Youth worker Teng Zi Ying shares how theatre can help “unlovable” youth-in-need feel cared for and heard.

Her job involves walking the streets of Singapore at night to reach out to youth, counselling them, and designing programmes for engagement and therapy. But Teng Zi Ying of YouthReach (the outreach arm of the charity Boys’ Town) doesn’t have a typical background in social work. The bubbly youth worker majored in a degree in Drama, Applied theatre and Education at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

For Zi Ying, the link between the performing arts and youth in need isn’t far-fetched. “The kind of theatre I trained in uses theatre as a tool for intervention, rehabilitation and education,” she explains. This means the focus isn’t just on creating a performance but applying the practice of theatre to working with different communities. For instance, the story of Cinderella might be used to get children thinking and talking about bullying.

One project Zi Ying worked on last year was called The Museum of the Unlovables. Her team collaborated with youth to express their stories – including uncomfortable ones of trauma and hurt – through various forms of the expressive arts. One of the aims was to foster conversations and better understanding among the public.

We chat with Zi Ying about her work.

How did you enter the field of social work?

While living in London, I worked with incarcerated fathers at Her Majesty’s Prison Thameside to create a piece of children’s theatre which they performed to their families. The project aimed to strengthen family ties by helping the families see their dads, sons and brothers in a different light. It was a wonderful experience. I had a participant who proudly showed me a drawing of a bird he had done in his cell. He had chosen to play a bird in the performance as it was his son’s favourite animal, and would show his son the drawing during visits to hype him up for the performance.

On show day, the children were exploding with excitement, screaming: “That’s my daddy!’ ‘that’s my brother!’ Their faces shone with admiration. That experience sparked my interest in working within and around the criminal justice system, and influenced my decision to join Boys’ Town.

What is one surprising thing you have learnt from working with youth in need?

The intensity and love that they have. You see it in the small details – the kindness in their eyes when they pet a stray cat, when they offer us their seats at the void deck, or step away to smoke so we won’t inhale second-hand smoke. It’s also evident in the big things – when they talk about wanting to earn enough for a seven-seater car so they can go on family outings, or when they point out songs during karaoke sessions that remind them of their parents. They may look fierce or threatening, but underneath they are brimming with pure, unadulterated love. This job has made me want to tattoo the cheesy saying of ‘never judge a book by its cover’ on my forehead!

You worked on an applied theatre piece with the youth?

I spent much time exploring different issues the youths were interested in through workshops. That led to us conceptualising “The Museum of the Unlovables”, so we could share the huge array of perspectives the youth had. For instance, we recorded hurtful remarks they encountered in their lives and turned it into a soundscape exhibition. We also staged a drama about a family conflict, which the youth scripted and acted out themselves, inspired by their own personal experiences.

What kind of change did this have on the youth?

It raised their self-esteem and abilities to express themselves with confidence and clarity. During the post-show dialogue, a youth who had always struggled with expressing her thoughts verbally (she was only comfortable writing them out) actually volunteered to respond to a question from the audience. In front of a group of total strangers.

It was also important that this project did not solely focus on ‘changing’ the youths, but sparked changes in the community. We had a lady who stood up and stated firmly that the Museum had shown her that the problem wasn’t just with the youths. She addressed the audience, saying that we should all look at ourselves as a society and think about what we are doing wrong that is affecting our youths.

What is the value of using the arts to help youth?

The arts is fun, so it can engage and hold the attention of youths. It creates a safe space for sharing and reflection. And the arts encompasses so many forms and languages of expression – be it dance, theatre or clay-making – that people can pick the one that suits them best.

Will you be experimenting with the arts again in your work? Any ideas?

Definitely! We like to work in a ground-up fashion with our youth, so I will toss that question to them and ask what kind of arts-based projects they’d like to be involved in.