Claire Teo and Stephanie Esther Fam respond to Not In My Lifetime? by The Finger Players which was staged at Gateway Theatre from 5 – 17 March 2019. Billed as an inclusive theatre experience, it explores the special education system in Singapore through the experiences of the teachers working in the sector. It’s a collaboration between The Finger Players and a team of creatives from diverse backgrounds and experiences in theatre making, and the production aims to cater equally to both non-disabled people and persons with disabilities.
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Podcast Guests and Transcripts
Claire Teo is an actress who aspires to travel the world, creating theatre that gives voice to undermined communities. She is also fascinated by the human mind and behaviour and how everything seems to happen for a reason or none at all.
My initial thoughts about the touch tour was that was very useful in helping me understand the space, understand where everything is. And usually when I go into a theatre, I wouldn’t know how big the space is. I wouldn’t know the dimensions, I wouldn’t know how the stage looks, but because of the touched tour, because of how it was presented (they give us the small model of the stage, of the props, and they used small little icons like the pyramids to represent certain things) I could sort of gauge where everything is, and paint a mental picture for myself. And there was someone speaking all the way through, throughout each [part of] stage set – for example, a ladder, they’ll go up the ladder, and then they’ll speak. So I know how it sounds like from up there, and where they are. And there wasn’t a part of the performance that I was confused. And I thought that it was a very great idea, because some of them did the touch tour blindfolded. It was an option given to us. And I thought that, you know how we always say “inclusive society”? It’s nice that it’s not us being included into their world. But it’s like we’re introducing a new world to them. I think it was a very though provoking piece, and it was generally really enjoyable because the audio description was so helpful in telling us the setting. So I didn’t have to figure out where exactly they were. I didn’t have to see the costumes, because I really wouldn’t know, but because they told us the setting and all those things, it was easy to follow it was I could concentrate on the content and not trying to figure things out.
And why I say it is thought provoking is because – many questions were brought up. Like for me, I would think as a person with disabilities, do I really want to be in the mainstream? Do I want to be in a mainstream school? And also I was in a mainstream school and there are a lot of hardships, a lot of challenges that we face there, things like my friends not understanding how slow I need to take things at times.
But I guess then I think back to my brother, my brother is autistic and he can’t speak. So he’s in a special school. In cases like this, can he still go to a mainstream school, because it’s obvious he won’t cope.
And it’s a great initiative, that they want schools to be more inclusive. And I think the main point is that special school should still be under MOE, but because the content was written in a way – like at the end, the boy was saying he wanted to be in the same school as his sister. Well, I think that’s understandable. I also think sometimes we need to think practically about things. It spurred some conversation within the audience. And once curtain call was over, everyone was just so excited to talk about it. I could hear everyone around me whispering. There was this thing about “Do special education teachers have prior training before? And Is that really necessary?” So there are many questions that came up. And I think it’s a very good starting point for inclusive theatre or theatre for the community.
I guess I believe that community theatre shouldn’t take a stand, but it should start a conversation. They should start dialogues between different communities. And because of that, we can understand each other. There was this other heartwarming scene that the sped teacher was trying to calm one of the students down and she was singing a song because she didn’t know what else to do.
And it brought me back to my brother, because my brother does that sometimes. He cannot control his emotions, and his temper, so he starts to hurt himself. It really hurts me and my mum, because we don’t know what to do. It gets really challenging. If we stop him, he will hurt us. He might scratch us, that’s the last thing we want. Sometimes we shout and scream at him to stop. And we try different ways. But it just doesn’t seem to work. I can relate to that distress and the heartache, because in the end, the boy was kinda — someone had to hold him down. And that just made me think, is that how we have to do things? Is that the only way? Yes, I think it is, by is still hurts, because things like — when my mom brings my brother to the playground, it’s an open space for children to play. But other parents will be shielding the child saying things like “Don’t go near him.” But my brother is normal. He’s just a bit more hyper.
