The Games People Play
Trick Or Threat is a forum theatre performance which means that it is a presentation in two halves: first, the company stages a short play (called the anti-model); this is then repeated but with members of the audience now being invited to go onstage to replace the actors and demonstrate how they would intervene to handle the conflicts in the narrative.
Inkpot writer Ng Yi-Sheng was most impressed by the July 2007 run of Threat which he saw when it was staged in a large tent outside Woodlands Civic Centre as a piece of community theatre. He wrote then about how he hoped that the play would always "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 the Inkpot".
Yet, here it was in December, being staged at the Substation for around $20 per ticket and without the malfunctioning PA system, straw mats or free plastic noisemakers so lovingly described in my colleague's review. The audience may have still been a relatively low-key crowd of students, teachers and even the odd group of tourists but they were, no doubt, much more knowing than the "grandmas and children" who "had obviously wandered over out of curiosity" for the April run.
What would the experience be like in this different context? As it turns out, not very different at all. I experienced much the same responses to the play as my fellow reviewer: I felt a powerful sense of something live and organic being created, something that was unpredictable and, therefore, exhilarating, almost dangerous. Interactive theatre as a platform to advocate for social change is still uncommon on the Singapore stage (and, indeed, even in many parts of the world today) and, here, it was being used to confront our country's most sensitive issue. The story of five Singaporeans of different races trapped on an MRT when it stops suddenly amidst rumours of a bomb threat is used to discuss racism as it exists in Singapore both explicitly and subtly. One of the passengers is under suspicion by the others just because he looks stereotypically Muslim, reflecting the paranoia that has resulted from our blinkered view of terrorism, but everyday interactions between people of different races are also explored in the form of a mixed-race couple trying to work out their differences and a Malay professional who is frustrated that his Chinese co-worker persists in speaking to their boss in Mandarin. My companion, an American arts education professor visiting Singapore for the first time, marveled at how candidly and openly such controversial topics were being discussed through the arts and, indeed, I felt Threat compares favourably to The Necessary Stage's Mixed Blessings in 2000 and 2004 (which also discussed racism through interactive theatre) because of Threat's blunter and more aggressive tone, necessary considering the greater urgency and complexity of the problem today.
Forum theatre is a guilty pleasure because however jaded you may be, there is something about a person stepping out of their comfort zone and acting onstage in front of an audience, possibly for the first time ever, that is always simultaneously inspiring and amusingly cringeworthy. On a more serious note, it is also fascinating to see how different people respond to the situations presented in the anti-model and I was fortunate to have attended the show that particular afternoon because the audience was an extremely diverse group. We had contributions from middle-aged adults and school-going children and also from audience members who hailed from a variety of countries: Singapore, China, Germany and Macau. Some of the interventions offered were frustratingly futile or even stillborn because of the volunteers' naivety or because nuances in the anti-model had been lost due to the specifically Singaporean context and the use of Singlish. However, this actually brought out the poignancy of the situation and the lessons to be learnt since this was, after all, a play about the clash of cultures and the dangers of miscommunication because of language barriers and the misinterpretation of cross-ethnic cues. It was also simply quite beautiful to hear the symphony of different accents and languages being tossed around onstage - a truly Singaporean experience that I was proud to share with my companion!
While I did not think the actors were particularly challenged in the interactive phase of the production for me to wax lyrical about say, their deft skill at improvisation, I do want to give credit to all five actors for their engaging performances in the anti-model. Rei Poh, in particular, stood out because of his clear passion for performing - you want to watch him because you can see he wants to be watched. Because of his ease onstage, his comic character's antics are genuinely funny while his dramatic moments come across as heartfelt. I also enjoyed Muhammad Najib Bin Soiman's somber performance as the man on the MRT who is wrongly accused. He carried himself with a heaviness that suited the part perfectly. Praise also goes to the co-directors, playwrights and facilitators Kok Heng Leun and Aidli Alin Mosbit. The anti-model, with its well-judged mix of comedy, drama and danger - there is even a dance number! - could have stood on its own: it is light on its feet but still packs a punch when necessary, even if it is in the form of a sly dig. Hands up how many of you noticed that all the characters and not just the accused man were carrying a black bag, a play on the relentless public service messages telling us to be wary about the "black bag" left behind on MRTs and buses.
While it did eventually become rather tedious to have a string of interventions
fail, one after another, (and to be fair, I felt that the facilitators
could have done more to alleviate this, for example, by explaining the
rules of forum theatre in advance more clearly to the audience), I nonetheless
accepted it as part of what Threat was all about: the production
was not actually striving to arrive at any answers but, quite the opposite,
was aiming instead to illustrate the complexity and insolubility (on
a grand scale) of the race situation in Singapore so as to make us even
more conscious of the importance of our everyday words and actions.
While the primary purpose of an anti-model is simply to set up the situations for audience intervention in the forum theatre phase, I felt that the one presented in Trick or Threat - involving five passengers of different races stuck on an MRT train with the threat of a bomb scare looming over their heads - was certainly able to stand on its own as well. This 30-minute sequence was engaging - at times, incredibly funny - and featured nicely rounded, earthy performances from an immensely likeable cast. Even before the interactive component that was to come, very interesting points about paranoia and prejudice (in the specific context of race) were already being made in the anti-model. The endless stream of volunteers to subsequently offer suggestions for interventions is evidence of how the production had captured the audience's imagination. I was particularly fortunate to have watched the play this afternoon because the wonderful symphony of Singapore languages, accents and ethnicities in the play was enriched by the different perspectives provided by audience members who hailed from a diversity of cultures (e.g. Singapore, Germany, China, Macau).
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /