Interview with Dr Adelina Ong: A Personal Reflection on Performance and Pursuing Your Own Path

Dr Adelina Ong holds a PhD in Applied Theatre and Performance from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is an applied theatre practitioner and has extensive experience working with youth struggling with mental wellbeing. Currently, her research looks at ways of using interactive place performances to reimagine mental wellbeing for young people. She has held workshops incorporating parkour, graffiti and breakdancing in Singapore, and ultimately aims to use art to spark conversations and explore the ways in which people can live together more compassionately and supportively.

CC: Charlotte Chan, Coolminds Website Project Coordinator

AO: Dr Adelina Ong, Interviewee

CC: After graduating from high school, many young people feel worried about the future. They might be unsure of what to study at university or what career to pick. What led you to pursue the path that you did?

AO: My relatives told me I should be a lawyer, and I thought I would enjoy doing Law at university, but I wasn’t accepted onto the course because my grades weren’t good enough. Actually, I had to retake my high school exams because I didn’t do well enough to get into Law, which I thought I wanted at university. I was very disappointed with myself when I got my first results, but then I thought, ‘This isn’t reflective of what I’m truly capable of’. I’m glad I retook my exam privately as my results were better the second time round.

CC: Say you are keen to pursue a field you love, but face pressures such as competitiveness, peer pressure, academic stress, and a lack of support from those around you. Would you have any tips to share on managing these expectations?

A lot of people will tell you that you should have taken on more internships, or taken on more leadership positions in school for certain extracurricular activities, or signed up for more enrichment classes, or spent more time in private tuition – ignore this. That constant hyper-competitiveness is tiring and can take its toll on your mental wellbeing.  

I would suggest to focus on doing the things that you find meaningful – work towards what challenges you, professionally. At 18, my father brought me to Los Angeles. I accompanied him on a business trip and this was my first long-distance trip overseas. We watched a production of RENT (1997) in Los Angeles that moved me to tears. That’s when I knew that making theatre that can initiate social change was what I wanted to do for the rest of my professional life. At the time, I had just started performing professionally in Singapore. I decided then to pursue a double degree in Psychology and Theatre Studies. Things still might not work out as expected, but this makes life interesting. In my teens, I thought that performing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life but things didn’t work out that way and I grew bored of being typecast. I discovered devising interdisciplinary performances with people in my 20s and in my 30s, I developed a love for research. Now at 40, I’m an early career researcher applying for postdoctoral scholarships. It hasn’t been smooth sailing. I’ve been rejected four times in the last year, but I am determined to continue with the research whilst applying for funding.

It can be very disheartening when those who love you believe that the path you’ve chosen is not the right path for you. To build up your experience in your chosen path such as theatre and performance-making, you can get involved with a local youth theatre group, or gather a group of people who love performing together via social media and meet once a week to create performances. Start at the library – read a range of classic and contemporary plays written by local and international playwrights. Borrow these plays and read them with friends. Improvise different ways of performing the scenes. Put this on YouTube for your family to watch – and keep going till you convince them that you are serious about performance-making. Fighting to do what you love is tough, but know that this struggle is not unique to those in theatre/performance.

CC: You’ve worked with a lot of young people facing mental health difficulties. What are some of the things you’ve learned from this – about mental health, about the stresses young people commonly face, or anything else that surprised you in particular?

AO: I don’t think I’ll ever be done with learning from young people…there is so much to learn about how they envision the future of mental wellbeing, regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition or not. What is clear is that mental wellbeing is not defined by what happens in the individual’s mind. Our political, social and cultural circumstances have great impact on our wellbeing. People tend to use mental wellbeing interchangeably with mental health, but it is possible to experience periods of mental wellbeing whilst living with a mental health condition. As an applied performance practitioner, I tend to focus more on mental wellbeing.

In Singapore, overachievement has become the expected academic norm. In 2015, Singapore ranked first out of 72 countries in the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) in mathematics, reading and science and first out of 57 countries in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science. Yet in the same year, Singapore also ranked highest in PISA 2015’s measure of ‘schoolwork-related anxiety’, ahead of Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. We need to reconsider these social expectations of constant academic overachievement, particularly when these socially validated norms are maintained at the expense of the mental wellbeing of young people.