So it brought up the question of what is really normal in today’s society? Do we really have to see things as sped and mainstream? Or…? You know, to me, it’s as simple as a kid needing tuition. You just need more time and effort. So why is it called special education? Why can’t they be, I guess, classified in the same realm? I get why it has to be, because kids need to be in different classes to better learn — as in the teachers will cater to their needs better if they are separated. And yet, when it comes to playgrounds, when it comes to play and not education, common spaces that we interact in Singapore is still quite close-minded.
Yeah, so I thought, although the content was very thought provoking, it made me feel really uncomfortable watching sometimes, but it was a good uncomfortable. I think it was supposed to make me feel that way. Yeah. And like I said, I really liked that everyone had a choice, whether they wanted the the audio description sets. Because then, you know, they get a chance to experience what it’s like. my friend was with me, she really felt it was so interesting to have one. And even for me, that was the first time I ever had an ear-piece going into a show. And it really helped.
(AE: So it’s usually a friend who’s the one who describes this…)
I don’t ask. I don’t ask for description, because I always felt it was interesting to guess for myself, to find out. But then this time, after watching, I felt the ease of it, to get everything so easy. Things were just given to me the setting, everything that they were doing, I didn’t need to guess and ponder over things when the next scene went on, and I could get the play as everyone else would, every other audience member. I wouldn’t be slower. And plus, the other reason why I wouldn’t ask my friend for help, is because I want her to be able to watch the show. I don’t want her to describe it to me. And it may disrupt the other [members of the] audience. Which I don’t want.
It’s going to benefit the mainstream people, I guess, because it educates them about us. Some people go through life, not knowing that there are people who are blind or deaf. I won’t say most, but I will say that our society is quite pampered today and because of that, there’s this kind of emotional distance from things. And we are not understanding or empathising enough with the people around us. But if they are being exposed to these things from young then may be we will know how to better interact with each other.
And also for us disabled people — I loved my time in my mainstream school. I mean, although I had a lot of challenges, it taught me a lot. And because over there, I’m not babied at all, or I’m on my own, I learned things, I learned how to be independent. It’s like being thrown into the sea, and you have to survive. And I think there’s value in that as well. It’s really about what every child can handle. It’s up to the parents what they want the child to go through. But I don’t think there should be a rule on it or a law impoased saying “it has to be this.”
But I do agree that special schools are very expensive, because they are mostly private. Or the government schools are just — they just have such long waiting lists that you can’t get in. My brother has been on the waiting list for two years for one of those schools and he still hasn’t got in yet. And plus, if he actually got into the government school, that is two to three hours of learning per week, which is not enough. You have speech therapy, and occupational therapy, and then you have two to three hours of class, and compared to a private school for his school it’s from nine to three every day, which is definitely much more — he’s learning much more than he will be at a government school. So I definitely feel that the government can do more about this, can be funding more sped schools. And not just the ones that teach the [MOE] syllabus.
(AE: What do you think about the puppetry?)
I felt like it provided a very light and humorous atmosphere for the performance. It was really nice to watch. It was funny and cute. I felt like some of the parts were quite short and I wanted to see more of it. Other than that, I thought it was really quite nice because for such a serious topic, sometimes you need just some relief, and puppetry elements provided that. It was a touch and go kind of thing. Some of the puppets were never repeated… There was another one that was the child at the conference, that was this really really big puppet built with backpacks, that I thought was very effective, because when they drop the puppet to signify them dropping the child, you could hear the the impact it made. It make a significant change in my emotional state.
I felt that the play really educates people and brings others into our world and shows others about what it’s like to be this way and it’s not in a charity way where they’re telling you a sobstory — oh, actually that was the one thing that I didn’t like about the performance. It touched more on what we couldn’t do, the troubles we gave the teachers. It’s more about the teachers than about the students. It’s a lot about how troublesome — not troublesome, but about the inconveniences teachers face when it comes to us. But it didn’t really show much about how even even though we have these situations most of us find a way out. That didn’t really put us in an empowering light. I felt that the visual aids, the touch tour, all these things helped, helped us feel included. And it helped them — that is, the mainstream people — know more about us, but because the play was written this way and it was performed this way. As a person with disability I wonder, is it helping me when I’m when I’m advocating for disability rights?
(AE: So what would have made it better?)
