Listen: Trick or Threat was one of the most important productions of 2007. Not convinced? That's probably because you missed it - it showed for one night only, way out of the arts and entertainment district, with little advertisement, for free, eclipsed by bigger shows like King Lear and Happy Endings: Asian Boys Volume III.
Maybe you'd heard about it in the news, though - how Drama Box, a Chinese-language theatre group with a focus on social theatre, had decided to use the once-banned genre of forum theatre to discuss issues of racism and terrorism in Singapore. Maybe you'd heard how a nervous MDA refused them a licence the day before opening, citing concerns with the plan to stage the play outdoors, in an open-air space beside a Woodlands shopping mall. (Fortunately enough, Drama Box was able to compromise by having the play staged inside an enclosed tent.)
Censorship from the authorities is usually a sign that something good is going down. But maybe you'd seen other productions of forum theatre - the milquetoast, preachy Seven-Month Itch, for example - and decided that this show couldn't possibly be all that good.
Well, you were wrong. As I waited in the crowd outside the white tentage, I could tell that this wouldn't be your average pantomime. For starters, a good lot of the audience had obviously wandered over out of curiosity - they were the kind of people who'd never pay money watch plays, but they didn't mind a free one on their doorstep - a demographic of grandmas and children more than fellow yuppies and artfarts.
As we filed in (seating capacity max 150), and seated ourselves on the straw mats, volunteers distributed complimentary cups of herbal tea and - get this - clappers - bright plastic noisemakers. Over a malfunctioning PA system, facilitators Kok Heng Leun and Alin Mosbit introduced the premise of the show, leading the audience in simple warm-ups and translating everything into Mandarin, English and Malay.
Then the show began. The action takes place in an MRT cabin, where a silent Malay man in traditional Muslim dress sits with a large black bag, reading the Malay newspaper classifieds. Two co-workers enter: a Chinese woman named Mrs Lim and a young Malay man called Faizel, who tells her he believes she's advancing in the company faster than he is because of racism - a suggestion she refuses to take seriously. A young couple get on the train: a Chinese boy, David, and his Indian girlfriend, Shanti, who tells him his mother is racist - an idea that he also denies.
The train stalls. David receives an SMS describing a bomb threat on the MRT. The characters begin to suspect the man in Muslim garb of being a terrorist; when he refuses to open his bag for reasons of privacy, they panic and call in the police to arrest him.
This is a pretty simple sketch - no strain at all for the actors. A nice mix of camp (the opening is a boogie routine) and psychological realism - very accessible and entertaining, but nothing really revolutionary for the stage.
But what made Trick or Threat so important is that it was not performed on a stage - when you're at a public venue with a crowd of non-theatregoers, you don't get a hoity-toity sense of aesthetic distance; here, it's safe to laugh your ass off and clap till your hands hurt. There was a sense of jovial, noisy togetherness at the event; the uninhibited circus atmosphere of getai or National Day Parades or football matches that I'd call "re nao" in Mandarin or "sanuk" in Thai but can't find an English word to describe.
What's more, being in public, all those unsayable things we say all the time in theatre suddenly became dangerously unsayable once more. References to racism were taboo again - when Shanti described David's mother spraying air freshener into every room to remove her Indian smell, there was a little discomfort to our laughter, because yes, we've been there before.
So there was a palpable sense of danger when we began the second half, inviting viewers to intervene by replacing actors in the sketch. We weren't a seasoned audience of sophists - we were a cross-section of the Singapore public, and there was no telling what rules we might break on stage, no way of knowing how we'd react as a crowd to the action. The game highlighted the awkwardness of empathy - a male Malay youth, replacing the character of Shanti, had to engage in ethnic and sexual drag, putting on her bindi and carrying her glittering handbag - but this very act of forcing ourselves out of our comfort zones bred truly exciting theatre.
Some viewers seemed unsure of the rules of drama - they defended the man in Muslim dress relentlessly, without considering that the character they were now playing wouldn't know if he was a terrorist. But in general, there was a power to the event born from the fact that we were not acting - we were genuinely struggling to cope with the supposedly absent racism of our society.
Forum theatre has actually been used to discuss racism before, way back in 1993, with The Necessary Stage's production of Mixed Blessings (restaged in 2000 and 2004), where audience members tried and prevent a mixed-race couple from splitting up under societal and familial pressure. But this - as well as pretty much every other Singapore performance of forum theatre I can think of - stayed in pretty safe territory: preventing spousal abuse in MCP, HIV infection in Seven-Month Itch, and teen sex in Dreaming Up a Prince (where it was hardly on the table whether or not teen sex was even a bad thing to begin with).
Trick or Threat, however, actually goes so far as to critique the atmosphere of paranoia that's emerged since 9/11 - partly due to the government's aggressive public education campaign against unattended luggage - and how that paranoia easily leads into racism and religious phobia against Malays and conservative Muslims. No wonder the MDA got antsy: Drama Box is taking the vital, sensitive issues of today and discussing them openly with the heartland* mall community, respecting these people enough to let them speak for themselves on stage.
Lest readers believe that the company was actively trying to incite a riot, I'll have to mention the exceeding care that the facilitators took to be inclusive to everyone in the audience. Besides the simultaneous translations, Kok and Alin actively sought to ask volunteer audience members how they could personally solve problems of racism. At one point, where a Chinese girl in a miniskirt prepared to play the man in Muslim clothing, Kok took the trouble to ask the Muslim section of the crowd if it would be offensive for her to wear his songkok. This was a production that went out of its way to be culturally sensitive and inclusive - almost utopically Singaporean in its struggle to achieve a working multiculturalism.
Drama Box should be restaging this play in the near future, in other neighbourhoods of Singapore. Hopefully, it'll be able to retain its integrity as a free outdoor performance, accessible and inviting to people who don't visit the Esplanade, to people who don't read Inkpot - we've become used to the conventions of the stage, blasé about the political ideas it explores. Perhaps we need a shock to our system by going beyond the secure circles of the literati. Perhaps it's only when you venture beyond the glass bubble of the arts community that theatre can have real power.
*The author is aware that this text reifies the artificial binaries of "cosmopolitan" and "heartlander" as dictated by hegemonic media systems and apologises for his failure to discover a less counter-revolutionary rubric to voice his thesis.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /