Theatre teaches students empathy, critical thinking

Marcus Goh
Yahoo illustration.

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Theatre company Dream Academy’s latest offering, “Detention Katong”, is targeted at secondary school students, given its school setting and distinctly kid-friendly Advisory rating.

When it comes to learning a language, the educational benefits of theatre cannot be denied. Students get to increase their vocabulary, learn sentence structures, discover storytelling techniques, and develop an appreciation for language.

But theatre is so much more than just words — it teaches life skills, attitudes, and new ways of approaching situations.

“It completely changed my life,” said Selena Tan, 46, the founding artistic director of Dream Academy. She’s also famous for being one of the three Dimsum Dollies, and for playing Anita in “Under One Roof”.

Detention Katong’s post-show forum with Greenview Secondary School and Choa Chu Kang Secondary School. (Dream Academy)

A teenage Tan’s time with theatre 

Tan’s 20 years of experience in theatre and production speaks for itself, and her passion for performing goes all the way back to her teenage years.

“When I was 14, my teachers brought us out to watch a couple of productions at the Victoria Theatre. At that young age, you can’t really put a name to it, but you’re moved by something — the story, the shared experience, or even the fact that these people can use their voices and bodies to reach out to a crowd.

“It’s a special moment that you and a few others are privy to.”

And thanks to the diligent efforts of her teachers to expose students to the joys of theatre, Tan became a practitioner herself.

Detention Katong’s post-show forum with Greenview Secondary School and Choa Chu Kang Secondary School. (Dream Academy)

The benefits of theatre for students

Dream Academy has worked closely with schools to involve students in the theatrical arts, be it through production or through open dialogue sessions.

They held a post-show forum for “Detention Katong” on 18 February with Greenview Secondary School and Choa Chu Kang Secondary School. They also worked together with Nanyang Primary School for 2015’s “Crazy Christmas”.

Based on her experiences, Tan shared the many virtues of exposing kids to theatre at a young age, whether as an audience member or as part of the production team.

1. Diligence

Tan became a part of Youth Theatre Singapore (then part of the Stars Community Theatre) when she was 14.

“We were the gofers — we would buy drinks, wash the toilets, and make props. It gave us a sense of how much effort went into a production.”

That work ethic in theatre still applies today.

“I have a lot of young people who work with us, and they understand the meaning of rolling up your sleeves to do the hard work. You’re willing to do the work, menial or not.

“And that improves your outlook in life — the ability to give more, and to take more, as well.”

2. Team spirit

Being part of a theatre production also means learning to work as part of a team. This applies even to students who are in primary school, shared Tan about her experience working with Nanyang Primary School for “Crazy Christmas”.

“They learn life skills like politeness and respect. They know not to to make noise when other people are rehearsing, and to pay attention,” she said.

It’s a tall order for most primary school students, as parents and teachers can attest to.

“At the same time, they learn to be brave enough to talk and give suggestions.”

3. Critical thinking

Tan told us that she was pleasantly surprised at the attentiveness and inquisitiveness of secondary school students at her “Detention Katong” post-show forum, where they had a chance to learn more about the production.

“Their questions showed that they were genuinely interested in, and had thought through the musical.”

In fact, a 15-year-old student’s feedback about a plot point in “Detention Katong” was so useful that Tan immediately changed it for the next show.

“Theatre teaches them how to follow narratives and not be fooled by certain things.”

Given today’s ‘post-truth’ climate, critical thinking is an especially important skill.

Detention Katong’s post-show forum with Greenview Secondary School and Choa Chu Kang Secondary School. (Dream Academy)

4. Open-mindedness

Theatre also teaches students how to be open-minded by showing them different worldviews. In fact, being exposed to as many different experiences as possible at a young age is imperative in broadening a child’s horizons as much as possible.

“That’s important for kids,” shared Tan. “They should explore as many different areas and get as much experience as they can, so that their minds can be open and they can make more informed decisions.”

5. Bonding between parents and children

Theatre also improves the relationships between parents and children by giving them something they can enjoy together.

“It’s an opportunity for you and your child to have that shared experience,” said Tan. “That kind of frank, open discussion allows them to discuss something new. To have that space for discussion is a precious thing.”

6. Empathy

Most importantly, theatre teaches empathy. With our society fixated on academic scores, sometimes we forget that care and concern for our fellow man is what makes the world go round.

“Theatre deals with a lot with empathy, like in the script and when it comes to anything that is interpretative. Dance, too. These performances have a lot qualities of empathy, and it helps the child to relate and grow that empathic side of them.”

Detention Katong’s post-show forum with Greenview Secondary School and Choa Chu Kang Secondary School. (Dream Academy)

Exposing children to theatre

It’s not every day that you can find a suitable play to bring your child to, and Literature is only compulsory for lower secondary students. To get your child started on theatre, here are some of Tan’s recommendations that will help ease them into the arts:

  • “The Coffin is too Big for the Hole” by Kuo Pao Koon
  • “No Parking on Odd Days” by Kuo Pao Koon
  • “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde
  • All of Oscar Wilde’s works
Selena Tan at Detention Katong’s post-show forum with Greenview Secondary School and Choa Chu Kang Secondary School. (Dream Academy)

Detention Katong” runs at the Esplanade until 5 March.

Marcus Goh runs Write-Handed, a creative writing studio. At the same time, he teaches and writes curriculum for English and Literature for Secondary at The Keys Academy. He has been a specialist tutor for English and Literature (Secondary) since 2005.