Reflecting Critically on Yale-NUS Theatre
story | Loh Jia Tyan, Guest Contributor
Theater performances at Yale-NUS College are deliberately made accessible—tickets are priced very affordably between two dollars and five dollars, and performances are held at locations barely a five-minute walk away from students’ rooms. Here, the stakes for the audience are much lower than those who pay much more to watch a professional company put on a show. How much then, do Yale-NUS audiences expect to get in return from the shows they watch in school?
Within the small community of Yale-NUS, students tend to attend many campus performances to show support for their friends. Some have told me that seeking out “quality” productions may be of secondary or even negligible importance to them. But what does it then mean to have a less discerning or demanding audience? Should we as creators then be content with producing shows just to satisfy the bare minimum the audience demands?
Sometimes, audiences with less experience with theater may not be sure what to look for with respect to what measures the quality of a production. They are then less likely to engage with the productions they’ve watched as they feel unable to make comments on the show due their lack of experience in the realm of theater.
Does it then rest on the creators to show the audience what makes a meaningful, quality production by handling every element of our show with care and respect? Just because certain elements of a production may be overlooked by a less critical audience, doesn’t mean that we as creators should forgo our responsibility to create the best possible version of the shows we stage.
For example, in a school with a hugely diverse student population such as Yale-NUS, it may hypothetically be worrying to hear of a production with an entirely Chinese cast. Yet, this has happened without public uproar, in the Yale–NUS College Repertory Theatre Company (aside)’s recent staging of Boom.
Since a majority of our college’s population and thus the audience is largely made up of middle-class Chinese Singaporeans, they may not personally find it strange or concerning to have a completely Chinese Singaporean cast. But just because this is a Chinese-centric story doesn’t necessarily mean that the cast has to be entirely Chinese.
Hamlet did an excellent job with cast diversity, even though it was set in Denmark. In a space where we are already prepared to suspend our disbelief, it shouldn’t be jarring for the audience to see different members of a family being played by actors of different races. Cast diversity is a realistic goal that we should strive for within the space of theater in Yale-NUS.
As a community of learning, I think it crucial for audiences to be able to reflect on the shows they watch on campus as well. In our Common Curriculum, even the most inexperienced students are taught how to critically evaluate literary works. It makes sense then to believe in the larger Yale-NUS community’s ability to apply the critical thinking skills we have been equipped with, and take them out of the classroom to be applied to events such as staged productions that they watch.
I don’t mean to suggest affirmative action in our casting, or a need to make productions entirely watertight in order to fix problems like these. Flaws or missed spots are only to be expected in productions run by students who are juggling dozens of other commitments. These students are giving precious hours of their time during school semesters that are already extremely rigorous in order to present us with their heartfelt performances. It is also unavoidable that there are various factors that limit each production, such as responses to the open calls released every semester and each participant’s level of experience. However, we can and should still strive to put up the best show within our means in order to honor the scripts we stage and the audience we are presenting them to.
Those involved in staging shows in our school should be more aware of what their productions can do and say for their audiences. Directors should take the time and effort to identify problems and transcend the constraints of the original script in order to present a better rendition of the original production, whether this is through intentionally casting in a diverse manner or reframing certain themes. As creators, we have to understand that our art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and thus take care of how things are presented to our audience today.
It is essential that we take on the responsibility of being mindful of gaps or flaws in things like the scripts we are choosing to stage, and to then handle these elements sensitively. Just because some scripts are written in certain restrictive manners doesn’t mean we should just take them as is.
We can’t and shouldn’t demand for an audience to be skilled in watching and critiquing theater, or for them to come in expecting professional-level performances, as that is neither fair to the audience nor the theater community in Yale-NUS. To me, it’s more of a matter of grooming an audience that is more willing to handle the art they are shown with a more critical and questioning mindset, in conjunction with creators that handle their work responsibly and conscientiously.
While Yale-NUS is still a space for experimentation and growth where directors and actors should feel able to take on productions as a learning experiences for themselves, we have to recognize the fact that productions are able to do something for the audience. Creators need to realize that they hold the power of being able to show the audience that they have a stake in these productions by being more inclusive, as well as reminding the audience of their ability to be critical about these productions in public and in private. This responsibility can only be taken up when creators acknowledge that they are accountable for the messages they put out, whether these messages are intentional or not.
Whatever we portray on our stage may contribute in shaping what they think is an acceptable norm in staged productions and larger society, or in conveying more production-specific messages. By having a more sensitive community that participates in the staging of shows and an audience that is willing to engage in critical thinking and dialogue, we may be able to enhance the level of productions that are staged in Yale-NUS.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com