: Glowers Drama Group]

The purpose of performance

Theatre provides a platform for elder performers to “be physically and cognitively engaged,” and showcase their talents, says Peggy. In rehearsing for roles and practising their lines and movements, the members feel that they spend their time more meaningfully.

Additionally, the group of performers often look out for one another. Peggy remarks that the performers’ warm up, after reaching early, is to sit in a group and talk about remedies for their aches and pains.

“They also have a chat group for people who are living alone, [where they send] a very simple ‘good morning,’ [and] ‘how are you’ daily, and everyone has to reply; if you don’t reply, we are sending an ambulance to break your door down,” she says while stifling a laugh.

“It is that understanding, you know? We worry.”

Additionally, theatre provides a learning platform for the performers. Here, they have a safe environment to practise English, as they fervently learn and memorise their lines.

Moreover, recorded plays serve as a way to capture happy moments. In sharing about the purpose of these performances, Peggy mentions how local actress Beatrice Chien, who had passed away on Jul 6 earlier this year, had spent happy moments practising and performing for Chap Lau.

“And I think what’s special is that her voice. . .is [now] captured forever, and if her grandchildren or children want to access it, it is there for them.” 

Besides positive impacts on the group of performers, it is also clear from the example in Kampong Glam that another purpose of play is to engage with folks who enjoy watching the performances.

The performances get the audience members to bond and break out of their shells. They also inspire the viewers to take part in what they enjoy. By watching people their age dynamically involved in the enjoyable shows, the audience could reflect on what they could do for themselves.

Beyond this, the content covered by Glowers — often surrounding themes of the past such as Kampongs in Singapore — incites conversations between generations beyond the usual “What did you do in school today?” and “What did you have for lunch?”

In bringing generations to another plane of conversation, Singaporeans can then find out more about the past and how life used to be. Peggy adds that in this digital age, it is often the younger generation that find out about the plays online and share with their older family members. Seeing people of different generations going to the theatre together, Peggy describes that it is the “most wonderful, wonderful thing.”

Studio recording session of Chap Lau. [Photo: Glowers Drama Group]

Tontines and Dancing Girls

The latest radio play by the Glowers, Chap Lau, explores topics that I have barely heard of. From tontines to dancing girls, these subject matters led me to doing research and having insightful discussions with my family: Tontines, which introduced pressing problems for the characters in the play, were “an early system for raising capital in which individuals pay into a common pool of money.”

Chap Lau follows the stories of residents affected by resettlement and how they adjust to city living, exploring the more personal aspects of life in the past. Through the innovative use of dialogue and sound effects, the listeners are almost part of the intimate conversations. 

Peggy explains the inspiration behind the radio play:“Chap Lau really came because of its predecessor Kampong Chempedak, which had quite a dark ending.”

Regarding the title of Chap Lau, she notes that it is “a very generic name for [a] tall building.” She shares that listeners were debating about where Chap Lau was located, with places ranging from Circuit Road, Tanglin Halt, or Toa Payoh.

And it was precisely the ambiguity that drove Peggy to choose the title. “Chap Lau is just a tall building that is really in an HDB estate,” she says. 

Hence, Chap Lau could exist wherever our imagination wishes, much like how we draw up images on our own when reading books or listening to radio plays; when the dialogue says there is a lady in a long dress, some imagine it as a red flowy dress, while others a blue silk-wrap dress, adding a personal layer to the experience.

The Glowers. [Photo: Glowers Drama Group]

Sense of community in community theatre

These stories, such as Kampong Chempedak or Chap Lau, actually come from the Glowers themselves. According to Peggy, they typically spend around an hour of their rehearsal sessions chatting about the past, the Kampong life, and the transition into HDB flats. 

“It is honouring the way they speak and their input, so when we come to rehearsing on stage, part of their input is there, and I find it really special.” 

“That is what community theatre is about. It is not about me being a clever director and writer. It is completely different. It is really about them.”

As such, she traces the definition of community arts, the creation of a shared expression that is “a result of collaborative workings and re-workings within the group.”

Speaking about the very sense of community, Peggy brings up the struggle with getting funding. Since the nature of community theatre is more focused on the people, external organisations may be less inclined to fund the works, especially when considering their branding.

“That was why. . .when I saw this [fund] by [Temasek Trust’s] oscar@sg, I just tried. . . And I was so happy to have gotten it within such a short time. They were calling me and finding out more about the seniors. Because that’s who they wanted to serve. . .and that was so refreshing for me.”

She adds that oscar@sg “even went one step further to introduce two organisations that may want to use Chap Lau, and it opened 2 doors for. . .Chap Lau [to] run even further.”

Beyond that, Chap Lau was also funded by the National Arts Council, and included in the 10th edition of The Silver Arts festival, which “celebrat[es] seniors in the arts with performances, workshops and exhibitions.” 

There was also external help from the Institute of Technical Education Central through assistance from alumni of the school, and the provision of a recording studio for the radio play.

Chap Lau poster. [Photo: Glowers Drama Group]

Performances for everyone

In concluding, Peggy urges us to “just come and watch [a play] because the content is good. Not because it is by seniors, by people with special needs etc.”

“Look at seniors with value; look at everyone with value because you are who you are today. Your life experience goes [into] enriching you. . . your experience shifts constantly and at any point in time, [anyone] will have something to share, something to offer.”

Lastly, she wishes that we would stop categorising people which only further gives a lens for us to look through others with. To her, performance (and its purpose, joy, and enjoyment) is for everyone — no matter the age. In fact, watching plays written by seniors situated in the past could spark fruitful conversations with our loved ones.

We don’t have to be seniors to enjoy and support senior theatre; to give these performers a greater sense of purpose.

You can catch episodes of Chap Lau on the Glowers’ Youtube page or the Silver Arts Festival events page — available in either English or Mandarin. More initiatives supported by the oscar@sg fund can also be found on their website.