CC: A big part of your background has been in art and mental health. Often, when people think of “art therapy” they think of visual art, such as mindfulness colouring or painting. Research has shown that theatre and expressive arts can be equally powerful. What are some ways that performance helps to break the stigma of mental health, and can interactive performances help the performer cope with his or her own mental health too?

AO: Performance can bring us into interactions with people who are very different from us. This can offer opportunities to initiate conversations about stigmas. There is generally more acceptance now for mild and moderate mental health struggles, but it is important that we continue to work towards the destigmatisation of mental health conditions at the more debilitating end of the spectrum. Performance can make a persuasive case for the proper resourcing of treatments and create deeper understanding of what it is like to live with severely debilitating mental health conditions.

As an applied performance practitioner, I have used abstract physical movement or dance to identify and work through fears. This can have a therapeutic effect on one’s mental wellbeing but I am more interested in using interactive performance to initiate conversations with the wider public about how we understand mental wellbeing. I am interested in encouraging compassion through devised interactive performances. I enjoy creating conversations between people from different socio-economic, political/ideological and cultural backgrounds that offer an opportunity for people to form different relationships with one another, relationships that speak to a more compassionate understanding of each other and the struggles they face, in place. Participants have often told me that performance brings them out of loneliness into the presence of others and challenges their own preconceptions of what they are capable of.

CC: Singapore and Hong Kong share many similarities in terms of social norms, cultural pressures and expectations, etc. What are some similarities and differences in the way mental health is viewed in these two places? What are some aspects of our cultures that make it hard to speak up about mental health?

AO: A 2017 study conducted by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) in Singapore found that more than half of those interviewed were not willing to live, live nearby or work with a person with a mental health condition. Half believed that persons with mental health conditions should not be given any responsibility and 60% thought that mental health conditions are caused by a lack of self-discipline and willpower. These social attitudes significantly hinder the return to work/school process for people living with mental health conditions and make it difficult to negotiate reasonable accommodations.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, one’s ability to live independently is closely linked to sustained employment, even if one chooses to work as a freelancer. However, workplace cultures can tend towards exploitation in environments that define employee worth solely in terms of their contribution to the company’s economic growth – focusing on profits rather than the people working there. Workplace cultures can also be implicitly discriminatory in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic background, disability and mental health conditions. In a situation where workplace cultures reinforce discriminatory attitudes, it may be necessary to leave employment, rebuild one’s professional identity or develop an alternative professional identity.

Culturally, I suggest that we need to re-evaluate how much our sense of worth is founded on our achievements and professional status and encourage the development of cultures that embrace a more multifaceted understanding of a person’s worth. Our social worth should not be defined by our profession. In terms of cultural attitudes towards education, we need to shift away from social attitudes that define a student’s potential abilities based on their academic grades. We might begin by encouraging employers to look beyond brand name universities and academic achievements.

CC: Going through graduate school can put a lot of pressure on our mental health, as students often have to navigate competitive academic environments alongside other forms of pressure like managing finances and looking for jobs. What advice do you have on how to cope for postgraduate students who are struggling?

AO: Having a peer mentor was incredibly helpful in terms of navigating the academic environment in the UK. My peer mentor helped me identify and connect with support structures that had been put in place to supplement the PhD writing process. In the UK, I also found postgraduate (PG) symposia very useful for exploring new ideas and learning to respond to questions in ways that deepen a collective understanding of a particular subject.

For those writing their thesis, develop a writing circle of five to six friends who will constructively critique your writing. Commit to meeting once a week and sharing early drafts of your writing with one person in this circle. This writing circle will become a place where you can critically reflect on current ideas, analyse and debate controversial issues in the field. When I receive harsh reviews, it is the emotional and psychological support from this circle of friends that enables me to begin the rewrite.

As a PhD candidate, I struggled with self-doubt and shed a lot of tears in my second year and my writing up year. On social media, it can be helpful to unfollow those who claim that they have never struggled. Recognise that education takes the time it takes – regardless of where you’re at in your education journey. While formal education is structured to pressurise students to complete the journey in X years, real learning and conceptual understanding takes the time it takes. This is different for everyone. Be gentle with yourself and strive for understanding. Societal recognition of your academic achievements is ephemeral but no one can take this understanding away from you.

CC: Thank you so much Dr Ong for your time, advice and support!

Editor’s note: It might not be all smooth sailing. If you are struggling, please do not hesitate to seek help.