A lecture in theatre form on the difficulties of helping those in poverty.
Created by Jean Ng, Li Xie and Kok Heng Leun, The Class Room adapts Drama Box’s similar pre-existing participatory theatre work to teach the audience members of the M1 Peer Pleasure Festival some new lessons on poverty. Taking on the roles of ‘social workers’, audience members are tasked to work on the cases of families receiving benefits from a new governmental scheme to help them out financially, and as social workers, must figure out how best to help them stay on the scheme by removing some of the bureaucratic red tape they must adhere to.
From the moment one enters the Esplanade Annexe Studio, one sees the floor marked out in masking tape, signifying the limited, cramped area of a one-room flat. We are each handed case files and a lanyard, ‘transforming’ each of us into social workers, and we are encouraged to read up on the cases we are assigned before the show begins. As we proceed into the ‘performance’ space, we see a banner hanging from the ceiling, advertising for ‘A Better Life’. This ‘A Better Life’ scheme, we learn, is a brand new scheme to help the poor, as audio advertising for this new scheme plays, a mocking, catchy jingle in the vein of similar government policies, and puts emphasis on the many terms and conditions the scheme comes saddled with. The space itself is made to look like an old-timey, one room flat, filled with old furniture, representing (but never clearly explained) the living situations of each of our cases.
We find our own seats and facilitators Li Xie and Heng Leun begin our social worker ‘meeting’. Each household we’re assigned to comprises of a single parent, at least one teenager and one senior, all already entitled to the scheme. The scheme – which would give each household $800 monthly and employment, is certainly a positive one that helps each household immensely. However, to remain part of the scheme, they are each limited by 4 conditions that must be met before, where if they fail any one condition, would then remove them from the scheme and force them into paying back the entire amount they’ve cumulatively received. Our task then, is to attempt to help them out by removing one of the four conditions to make it easier for each household to qualify for the scheme, and convince at least 80% of the audience to vote for our condition to be removed to proceed with the recommended changes.
Grouped accordingly to each of the three family member types – single parent, teenager or senior we wanted to advocate for and choose the condition to remove that would best benefit each household as a whole, the audience is then split off and tasked to discuss the ‘best condition’ to stand against and call out for being the most unfair. A splinter group option is also available to those who disagreed with all four conditions, or other aspects of the scheme to come together to propose amendments and its processes. They too would also have to secure an 80% majority vote later on if they were to get their way.
Listening to each household explain their own situation over audio, we feel for each and every one of them, hearing how members like the teenager, even the very idea of eating rice with eggs and soya sauce is a luxury, while the elderly suffer from sickness and the single parents work multiple jobs just to keep the family afloat. Based off real life, believable accounts, each clip certainly provokes sympathy in us and makes us want to do our best to help them.
The truth is however, that The Class Room is really a set-up, and the likelihood of success is so low, there is little point in actually arguing, as the removal of a condition requires the entire audience to be in agreement, failing which all four conditions will be retained. In our show in particular, as each group argues for their point, it becomes clear that we’re caught in a deadlock, where no group is willing to budge, whether they choose to abstain from the vote, or chooses to insist on their own position at the expense of helping these people by adhering to a majority vote. We end up in the same position as where we started, and all four conditions remain. One is left to reflect on the gravity of these paper policies and the effect they have on real lives.
Ultimately however, The Class Room results in a work that, while thought-provoking, leaves us only with the realisation that one is often left with limits as to how much one can help, however much we want to. Plagued by our own selfish desires to be ‘right’, the collateral damage sustained doesn’t come to us, but to those whose livelihoods actually depend on the scheme. As ordinary people, we are not the ones in charge of policymaking, and there is little we can do to actually help battle systemic bureaucracy. Can change happen? Certainly, but it really is up to those at the top to be convinced that it needs to, rather than fighting the good fight amongst ourselves instead.
Performance attended 1/8/19 (3pm)
The Class Room played from 1st to 3rd August 2019 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio.
The M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival 2019 runs from 24th July to 4th August 2019 at the Esplanade. For more information and the full programme lineup, visit their website here