Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Dream School by Emergency Stairs and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Oversimplification of problems in arts education makes this less of a forum than it is another angry shout into the void against the system.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Li Xie)5
Script (Devised by Li Xie and Cast)5
Performance 7
Lighting Design (David Li)7
Total24/40 (60%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Presented as part of Emergency Stairs and NAFA’s Industry Project 2022, which questions the nature of art as a discipline in relation to the upcoming University of the Arts in 2024, Dream School is a new, original Mandarin work directed by Li Xie and performed by the NAFA Diploma in Theatre (Mandarin Drama) Year 3 students.

Dream School is anchored by a central narrative of an arts school taking in a new batch of students. From the beginning, the school is plagued by systemic issues; with teachers promising students a surefire entry due to their alma mater’s prestige, even the audition process becomes botched and biased, with students with no acting capability being given an automatic pass, resulting in a subpar batch of entitled students with no motivation and no talent to succeed.

During classes, even more problems arise. Teachers face issues of creative restriction, where they are chastised for teaching more conceptual ways of thinking out of the box, while students blatantly bully other students into cheating for them during exams. All this while the rest of the staff either give up trying to change anything, or the students dare not raise the issue, over apprehension that their legitimate complaints will simply go unheard.

While it is positioned as a forum theatre piece, Dream School actually offers far fewer opportunities for audience members to participate than its form might imply, perhaps because of how much training it requires of performers to actually master the interactions between audiences. But even in the few instances where we do get to speak, those too are limited to one to one call and response type interactions, such as when we are asked if the students should band together to speak to the school leaders. These are often dead-end questions that do not affect the narrative, and leave us feeling like whatever our opinions are, they ultimately do not matter in the face of higher powers who have their own wants set in stone, and plays in to the belief in a rigid, unchangeable, broken system.

At the same time, Dream School feels limited in that it only ever seems to consider the student and teacher point of view, without really diving into those that perpetuate such systems and an even greater, sinister even, force that drives these problems into motion. As a result of this, alongside the limited interactions, it often feels like there is little conversation that is actually happening between the aggrieved parties, and a lack of transparency and communication that lead to further grievances, unable to reach a satisfactory consensus. The argument that Dream School is making is sound, but lacking in nuance, making it feel like a small part of a greater whole that we haven’t fully understood by the end of the production.

That is not to say that Dream School does not feature good performers. Woven between the main school storyline is a secondary, seemingly unrelated myth about a group of people watching their village go up in flames, both literally and metaphorically, and it is here that the ensemble get to show off some of their more interpretive character work, with David Li’s dynamic lighting providing some dramatic backdrops for them to work with. This may distract and often feel only tangentially related to the main storyline, but does give the performers a degree of range onstage, compared to the more realistic (if exaggerated) characters they play in the school narrative.

Still, in spite of its problems and how it does seem to harp on already familiar ground, through Dream School, Li Xie does manage to make it clear that there are inherent, pre-existing problems in school systems that hold students back from achieving their full potential, primarily in both the administration and pedagogy. There is clear frustration behind the system and structures in place, and a degree of resignation over the impossibility of immediate change.

As we hear voiceovers of the students expressing what changes they want to see, and with the advent of a new arts institution, there exists a smidge of hope that this school may indeed build itself on rules and values to avoid such problems. Knowing that the system itself has not changed however, and those in power remain unconvinced or deaf to these problems, and we wonder if such an ideal school will continue to remain a dream for now, and long into the future.

Dream School ran from 17th to 20th November 2022 at the NAFA Studio Theatre. More information about the work and cast here

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