Theatre can be a powerful way to spotlight social issues – especially ones that are hard to discuss – and to engage the communities affected by them.

That is why Jun and the Octopus (JATO), a book that explores the sensitive and difficult issue of child sexual abuse, took to the stage in the form of a puppet play in July this year. The aim was to bring even more attention to the issue, and to raise awareness about body boundaries.

Staged by puppetry theatre company, The Finger Players, and commissioned by the Esplanade as part of its Feed Your Imagination season for schools, JATO ran at the Esplanade from 13 to 15 July. Over the three days, it played four shows to a total of over 110 upper primary and tertiary students, as well as teachers and other guests. Each performance was followed by an interactive discussion conducted by applied theatre practitioners and facilitators from Singapore Children’s Society.

Jun and the Octopus began as a picture book written by Goh Eck Kheng and illustrated by Lim An-Ling. It was published by Children’s Society in 2019. 

The book caught the eye of Ms Myra Loke and Ms Ellison Tan, co-artistic directors of The Finger Players, and following discussions with the Society, it was adapted for puppet theatre.

The production was well-received.

Mr Alvin Arvind Jaya Raj, a counsellor at Oasis for Minds Services @ Children’s Society and one of the event’s facilitators, found the performance powerful. “The play brought to life the story of Jun in a visceral and dynamic manner, drawing out the emotions of the audience. The performance reached into our hearts, pulling us to empathise with Jun’s pain along with his struggles to seek support and heal from such traumatic incidents.”

One student was taken with the style of the production, saying that it moved her to tears: “I really liked how the puppets moved so smoothly and the voice of the characters had so much emotion.”

Another welcomed the post-show discussion, saying: “I enjoyed being able to openly share our feelings and talk about this topic. We do not usually get opportunities to have conversations like this.”

The creation of a safe space to discuss the issue was an important element of the entire production, explains Ms Karyn Choo, one of the facilitators and a social worker from Youth Service @ Children’s Society.

“The students pondered over their physical and emotional boundaries, and felt empowered knowing what to do if those boundaries were crossed. We also reassured them that it was okay to say no to anything that made them uncomfortable, and to always tell a trusted adult if they were touched inappropriately,” she says.

Theatre in action: Jun and the Octopus comes to life on stage (Photo credit: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay)

Much care went into the staging of the production, including managing students’ emotions and potential disclosures of sexual abuse incidents. Students were told they could step out at any time and speak to a trained social service practitioner from the Society if they needed to. Facilitators also watched for signs of discomfort among the students, and checked in with them.

Seeing the production come to fruition after almost two years of hard work has been gratifying, says Myra. “This is a really precious and powerful collaborative effort for us, with multiple organisations and individuals coming together to build a world that is safe and caring for young people.”

Behind the artistry: The Jun and the Octopus production cast and crew from The Finger Players, Esplanade staff, and facilitators from Singapore Children’s Society

The book, Jun and the Octopus, is available at Kinokuniya, Woods in the Books, Epigram and Closetful of Books. The book was shortlisted for the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award and the Best Picture Book under the Singapore Book Awards in 2020.

Click here to read the story in Chinese.

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