Excellent work by Drama Box in shh. . .

The woman on the right rose to speak: Why isn’t there a marriage counsellor in all this? And as for the grandmother, the woman added, she should have stayed out of it, she shouldn’t have butted in.

The young man on the left raised his hand too.

What’s your view? Kok Heng Leun asked him. Kok is the Artistic Director of Drama Box and was facilitating the feedback and discussion session.

It’s fine for the grandmother to mediate, the young man opined, but she shouldn’t have stepped into the house, thereby involving the children. She should have waited outside till the two parents came home and taken them down to a coffeeshop to talk things over.

Kok invited him to come onto the stage to play the role of the grandmother, taking the story from that point of contention, to illustrate how he would have preferred the grandmother to behave. The young man gamely did so, the stage was turned into a coffeeshop, and he (as grandmother) tried to talk sense to the two other characters, the husband and wife  who were on the verge of divorce.

The audience of 100 – 120 were totally engrossed. It was a simple play, performed in a town square with the barest of props and costumes. The “stage” was merely a carpetted section, “seats” for the audience were mostly rush mats on the ground. But it was one of  the best and most engaging plays I’ve seen in a long time.

Titled “shh. . .”, this forum theatre performance was put up by Artivate, the 12-member youth wing of Drama Box, to mark the group’s 20th anniversary. I was there last Saturday night when this co-production between Drama Box and Artivate was performed in the open square near Bukit Gombak metro station.

Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. Forum Theatre is an art form that combines dramatic theatre with community engagement. It normally involves presenting a short play and then inviting the audience to intervene to steer the narrative. Invariably, that creates debate as to what each character did right or wrong. With luck, it might tap into a collective wisdom as to how best to resolve the dilemma presented by the play.

It allows a community to discuss issues without getting personal, since it involves not anyone they know, but fictitious characters. Depending on how the play is crafted, it creates encounters with characters that people might not otherwise have an opportunity to encounter, and thus create the setting in which people have to deal with the character(s) and the issues they bring. Done well, forum theatre raises awareness of issues, enhances empathy, and generates discussion about solutions.

It is a tremendously civilising mission.

* * * * *

However, for some seven or eight years starting from 1994, the art form was banned. The Singapore government disliked forum theatre because a large part of it was unscripted. That and the way it involved members of the audience speaking up, even coming onto the stage to take the story off on a different trajectory, was too democratic for its taste. It was considered dangerous because the government could not control  the message ultimately left with the audience. The audience creating their own message, formulating their own preferred outcomes, learning that they could take charge to steer events, were considered too subversive to permit.

Even this performance tour met with resistance, as recounted in the earlier post Drama of boxed thinking. Originally, as Kok explained in the flyer handed out, the idea was for three very short plays touching on social silence — the way we are not allowed, or we do not know how to speak about certain issues. The original plan…

deals with the impact of censorship on Choice, Belief and Curiosity through 3 short plays:

• The Lift: Exploring how a homosexual character growing up in the 60s and 70s feared his own identity because the topic was such a taboo in the society he was in.

• Believe It Or Not: Exploring how the fear of talking and sharing about religion drove one of the characters to self-radicalization.

• Love Education: Exploring how young people in our society today turn to the internet to satisfy their curiosity about sex when information is not available through other media.

The Media Development Authority, our state censors, would not permit them to do these plays in an open square. They had to find a indoor location and control who enters and who does not.

Kok told the audience by way of introduction: We have never performed indoors before and we are not going to start now.

And so five months of work and rehearsals went down the drain. With only two weeks left to the scheduled dates, Drama Box and Artivate had to come up with a whole new play. They chose to stick with the theme of silence and the hurt that results.

* * * * *

The one that was finally performed was about a couple whose marriage was on the rocks. They quarrelled just about every night but their failure to communicate with each other also extended to others in the family. Their two daughters, aged 10/11 and 12/13 were under severe stress, overhearing the quarrels with words like “divorce” thrown about but not getting any reassurances or even explanation from their parents. The grandmother too was anxious, fearing that the couple would finally decide to call it quits, and trying to get updates via the children.

Compounding the problem was that neither of the parents wanted responsibility for the children for reasons of their own. The failure to resolve this question probably lay at the heart of the failure to communicate; the parents could not decide what to say to the girls. Meanwhile, there was bad company in the form of the older daughter’s friend, who suggested that one way of getting attention from parents was to threaten to commit suicide.

It was a powerful storyline, delivered in a few deft strokes.

I looked at the faces of the audience. They were frozen in anticipation.

* * * * *

Particularly praiseworthy were the six young actors. Their ability to communicate with speech, gestures and silence was impressive. Even more impressive was their ability to switch in and out of character during the audience participation section. For example, when the young man came onto stage to take over the part of the grandmother and tried to mediate between the two quarrelling parents, he met with continued resistance and antagonism by the couple, totally in line with the characters as drawn, even though this part was unscripted.

Likewise when another participant from the audience took to the stage. She had raised her hand and criticised the way the father acted towards the girls.

“How would you have played the father?”  Kok asked her. “Show us.”

She did, only to be confronted by a deep well of anguish and a torrent of hurt, delivered by the two actors who played the parts of the daughters. Impromptu. Unscripted, unrehearsed again. Brilliant, I thought.

