Lesson on democracy in an inflatable theatre

In The Lesson, the audience has to vote on which landmarks to lose.
In The Lesson, the audience has to vote on which landmarks to lose.PHOTO: MATTHEW WONG FOR DRAMA BOX

REVIEW / THEATRE

THE LESSON

Drama Box

GoLi - The Moving Theatre/ Toa Payoh

Thursday

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It will be a pity if we let this divide us, facilitator Han Xuemei says to the audience-participants at Thursday's performance of The Lesson.

But the lesson here is that democracy does not work through consensus and unanimous agreement. It obeys the will of the majority. It is unfair and yet the fairest system of government.

  • BOOK IT / THE LESSON


    WHERE: Today at open space before Block 127 Lorong 1 Toa Payoh; July 19 to 22 at open space outside Hougang MRT station Exit B (beside Hougang Mall)

    WHEN: 8pm

    ADMISSION: Free, donations are welcome. Register at thelesson.eventbee.com

    INFO: In Mandarin on Wednesday and Friday; in English on Thursday and Saturdays

Drama Box's The Lesson is democracy in a box - rather, in an inflatable hemispherical GoLi theatre transformed into a mini-township.

Seven landmarks are represented by charming sets such as terraria for a marsh or boxes of fruit for a wet market.

One landmark must go to make way for a new MRT station that 80 per cent of the residents want.

The challenge for The Lesson every night is choosing what to lose.

The rules are explained by Han and Drama Box's associate artistic director Koh Hui Ling.

Twelve "residents" must agree as one on which landmark to lose. The audience then votes as well. If the residents' choice does not score a majority vote, the matter is referred back to the authorities.

Experts extol the reasons to preserve each landmark. Science teacher Tan Beng Chiak speaks for the marsh, social worker Yap Ching Wi for a halfway house and a cinema and bilingual writer Wong Chee Meng makes a general appeal for heritage.

Audience-participants vote with their feet and voices. Facilitators remind them to listen, not just air their thoughts. But this seems to go unheard. Arguments over the landmarks become personal.

In the end, there is no clear majority and the facilitators try to dissipate lingering animosity by asking the audience to stay back and converse with one another.

The Lesson shows the necessity and difficulty of achieving consensus in a democracy. It was first staged at the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts in a trilogy about land use titled It Won't Be Too Long. (Last month, the arts festival had another participatory work, Art As Res Publicae, that illustrates similar truths about democracy.)

The Lesson has been restaged in Taiwan and Rotterdam. It will move around Singapore, heading to Hougang next week.

The work is part of Drama Box's ongoing efforts to get people thinking about land, heritage and how to build a community.

One audience member said at the end, no matter what choice people make, they are monsters.

So, is it easier to refer the matter to a faceless authority?

No, given the sighs when no majority was revealed at the end. But this is the other bitter lesson: There are no take-backs in the democratic process.

Not until the next time the audience gets to vote.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2017, with the headline 'Lesson on democracy in an inflatable theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe