Schooled by Singapore Youth Theatre: Teens Tell It Like It Is

Azura Farid reviews Schooled, the play about the concerns of young people devised by the inaugural batch of the Singapore Youth Theatre ensemble, Wild Rice's educational programme for youths aged 13-17 years old. The piece was first staged in 2020, and puts youths centrestage to be listened to by the adults, for once.

As I take my seat for Schooled, the house music – Talkin’ Bout a Revolution, Imagine, Give Peace a Chance – primes me for an afternoon of socially engaged theatre.

Directed by Thomas Lim and originally performed in December 2020, Schooled was devised by the first cohort of Wild Rice’s Singapore Youth Theatre, a programme for 13- to 17-year-olds to train in acting, writing and devising.

Through 10 episodic scenes framed as lessons, Schooled addresses issues that the creators are passionate about, starting with a rousing performance of Greta Thunberg’s famous speech about climate change, which was apparently the inspiration for this play.

One thread running through Schooled is an indictment of an education system that fails its students and strips well-meaning teachers of their agency: Erin Chen plays Ms Lim, a new teacher who chafes against following the pre-written slides for a sex education class, but still has to deflect questions about gay sex or reducing ‘sexual urges’. Powerpoint slides are used to great comedic effect, with ‘ABSTINENCE’ appearing in larger and larger fonts, and finally in rainbow WordArt, specially for LGBT teenagers.

Other scenes which make a point with humour are based on delightfully weird ideas, like Kiasu! Level Up (a game of one-upmanship where mothers pit their sons against each other) and a deliberately corny Racial Harmony Day lip-sync medley (which transforms the ‘gong lady’ through the power of racial harmony). Erin Chen and Evangel Yeo display particularly good comic timing in their grown-up roles.

Veteran designer Wong Chee Wai’s set features a grid on the floor, suggesting the feeling of being boxed in, and Theresa Chan’s costumes convey each character clearly, from a buttoned-up principal’s grey skirt suit to a game commentator’s sparkly gold tailcoat.

In dealing with the issues at hand, some scenes walk a fine line between being didactic and also completely sincere – a ‘Linguistics lesson’ between a teenager and her grandmother features a straightforward and heartfelt explanation of the hurt caused by racial slurs and colloquial use of the term ‘OCD’, while showing the potentially painful costs of speaking up to our elders.

Later on, a school assignment to write an apology letter from the perspective of a sexual harasser at NUS seems to contradict points made previously – if earlier scenes show that discussing ‘sensitive’ topics can cost teachers their jobs, why would an authoritarian teacher (played by Elizabeth Rei Ando) choose such a ‘risky’ subject if her priority is mainly to drill her students in the precise format of such a letter? If the intention was to show another side to her character, the effect was unclear.

It’s notable that most of the adult characters are caricatures (wealthy mothers pushing their sons for their own egos’ sake, cartoonishly heartless or brainwashed teachers) – an artistic choice about characterisation, an outlet for the creators’ feelings about authority figures, or both?

Courtesy of Wild Rice

In any case, teenagers who buy into the status quo are caricatured too – when students protest that the sex education class has no useful information, one punchline is that they’d rather use the time to study. During a visualisation exercise in meditation class, some students picture their conventional futures (university, heterosexual marriage, multiple children) with a hilarious level of specificity.

However, the laughs subside as the exercise develops into the most moving scene in the play, when Gary (Björn Haakenson) visualises freedom. As Gary imagines marrying his boyfriend in a beautifully poetic monologue, the class falls away and he swaps his school uniform for a tuxedo. A jacket on a hanger stands in for his groom, and the tender image of Gary embracing the jacket moves me to tears. I wonder if Schooled will end on this note, because how do you move on from a moment like that?

But the final lesson is about History. We’re in 2065, recounting issues that were resolved “in the past”, after 2022: the climate crisis, patriarchy, stigma around mental illness, the uncaring education system. They also mention “what Parliament looks like now” (possibly meaning more opposition MPs and/or more diverse demographics), the 2023 repeal of Section 377A and the introduction of anti-discrimination laws.

It’s interesting to see what boundaries they’ve put on their imagined 2065: someone admits, “sure, there are still countries, conflicts and borders”, but there is no more war. Is this a conscious effort to temper their utopian wishes with a bit of realism, or an unconscious acceptance of the continued existence of national borders and the violence that comes with them? After all, in this future, “everything is as we meant it to be”. 

Schooled ends with another powerful image: amidst a sea of placards, the last one to be held up is a smiley face

Did I get schooled by Schooled? Perhaps not as much as another (older?) audience member might have been – I’m a younger millennial, and the issues covered are ones that I’m aware of and concerned about. But it’s inspiring to see young theatremakers bravely speaking their hopes into the world, and there’s immense value in a theatre training environment that encourages young people to speak up without the self-censorship that’s endemic to life in Singapore.

Schooled by Wild Rice ran from 17-20 March 2022 at Wild Rice @ Funan.

About the author(s)

Azura Farid is an arts manager and practitioner with a background in theatre and music. Recent works include projects with The Second Breakfast Company, Mediacorp, Bored Whale Theatre and The Opera People. Azura is a member of Playwrights Commune and a graduate of King's College London’s Music/Liberal Arts course and Wild Rice’s Young & Wild programme.

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