Don’t Know, Don’t Care: An interactive theatrical experience that empowers students to navigate change in their lives
Terminal illness, death, and dying.
These aren’t the easiest of topics to talk about with anybody, much less with family members. When illness or death occurs in a household, it usually falls on the adults to break the news to the adolescents in the family because they, too, deserve to know. But such responsibility doesn’t come without its complexities.
Veteran playwright Haresh Sharma and artistic director Alvin Tan sought to bring younger audiences into the conversation about dealing with death in their interactive theatrical experience titled Don’t Know, Don’t Care. Commissioned by HCA Hospice Care, the play was first presented at secondary schools by The Necessary Stage in 2012.
Unlike conventional plays, Don’t Know, Don’t Care employs a forum theatre approach, where actors and the audience interact with the help of a facilitator. Through this unique experience, students are provided with a safe space to express themselves emotionally and develop the confidence to confront the topic of death.
Students and teachers can look forward to the restaging of this moving play from 28 Jun to 1 Jul. In the meantime, The A List spoke to Sharma and Tan about the beginnings of the play, the forum theatre technique, and how the play’s topic remains ever more relevant today.
1. Don’t Know, Don’t Care was first commissioned by HCA Hospice Care in 2012. Can you share some insight on how the production with them came about?
Sharma: They wanted us to create a play about end-of-life care at home and wanted to highlight the importance of young people being involved in such situations. That’s why I created a story about a teenage boy who wants to help his grandfather but is told by his mother to stay away. Death and dying are difficult topics for families to talk about, but in such situations, it is healthy to do so. Young people understand, and even go through, complex emotions. As such, they should not be shielded from such topics, but be encouraged to share and participate.
2. How would you introduce forum theatre to someone who isn’t acquainted with it?
Tan: Forum theatre originated from the late Brazilian theatre practitioner, Augusto Boal. It’s an interactive form that comprises three components:
a. The Warm-Up
b. The Anti-model
c. The Interactive (Forum) Segment
a. It is important to have a good warm-up session where the performers and audience members interact with one another through games so that the boundary between the two is made porous. The aim is to create a safe space where strangers can take risks and not feel judged. Where failure is accepted, and the community contributes to encouraging or enabling each other to achieve the goals of the exercises conducted.
b. The anti-model is the piece of theatre or event staged that has a tragic or undesirable end.
The facilitator then asks the audience if that is the end they want for the protagonist or are there better ways to behave to change the undesirable outcome.
c. The audience member, known as the “spec-actor”, is then encouraged to replace the performer playing the protagonist. S/he then chooses a part of the story to intervene. S/he is not to change the intent of the protagonist, but to change the way (i.e. strategy) that it is done to determine a different (less tragic or ideal) outcome. This is done a few times as the facilitator evaluates each proposal (whether shared verbally or performed) with audience members. There is usually a communal approach to coming up with solutions. Usually, there is no time to perform the ideal strategy but the audience members, as a community, would experience the process of a communal approach to exploring possible solutions.
Then the facilitator does a final evaluation to wrap up the experience for the session.
3. It’s been 10 years since the first performance of Don’t Know, Don’t Care. How has the theatre experience evolved over the years?
Sharma: The play’s issues are still relevant even though it’s been 10 years since it was first staged. In fact, with the pandemic, it is more crucial for families to talk about illness and pain. Family members are often our immediate caregivers, so we need to learn to be more open and trusting, and to be more supportive of each other. I believe that the audience will relate to the play, even more, today than 10 years ago.
4. What was the process behind designing the performance?
Sharma: The production design is quite simple. The play is set in the home of the family. The grandfather, who is terminally ill, moves in with the family. The young boy then strikes a friendship with his grandfather. They have conversations late at night because sometimes the grandfather can’t sleep as he is in pain. The purpose of the script and dialogue is to make the show accessible to the audience.
5. Over the years, how have you observed the forum theatre technique helping students to develop their critical thinking and analytical skills?
Tan: Over the years, we have had students ranging from those pranking the form to those taking it seriously until there is a pin-drop silence in the classroom – that’s when the process finally works out.
Once, a student spec-actor cried buckets persuading the performer playing the mother who refuses to have her son look after his grandfather, for fear that his studies would suffer (in an earlier staging of Don’t Know, Don’t Care). This is after a few attempts by other student spec-actors, some more successful than others. This student-spec-actor cried whilst telling the mother that she can repeat her O-levels, but she has only one grandfather and only this chance of getting to know him, especially since he is terminally ill. She will not be able to repeat this opportunity, and he is her flesh and blood. “Please let me get to know him before it is too late.” It was very moving to hear her tell her story after her intervention – that it happened to her in real life.
Besides developing their critical or analytical thinking, it allows student spec-actors to express their emotional intelligence, and not be ashamed to be vulnerable.
6. One of the key components of Don’t Know, Don’t Care is the live interaction and discussions held with the audience. What are some of the techniques you employ to help them feel comfortable participating?
Tan: Basically, there are exercises from simple to challenging ones where audience members participate together with the performers. Some will succeed, and some will fail to achieve the objectives, but more importantly, everyone feels comfortable succeeding or failing in one room. After a few such exercises, a safe space is usually established.
The facilitator also plays a significant role when dealing with proposals forwarded by the audience members. From taking polls with a show of hands to evaluating the proposal by asking a few other audience members their thoughts and opinions on whether to go on with it or not. Every facilitating decision has to be pedagogically backed so that the audience members feel safe to share their suggestions and comments.
When suggestions are performed, the facilitator’s manner and attitude towards negotiating and navigating the discussion and evaluating the outcome(s) are all very important. This set of skills can only grow through practice as one evolves one’s style, by combining one’s personality traits and the facilitation skills required for a forum theatre intervention.
1. Was that better than the original situation?
2. How is the situation improved? What challenges were addressed? How were they overcome?
3. What else can we do to even better this improved situation?
4. Who do you think should come on stage to perform that suggestion?
5. You have given us an interesting suggestion, but you don’t want to perform it. Who in the audience wouldn’t mind carrying it out?
7. How do you think teachers can prepare their students beforehand to optimise their experience at the show?
Tan: We have a Teacher’s Educational Kit and a Student Worksheet Pack designed by our team that works with the Esplanade’s educational team. These two packs are useful in helping both teachers and students understand what they can expect from the theatre experience.
Not a teacher or a student but want to catch the play? Watch the short film version of Don’t Know, Don’t Care instead.
During the introduction of the performance of Don’t Know, Don’t Care, actor-facilitators will perform a demonstration to impart the forum theatre rules (operational guidelines). Here’s a brief rundown:
- When students intend to intervene a specific scene, they are required to lift their arm and say, “stop!”
- A facilitator will approach the student with a mic, encouraging them to express their suggestion on improving the scene and its outcome.
Post-demonstration and upon entrance to the theatre, the facilitator will reiterate these rules to remind students of the correct process.
From our experience, the confidence level among students grows when they start seeing their fellow schoolmates make the first few interventions. From the middle to the tail end of the programme, we often see more hands rise and greater participation overall. This is an inevitable trend in most of the programmes we have conducted.
Learn more about Don’t Know, Don’t Care here.
Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.
(Photos: The Pond Photography, Yusri Sapari, Zinkie Aw, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay)