By Lim Pow Hong
THE first batch of students taking drama as an O-level subject this year are finding themselves the butt of remarks that the work they do for it hardly amounts to 'studying'.
These pioneers, now in Secondary3 and 4, say that what they do to prepare for the practical part of this subject - acting, scripting and directing - is seen as fun and a walk in the park.
But their passion is sustaining them, even in the face of teething pains such as a lack of rehearsal space.
This year, 44 students from eight schools are sitting for the O-level examination in the subject.
The eight schools are Anderson Secondary, CHIJ Katong Convent, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls', CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), Peirce Secondary, St Anthony's Canossian Secondary, St Margaret's Secondary and Tanjong Katong Girls' School.
The subject, called theatre studies at A levels, is available at Victoria Junior College (VJC) and Anglo-Chinese Junior College. It was begun in VJC in 1989.
Alwin Thomas, 15 and in Secondary3 at Peirce Secondary, said a lot of blood is shed in preparing for the subject: 'It takes many hours just to prepare for a five-minute performance. It requires really knowing the role before I step into character.'
St Margaret's Secondary student Chelsey Ng, 15, is dismayed that the rigour of the subject often goes unrecognised by her peers.
'It's a little offensive sometimes that our peers think drama is a 'slack' subject,' she griped.
The subject is so demanding that some students live and dream drama.
Chelsey's classmate, Sim Xin Feng, 15, said: 'I even memorise the script in the toilet or when I'm eating.'
The teachers, too, often face the same prejudice from their peers.
Ms Dawn Wong, 32, the drama teacher at Peirce Secondary, said that while she has less marking to do, what is not visible to others is the fact that teaching and assessing drama is 'exhausting for the brain'.
Mr Adrian Wong, 31, the drama coordinator at St Nicholas Girls', said: 'While some may think drama is fun and games, they fail to understand that it is a rigorous subject which is demanding physically, emotionally and cognitively.'
A lack of proper drama studio facilities is a problem students have to overcome. At the top of Ms Wong's wishlist is proper rehearsal facilities for the students, and space to store props.
Her students are making do with a classroom on the school's temporary campus, pending a move to its upgraded premises at the end of the year.
The students are also grappling with their own fears and expectations from being the drama pioneers in their schools.
Geraldine Wong, 15 and in Secondary3 at St Nicholas Girls', said: 'There are times when I feel like a guinea pig, but there is also pride over being the first to do it.'
The written paper, a test of the students' grasp of aspects such as characterisation, lighting and costumes, is another source of anxiety.
St Margaret's Millicent Wong, 15, said the written paper, which carries 40per cent of the total marks, is 'intimidating'.
But Alwin has no regrets. He sees studying drama as 'an adventure'.
'I always learn new ideas from my classmates when I work with them on performances,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on 27 Oct, 2008.