The digital era has seen the world become increasingly connected. But technology has given rise to problems such as cyberbullying, and Singaporean youngsters are exposed to it, too.
So, while a 2018 study shows Singapore as the best country in the world for children to grow up in, a survey in the same year by Mediacorp’s Talking Point found that 75 per cent of children and teenagers in Singapore said they had been bullied online.
And there’s an astonishing disconnect in the midst of this connectivity: In almost all of these bullying cases, parents had no idea what was going on and, as a result, did nothing in response to the bullying.
It is a frightening statistic which theatre outfit Pangdemonium seeks to address with their latest production, Late Company.
Written by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill seven years ago, the play was inspired by a real-life tragedy – the suicide of gay Canadian teenager Jamie Hubley, who was bullied at school, in 2011.
It explores the devastating effects of cyberbullying, the respective psyches of bully and victim, and communal and individual accountability in breeding a cycle and culture of bullying.
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More than that, it addresses other challenges such as an ever-mutating youth culture, modern parenting in a fast-changing world, mental health, and raising children as a society. Pangdemonium hopes the play will inspire audiences to engage in conversations about these issues.
In an email interview with The Pride, Pangdemonium’s Adrian Pang said that the cast weren’t prepared for the “deluge of questions that crept up on us as we were rehearsing the play”.
“As parents, we discovered, through the rehearsal process, that the issues brought up in this play were a huge minefield, and really made each one of us question ourselves about parenting, and exactly how much control we have over our kids, and how well do we really know our kids,” said Pang, who plays the role of Bill in Late Company.
“It was very sobering and humbling.”
In Late Company, Bill, along with his wife Tamara (played by Karen Tan) and son Curtis (Xander Pang), are invited to a dinner at Debora (Janice Koh) and Michael’s (Edward Choy) place. Debora and Michael’s gay son, Joel, had committed suicide a year earlier after being bullied in school, with Curtis being one of the main culprits.
“I do believe that this play forces us to ask ourselves, and one another, urgent questions about our individual accountability in raising children, and also about community’s responsibility in creating a healthy, nurturing society for youths to grow up in.”
He emphasised, however, that the play is not meant to provide any answers.
“Wake-up call for parents”
Among the issues covered in the play is how Debora and Michael had no idea what Joel was going through.
Pang said that even as he is grateful that his relationship with his sons, 18-year-old Xander and 19-year-old Zack, is “very healthy, open, communicative”, he feels Late Company is a wake-up call for all parents.
“Of course, I can never claim to know every single detail about (Xander’s and Zack’s) lives or what they are thinking and feeling, but I have always made it clear to them that Tracie (Pang’s wife) and I are here for them no matter what, and that they can always talk to us about anything,” explained Pang.
“By the same token, I also feel comfortable talking to them about more and more things, especially as they grow into adults – we are very expressive with our feelings and are quite an over-sharing kind of family!”
“We literally laugh and cry together, and that has, over the years, fostered a real openness among us. If there is an issue with one of us, we talk it out as a family because it affects every one of us in the family. We may not be able to immediately resolve it, but just knowing that we have shared it as a family is a big deal in making it feel a little better.”
“At the end of the day, though, Late Company is a wake-up call for all parents, to remind us that we can never really, really know our children – which is a scary thought – and that ultimately you have to allow them to be responsible for their own lives. It’s a hard lesson to learn and a hard fact to accept.”
Pang added that it is never too late for parents to repair their relationship with their child, too. But to do so, parents have to listen to their kids, and not just talk to them.
“If a kid is already feeling alienated, or neglected, or not listened to or understood by the very people who gave them life and should make the effort to be there for them, then these kids are going to find comfort elsewhere,” he said.
“And the virtual world is literally at their fingertips, at their own peril. I’m not an expert and I obviously do not have all the answers, but I believe in good old-fashioned face-to-face talking.”
In the play, Pang’s character Bill also spoke about how “boys will always be boys” in an attempt to defend Curtis’ role in Joel’s suicide. The veteran actor, however, takes a different stance outside of his role.
He felt that the line has become even more blurred, while the grey areas are murkier than ever. And with the current heightened sensitivity the world is experiencing, combined with social media, people are free to express their offence to any kind of provocation – which adds on to the problem.
“On the one hand, it is within the control of the provocateur to stop or carry on this ‘ribbing’; and on the other hand, the question will always be exactly how much control the victim has over how hurt they are; and crucially, who’s to say when this ‘ribbing’ has gone too far?” he asked.
“Does it matter if it is ‘all in good fun’? Or is it only a problem if malice is intended? Where is the line between joking and bullying? At some point, I suppose, common sense has to prevail and help us make those decisions, but then people’s judgments are jaundiced by their own histories and their own baggage, so common sense of where that line is can often be coloured by that.”
“Tragically, very often we only know retrospectively where that line is when someone has really gotten hurt.”
However, Pang noted that something that has been overlooked often is how the aggressor can eventually become a victim, too, with certain groups of people – social justice warriors – constantly prowling the Internet in search of a cause to defend.
“Often, they target an individual that they think deserves some kind of comeuppance, and wilfully name and shame, and hound to the ground,” explained Pang.
“This is also a form of bullying that is particularly egregious. I can totally see that people want to see justice done, especially if someone has been hurt, but where do you draw the line between redemption and condemnation?”
“Who will police the morality police?”
At the end of a showing last Thursday, Pang addressed the crowd, which included plenty of young adults and late teens. He said that he hopes the play inspired them enough to get conversations going among their colleagues, friends and families, in order to raise awareness about all the issues addressed in the play.
He explained to The Pride: “I feel that that really is the power of theatre, to not be didactic, but to make us search our own hearts.”
Late Company runs until Sunday, Mar 10, at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets, priced from $40 to $75, are available at SISTIC.