Drama Box’s “The Lesson”: Rehearsal for Life

By Akanksha Raja

(860 words, 7-minute read)

“By taking possession of the stage, the Spect-Actor is consciously performing a responsible act. The stage is a representation of the reality, a fiction. But the Spect-Actor is not fictional. He exists in the scene and outside of it, in a dual reality. By taking possession of the stage in the fiction of the theatre he acts: not just in the fiction, but also in his social reality. By transforming fiction, he is transformed into himself.” – Augusto Boal

The Lesson was first staged by Drama Box at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015. In essence, it is a participatory theatre experience moulded around the principles of forum theatre: audience empowerment and intervention. But The Lesson is not exactly forum theatre, where audience members may choose to intervene in a narrative of oppression being played out in front of them. It’s an extension of forum theatre where the audience is, by default, a part of the narrative, and every single spectator’s choice matters in determining the outcome. Forum theatre has sometimes been described as “rehearsal for life” and with the imminent demolishment of the iconic Rochor Centre and the closing of Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, The Lesson is apt and timely.

The audience is seated in the round facing a group of 10 non-actors playing residents who represent a fictional town. We are all members of the public in said town where an MRT station is to be built. One of these seven spaces must be evicted: a marshland, a columbarium, a halfway house, a flea market, a wet market, a rental flat, and a cinema catered to foreign workers. The inclusion of the flea market as an option is certainly a nod to the shutting down of Sungei Road; in the 2015 production, it was a hospice. It’s up to the 10 resident representatives to come to a consensus on which space of public interest should give way to the station. The public – we the audience – must then ‘ratify’ their choice through a vote. If the representatives do not come to a consensus, or if there is no clear majority vote (50%) from the public after the consensus, the decision would be transferred to the authorities.

Image: Matthew Wong for Drama Box
Image: Matthew Wong for Drama Box

Refreshingly, everyone in the town is allowed to voice their opinion, not just the representatives. Everyone is to indicate their top two choices for which to preserve, by standing by the signboards to each place, and the bulk of the show constitutes a sharing of our reasons, motives, opinions and perspectives, with people frequently shifting around, wavering between places, and deciding to change their minds, as more insights and viewpoints emerge and contest.

Drama Box situates a microcosm of actual society in Lesson. It therefore realises the intermingling and contesting needs of diverse communities that coexist in a town or in a country – the lower-income, migrants, ex-convicts, even the biodiversity of marshland critters that have no agency of their own. Each performance of this show is unpredictable in process and outcome because audiences are varied. Some shows end in a clear consensus, others don’t: the one I attended ended in a frustrating situation where the decision to evict the columbarium fell short of majority choice by one or two votes. This automatically transferred the final decision to the authorities. Other nights found individuals spoiling their vote in protest of the MRT or the show’s premise itself. In any case, every attendee is given an opportunity to speak, make their case, persuade others, or change their opinion before casting their final vote, in an exercise in transparent democracy.

The session I attended was the first in English of this year’s run of The Lesson. The audience comprised mostly students and working adults. I wonder if the Mandarin sessions might have brought up not just different outcomes but entirely new talking points, especially from long-time residents of Bugis. It did occur to me that this performance was always located in older, long-established neighbourhoods around the central and northeast areas of Singapore. I would’ve liked to watch a show held in the west, perhaps at Jurong, where the estates are newer, and hyper-modern buildings and malls have arisen relatively recently in this once sleepy, flat, industrial landscape of Singapore. How would the attitudes and responses differ?

Image: Matthew Wong for Drama Box
Image: Matthew Wong for Drama Box

The performance was held inside the UFO-like, mobile tentage structure of the GoLi Theatre, stationed for the week at Tan Quee Lan street in Bugis before landing at Toa Payoh and Hougang in the subsequent weeks. This performance setting is in itself a fitting metaphor for the transience of spaces. It’s interesting to have a heated discussion about which space to take down, inside a space that has been built to be repeatedly taken down. It brought to mind a short story I’d read in Dream Storeys by Clara Chow, about a shopping mall that is designed to collapse on itself at a designated point in time – a metaphor for the disposability and obsolescence of products, that defines urban consumer culture. The itinerancy of GoLi emphasises the temporal and ephemeral nature of theatre as an artform, especially the participatory kind presented by Drama Box. It recalls past eras of travelling theatre troupes, also liberating theatre from being situated in and associated strictly with “elite” districts and gentrified neighbourhoods.

The Lesson is an engaging and ever-relevant work that needs to be rerun time and time again. Theatre productions these days try to ostensibly communicate their social relevance, and can sometimes come off as contrived when the focus really is on making a spectacle. Drama Box fills that gap in local theatre, and The Lesson commendably actualises Augusto Boal’s idea of theatre as a space of change, of empowerment, and an active exercise in transforming one’s social reality.


Other responses to The Lesson (2017)

Facebook post by Alfian Sa’at

Facebook post by Kirsten Han

“Review: The Lesson by Drama Box” (bakchormeeboy)

“Lesson on democracy in an inflatable theatre” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)

The Lesson, featuring GoLi, the moving theatre, was presented by Drama Box across three weeks in July 2017. Across three weeks, it travelled to three neighbourhoods in Singapore: Bugis, Toa Payoh and Hougang. Running from Wednesday to Saturday evenings, it was performed in Mandarin and English on alternate shows. For more information, visit Drama Box.

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