In the murky realm of politics, do we truly have any say or power? In the grand scheme of things, does our voice get heard at all, or will it simply be lost to the cacophony?
First staged in 2015 as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, Drama Box has brought back their participatory theatre work The Lesson, bigger than ever and running for a whopping three weeks across various venues. Set up in Drama Box’s giant pop-up venue GoLi, The Lesson‘s venue was key to its form as participatory theatre – being held in the open attracts passers-by, generating interest, and the free entry lowers the barriers to entry, encouraging not only frequent theatregoers and patrons of the arts, but also members of the public who might not usually be engaged by theatre.
As for the show itself, The Lesson thrusts audiences into a hypothetical situation where an unnamed estate has been chosen as the site of a new MRT station. But in order to build that station, the government has decided to demolish one of seven important venues, each with their own cultural or social significance. As to which of the seven eventually gets chosen, it’s all up to the audience to cast their vote and make the final decision who goes onto the chopping block.
All around GoLi, Drama Box enacted representations of each of the seven venues, along with a fact sheet about the history and significance of each site so that prior to the show, audiences could examine these sites to make an informed decision and not vote blindly. Each of the enactments, though small, were surprisingly detailed and might well have been cut straight from an actual venue. The cinema, for example, used actual seats from a cinema, while the halfway house, bathed in a cold blue light, was the microcosm of a single life in recovery, a blue guitar on the bed and newspapers strewn on the nightstand. This set-up was very well done, and integral to getting audience members emotionally invested in the scenario, due to how realistic it was, and one imagines that audiences linked each venue to an actual real life location as they walked around, pondering each site’s future. Given enough time and effort, each and every one of these sites even has the potential to become the subject of a full length play.
The Lesson starts off with Drama Box’s facilitators presenting the scenario to the eighty or so audience members, and initially indicating which venue was the favourite to go. A panel of three specialists from various fields were also present to give their take on the potential social impact of demolishing a site and insight into what reasons might factor into making the best decision.
Audiences coming into The Lesson expecting a nice sit-down affair should be forewarned that Drama Box will be having none of that apathy – once The Lesson kicked into full gear, audience members were tasked to physically move to the site they believed least deserved to go, and defend their decision in a makeshift debate. Although slow at first, as more people spoke, audiences became increasingly invested in their choices, and GoLi really began to heat up as passions ran high and people began throwing other venues under the bus. Perhaps owing to the fictitious nature of the scenario, audience members were more willing to speak up, yet speaking with equal verve as if the project had actual, real life stakes. Interestingly, some speakers also naturally fell into dramatic archetypes as the conversation went on, such as environmentalist types defending the marsh, or restating familiar arguments such as the columbarium being ‘a place merely for the dead’.
No matter what they choose to defend though, the ultimate decision still boiled down to the vote. Prior to that though, a pre-selected group of audience members were tasked to play ‘the residents’ of the estate, and engaged in heated discussion, trying to come to a consensus with a unanimous decision as audience members watched and listened to their arguments. Although audience members had previously done an indicative vote to show which site they would have most likely chosen, the residents’ discussion (for our performance) actually managed to sway audience decision, with many of them swinging the vote to side with the residents. For our performance, a final decision was unable to be reached due to a lack of majority vote for any one specific site, and the choice was reassigned back to the relevant authorities. However, should there have been a decision made, Drama Box staff would have rushed onto the scene and forcefully take down the doomed site immediately, complete with the sounds of demolition and dramatic lighting, showing audience members that their choices indeed had an effect.
The Lesson is ripe for dramatic tension and emotions ran high at almost every stage. When Drama Box brought the piece to Rotterdam, a group of audience members even rushed to the chosen site as it was about to be demolished, forming a human shield. Although the same hasn’t happened yet in Singapore, The Lesson remains a powerful piece of participatory theatre that acts as a wake up call to audience members, getting them to realize that they have a part to play in defending their beliefs in real life and that every vote counts.
What The Lesson is then, is a fascinating social experiment examining the way we think and make decisions, as well as the way we interact with others. No matter which site is chosen by whatever means, only a Pyrrhic victory can ultimately be achieved, with certain members of the community facing a loss. One of the most important things about the piece is that facilitators allowed anyone at all to speak, without favouring ‘smarter’ responses. Much like how each site featured in The Lesson has its own purpose and role in the estate, members of the public too have a part to play in the decision making process, and each and every person’s opinion has some form of value. The Lesson reminds us all that we have been blessed with a voice and a vote, and with it comes the responsibility of answering the call to defend what we believe in when the time comes.
Performance attended on 6/7/17. All photos are our own.
The Lesson runs on the following dates at specific venues:
5th – 8th July, 8pm, Open Space beside Tan Quee Lan Street (Bugis)
12th – 15th July, 8pm, Open Space before Blk 127 Toa Payoh Lor 1 (Market)
19th – 22nd July, 8pm, Open Space outside Hougang MRT Exit B (Beside Hougang Mall)\
The Lesson is free, but registration must be done here. Note that performances on Thursdays and Saturdays are in English, while performances on Wednesdays and Fridays are in Mandarin.