Fringe Festival | A thirst for the mentally-challenged to be heard

Lan (left), one of eight performers starring in the theatre titled “The Never-ending Task of the Moment,” is reading a newspaper during a theatric training with the director-cum-creator Jenny Mok

On a Sunday afternoon, Tang Kuai Lan was kneeling on the floor. She was so absorbed in taking in new information on a newspaper and putting the gist — or whatever she thought was insightful to her — into writing.
News reading has been part of the Old Court routines she and seven other performers in the troupe have engaged to gear themselves up for the forthcoming theatric play in the building.
Lan never knew that arts would have such a huge transformative power to shape her into what she is now today until she signed up to be part of the cast four years ago. Prior to this, she had difficulties expressing herself — she stammered when speaking, and limped when walking.
Lan is an individual with a mental disability. But it was not the inherent unfitness that hindered her everyday expression, it was her total lack of confidence — which had been stripped away for long by societal injustice, oppression and suffering thrown upon her as she is a disabled person.
Jenny Mok, who has been Lan’s coach in performing arts for years, beheld the whole journey of Lan’s transmutation through arts. The theatric performance helped Lan regain the faith in herself and the fortitude she needed the most.
“Confidence is a vulnerable and delicate thing. Many things cannot be achieved once you lose it. But it is regrown and rebuilt, you can pull off many feats with ease,” Mok told the Times in an exclusive interview.
It has not been easy for disabled people to live in this city when it comes to inclusive facilities and policies that help them get around the city and safeguard their fundamental rights. Often and most importantly, they find their voices muffled and unheard within society. Having seen that the voices of the city’s disabled individuals still largely go ignored, Mok, the director of the Comuna de Pedra Arts and Cultural Association — a local alliance which is dedicated to creating and promoting theatre productions — rallied a troupe four years ago for the disabled people in Macau. This was to create a platform for them to freely convey their thoughts.
This all-inclusive arts endeavor Mok mounted was a joint venture with the Association of Parents of the People with Intellectual Disabilities of Macau, a non-profit organization founded in 1992 to offer various types of support to the city’s people with cognitive impairment. Through the association’s assistance, she enlisted a total of eight performers with mental disabilities.
“We found these eight performers from the Association not by their abilities, but by their interest and passion in performing,” Mok stressed.
The troupe made their debut in 2018 and a second performance in 2019 with Swiss performers who are also mentally disabled. The third and upcoming theatre, titled “The Never-ending Task of the Moment,” held on January 20 to 21 will be the third theatrical show Lan and the other actors will be performing on stage.

Structured Impromptu
Mok, the director, creator as well as performance coordinator of the show, said that she wants to show on stage the perspectives and thoughts that mentally disabled people have regarding big social events, the community, and the world as a whole.
What is more interesting is that there is no pre-arranged script and movement for the cast in this play. Mok regards the performance as a “structured impromptu” — in which Mok raised questions for eight performers to ponder and digest. Then, it is totally up to their free will to express whatever messages and ways they desire at that moment.
What is “structured” in this performance is the fixed arts element the troupe will present to the theater-goers. It includes a combination of language, dance, music, images and videos.
The underlying concept of bringing the disabled’s worldview to showgoers makes the news reading training ever more important. Mok and her colleagues often read and discuss the news with the cast.
To the surprise of many, all members in the troupe love — or are even more than capable — to read the news despite their mental disabilities. Most ordinary people infantilizing mentally disabled individuals is a testament that most, intentionally or unintentionally, box in the competence of the disabled, even before trying to understand them. This is unequivocally the nature of stereotyping.
“To be frank, society may not really care about their worldview, or perhaps there have been very few chances through which they can hear their voices,” she pointed out.
The upcoming theatre aims to kick open the door to a higher acceptance, greater awareness and ultimately to normalization for their opinions to be valued in the community.
“I don’t speak for them. We learn and inspire from each other. It is important for the abled persons to respect and learn from their world’s view,” Mok added.

Accepting and Learning 
The heretofore stereotyped and ignored minority can also be a quality performer when it comes to theater as well. “The uniqueness of disabled person lies in their great ability to improvise, which is exactly the most interesting part in performing,” Mok explained.
“They never mask and disguise their opinions. They are genuine in expressing what they think and feel, which always result in a candid and heartfelt performance. These traits make the disabled persons “even more stunning than the ordinary performers,” Mok commented.
The biggest lessons Mok has learned from the cast are that the line between disability and ability has always been permeable, and that disabled persons have great skills of accommodation. “It’s not about how the abled group adjusts themselves for the disabled persons. Disabled individuals have indeed made so many efforts to integrate into society,” she added.
Mok also explained that there is no such thing as right or wrong when a person does not perform at a pace you expect. “We have to respect different people have their own pace.”
Performing on stage is a cathartic experience that unlocks the potential of Lan, who was once unable to complete a full sentence and hold eye contact with others.
“The biggest change for me after I joined the troupe is that I have more friends now and got chance to learn from classes,” Lan told the Times with complete fluency.
“I didn’t know how to communicate properly with others, but it is better now [through arts],” Lan added.
When asked whether she feels a bit nervous that the show is on the horizon, Lan said without hesitation that she did not feel even a slight dose of uneasiness.
“But training for six hours a day is a bit taxing to be honest,” said Lan. Apart from having their performers’ voices heard on stage, the most important thing Mok wants to achieve through theatre is to raise awareness and widen the public acceptance of the city’s disabled people.
She wants the audiences to applaud their performance and showing the disabled group a chance to speak for themselves — in real life even after the show.
The show is one of three performances featuring in Todos Fest!, a mini festival held from January 20 to 31. It is hosted under this year’s Macao City Fringe Festival.

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