Kudos to the entire team. We should have more of such work. And less of the state attempting to tell us what we should hear, what we should know, what we should feel.

* * * * *

There will be two more performances of “shh. . . ” this weekend.

On Friday, 10 September, they will be at Marine Parade Central, beside the McDonald’s restaurant.

On Saturday, 11 September, they will be at Toa Payoh Central just outside the library.

The program states that it’s 7 pm to 10 pm, but more likely they only start at 7:30, since they need to spend some time adjusting their lighting after sunset. Feel free to take with you some snacks or even your take-out dinner.

It is free and the play is performed in Mandarin, with English surtitles. More information on their website. Go.

12 Responses to “Excellent work by Drama Box in shh. . .”

  1. 1 andrewcm 7 September 2010 at 22:53

    i will definitely take time to watch this. it sounds interesting.

  2. 2 souklan 8 September 2010 at 11:27

    This sounded great and well worth going to until I read the last line that the performance is in Mandarin.

    I’m guessing the unscripted parts with audience participation (the real point of such performances) are also in Mandarin?

    If so, a community outreach project that excludes many parts of the community wouldn’t be very successful.

  3. 3 shengz 8 September 2010 at 13:07

    Kudos to Kok and his team of actors. Brilliant idea and concept – it provides a much needed outlet for our gagged abnd control citizenry.

    Sad to see that the State authorities continue to operate in mind control perspective. The key operative seems to be – only the govt are allowd to hink – the rest of the country must just obey and follow the rules. Any door that opens the mind and allow the floourish of idea is too dangerous and too difficult to manage.

    So sad… “shh shh… I can hear you thinking now – Stop it of I will stop you”

  4. 4 yawningbread 8 September 2010 at 13:08

    At the beginning, Kok Heng Leun asked the audience if anyone needed translation. No one did and so the rest of the evening proceeded entirely in mandarin. I agree, it is problematic, esp as the offer was not repeated for people who arrived later. I saw some non-Chinese stop by and stand at the back but after 5 minutes hearing no translation whatsoever, walked off.

    On the other hand, I can also see how disruptive it may be to the interactive flow if every sentence has to be stopped and translated. I’m not sure what the ideal solution is.

    • 5 souklan 8 September 2010 at 13:25

      Surely the performance should be conducted in the language which most people can communicate in to some extent (even if they’re not totally fluent) – ie, English.

      Why choose to conduct a community outreach performance in a language which vast numbers of people either don’t speak AT ALL or can just about get by in?

    • 6 Vernon Voon 8 September 2010 at 17:32

      Have it in English.

      • 7 KiWeTO 9 September 2010 at 00:09


        sitting in a neighbourhood hawker centre and listening to conversations around one would pretty much tell us English-rooted thinkers that the lingua franca in the heartlands is still NOT English.

        And from what I can gather from their website, DramaBox is Mandarin-thinking in nature. Not that they cannot do things in English, but it would seem that their primary outreach is to the greater masses (who do not tune in to Channel5) that use Mandarin as lingua franca.

        I just wonder how my rusty Mandarin will hold up watching/participating in it, being primarily English-rooted in thought..

        Are there any rules against recording such performances for youtube posterity? Perhaps philosophical contemplations on big brother therefore inhibiting audience participation?

        How do outreach of “modern” ideas extend beyond a performance?


  5. 8 prettyplace 8 September 2010 at 13:28

    Sounds fun,
    Best Wishes.

  6. 9 Jiaying 8 September 2010 at 15:39

    Thanks Alex for such a great review 🙂

    Souklan: Yes, the performance is in Mandarin, with English subtitles. While the audience participation is mostly in Mandarin, we have staff who can help to translate what’s going on on stage.

    Please do not hesitate to look for one of us should you decide to join us and would like us to translate the dialogues for you. 🙂

    Hope to see you there! 😀

    Drama Box
    Company Manager

  7. 10 yawningbread 9 September 2010 at 09:09

    I’m with KiWeTo on this, I think Chinese is still the most common language in the heartlands. Also, for many families, discussing domestic issues like divorce probably feels more “natural” in the domestic language, which is Chinese again.

    And one should recognise that Drama Box is intended as a Chinese theatre company.

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for English-language community theatre. The Necessary Stage is one that comes to mind immediately.

  8. 11 Becca D'Bus 10 September 2010 at 04:15


    I didn’t see the show, nor will I, but I have done a bit of work with Forum Theatre, albeit not in Singapore.

    The “modern ideas” move out beyond the audience through the audience. One of the basic ideas in Forum Theatre is that the performance is a rehearsal for life, so by intervening in the performance, audiences rehearse intervening in real life.

    Therefore, video and youtube, while a way to have more people see the work may not be an effective way for people to experience it and some might argue (the people I worked with would) that it might harm the work.

    I have mixed feeling about Forum Theatre and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in its entirety, but from Yawningbread’s description of the evening, the work appears to have been effective.

  9. 12 Paul 10 September 2010 at 13:34

    Just a quick note to say that Dramabox does not always perform in Mandarin. Their previous performance, ‘Trick or Threat’, was a multi-lingual performance which was faciliated by Heng Leun and Alin Mosbit in English, Mandarin (and other dialects) and Malay.

    So I don’t think the company is blind to the linguistic dynamics of their performances – I guess it changes depending on who is involved and who they are aiming at.

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