One victory story, whether from a teacher or a student. I mean, if the student has a victory story, then the teacher is considered successful. There was one story but it was very short. It was simple. The student didn’t even know where she lived. But she ended up reciting her address and knowing how to spell it — a small victory. But what about those that achieve more? I think that could have made a very big difference. I really, I really hope that if they were to redo this, then they can give some perspective, shed some light on how the children think, how the students go through the sped system.
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Stephanie Esther Fam is an emerging artist with disability. Her forte lies in public speaking and poetry writing. More recently, she has been undergoing training in theatre-making in order to expand her professional portfolio.
The touch tour was an eye-opening experience. Being a sighted person I’ve never gone without my sight at all. Being blindfolded and having to use my sense of touch was something I’ve never experienced before. I also learnt that for me as a sighted person it takes a while for my brain to process the fact that I don’t have my sight when the blindfold was put on me. I realised during the touch tour I could only touch one object at a time. My brain didn’t understand that all these objects were supposed to be one whole object. As much as it’s a good thing, to let a sighted person experience blindness, it was also nerve-wracking because I really did not know what was happening. And in my case, even if someone tells me to move my fingers anti-clockwise or clockwise, because my brain is not used to processing directions that way, I could not really understand. The touch tour was an experience, but if a person who does not know how to process directions, in a way it’ll be slightly more difficult than expected.
I like that the performance spoke a lot of truth when it came to the special education scene in Singapore. It had different perspectives. It had perspectives of the teachers and indirectly from the students as well. It was a well-rounded play in that sense and I liked the use of puppetry, the use of certain lighting, that transited the audience into different scenes.
What I didn’t like about the play was that I felt there were certain props that were unnecessary after one or two lines said by the actors. And as much as the play tried to explain how life is about climbing ladders – and being a game of snakes and ladders – I think in that respect the props were a bit redundant. Another thing I didn’t like was – I actually asked the playwright this during the Q&A session – I come from a mainstream school. I’m a person with disability but I went through mainstream school all the way. For me, this whole experience of the play, I didn’t get that as a student, because it was a whole different ball game. So I addressed this to the playwright saying that I wish that this play wasn’t just about special education but also about people, basically people with special needs, because special needs has a spectrum. In that respect I felt excluded. Not to say that it wasn’t a good effort or a good play, but I felt excluded on that point.
The use of puppetry was a very innovative way to add more characters to the play instead of using human actors. Of course humans control the puppets, but the puppets bring more life to the children characters especially. So I enjoyed the use of puppetry although personally I’m uncomfortable with puppets.
Maybe it didn’t relate to me directly but two scenes that really hit me. One was when the teacher was talking to the parent of a student and the parent was worrying about the child’s future. That’s what every parent of a disabled child goes through. He or she worries about whether the child will be ok when he or she is not here. I really related to that scene in that way. And the other scene was when the teacher was saying that she has a bond with her student. And I think it’s important for teachers – not just teachers, but people who come into contact with the disabled – to understand that their presence in their lives cannot be just for a moment because when a teacher or a mentor comes into a person’s life, the person models him or herself to become more like the teacher or mentor that he or she is working with. I hope teachers and mentors understand that you have to really get to know the person; sometimes it’s not only about being professional as a teacher, because in order to gain the student’s trust you have to really get to the person’s heart.
To me it means a lot that The Finger Players is doing this play. It’s a small ripple but everything starts with a small ripple I guess. For me nothing is too small or too big, it all contributes to the whole. To start with, a touch tour. How many plays in Singapore have a touch tour? This is the first and possibly the only one that I know. I think that’s a really good thing.
To summarise, they should lessen the use of props and focus on a simple message. Because props sometimes – as much as they engage the audience, they take away from the message.
My last point would be the sound designers and the captioner should not be introduced together with the cast because it takes the audience away from the momentum of the play. I thought the play was starting on the introductions. But because the sound designer and captioner are mostly technical roles, they don’t have to be introduced on stage. To me, even the introductions themselves were just too long. The play should have started after one or two lines of introduction from the main cast.
Not In My Lifetime? Production Photography (by Tuckys Photography)