This year, I created a short piece with the students of Nan Hua Secondary, entitled The Tragedy of the Elephant. The piece had the structure of a play-within-a-play, and tells the story of a group of students rehearsing for SYF. From there, they start to critically analyse the purpose of theatre and the rehearsal they are undergoing, whether it is for the judges or for themselves, and whether there is a benchmark to determine how excellent a performance is. In the end, the students in the play then began to debate with their teacher about the education and competition system, but alas, the play was eventually not approved of, and the students left the group unhappily.
I think this should be the first time the SYF competition saw a piece which openly criticized the competition. When the work was presented, there were many parties who participated in the debate. There were some who had reservations about the concept of a drama competition; some who were very interested in the debate; some who were also afraid of the message of the script. What was ironic was that what happened in real-life mimicked the scenes within the play. There was some conflict, with regards to different aspects of the production and to different extents, among different stakeholders – the teachers, students, the school, and even with the education ministry. The students aligned themselves into different groups, and started lengthy debates and negotiations about the piece; the teachers and even the education ministryMinistry of Education expressed concerns about the issues which the play brought up and gave advice on what to edit, in terms of the script. As such, whether it is within or beyond the boundaries confines of the play, there were many interesting lessons which were taught and learnt, and it was an experience that was full of dramatic tension.
Different theatre companies or even different theatre practitioners may have their own philosophy when it comes to arts education. Similarly, the school and its students may have different expectations towards arts education as well. For me, the power of such an education lies in the fact that it allows for students to better understand him/herself, the society he/she resides in, as well as his/her relationship with the society itself. And to achieve this, one must have the ability to think independently. Students often lead a herd mentality lifestyle --- they read the same textbook, sit for the same exams, have the same standard answers for their exams, are governed by the same set of disciplinary rules, taught the same values, and perhaps even have the same future awaiting them. In such a uniform and consistent environment, how then do we prevent them from losing their sense of independence, and their skill of questioning? We want to protect such a mentality because we do not want them to be sucked into the banalities of a uniformed society, We want them to be responsible for themselves, and hence by having a clearlearning how to enhance their understanding through of things from consistently questioning, they would then be capable of critiquing the society they reside in as well. Similarly, they will learn that individualswe are meant to be independent, progressing in his/her own right. progressing as an individual, in our own right.
In our rehearsal process, the students themselves faced much pressure from various parties. This allowed them to look at the problem from different angles., and Hhence it became very important for them to formulate their own stand,thoughts and their own methods of working. And as they faced conflicts resulting from their personal convictions clashing with external factors, this is also a lesson for them to understand similarly how an individual can struggle with the overarching hegemony. They then start to learn how to create change through their own actions, and this could be seen to mimic be a a small-scale rebellion. From there, they start to understand that they should not take things for granted, and that things are not immutable. As such, when such a conflict happened, while the students were anxious and furrowing their eyebrows in the face of adversity, I actually felt comforted. In my opinion, the lessons thwey have acquired within these 4 months of rehearsals far supersede those 15 minutes which was the students have spent on stage merely in exchange for a prize.
At the end of the SYF performance, the students were very excited. I, too, could not contain my excitement. And just before I left the students, I said to them, “Do not merely remember the moral lessonswhat the script teaches youI have taught you for the performance;, remember the lessons you have learnt within and beyond the while rehearsing for this playtheatre as well.”
Continue reading on Issue 2 / May 2014:Opening The Door To The Arts