Rediscovering my love for theatre. In a new setting.

The heat is on at the rooftop of the Hotel Sofitel So in downtown Singapore. Photographed by Yu-Ming Siow.

Once a week for the past three weeks, I’ve been sitting in sessions of drama-based training where employees from a restaurant group are being taught theatre and drama-based techniques to improve their skills in customer service. Every Tuesday morning, they head to the rehearsal hall in a 100-year-old building in Stamford Road, the heart of the historic district in the city, to attend training led by a stage actor well-versed in improvisational theatre.

I sit apart to observe when they have circle-time, when they play games where the only communication is eye-contact and body signals, where they talk about their dreams and aspirations, because every waiter dreams of owning his own business someday, of managing her own online store.

A former flight attendant who waits tables chills out after work by learning to play the piano; in less than a year, she now plays simple tunes from memory. One day she hopes to play Bach minuets and Mozart sonatinas.

In class, they are taught to focus on the here and now. To switch their smartphones to silent, to be aware of their feet planted on the wooden floorboards of the Stamford Arts Center, which used to be a Japanese primary school in 1927 Singapore. To tune out the sounds of city traffic outside, and tune in by bringing all of their senses to the fore. When they are able to do this, they learn how to listen, to watch other people for clues to moods and feelings; most things are spoken without words. Especially when the person is the customer.

In a job where well-to-do customers expect first-rate service, these waiters are given treatment that is second-rate. Daily. In circle-time, each participant shared a difficult customer story, full of detail, signifying so much.

Premium customers, said a waiter in the class today, “want TLC,” he said with a sprinkle of irony in his voice.

The class ends after spending much time recreating the details of an actual scene at work where a customer lost his temper at one of the restaurants. At least four service staff felt the heat, and much of the morning was spent trying to find out what went wrong.

Part two of the role-play continues next week. In the meantime, the staff are putting on their shoes as they exit the black box theatre, ready to wear the masks that enable them to perform with courteous smiles and polite voices all day, all week, giving out first-rate service and remembering that they are first-rate too.