By Shahril Salleh
(1,357 words, 4-minute read)
Doyen. Icon. Self-professed Dragon Lady. These are some of the facets of Margaret Leng Tan, Singapore’s Cultural Medallion award recipient in 2015. Margaret is a treasured Singaporean musician and performance artist who is currently based in New York. As a champion of new music, especially that of John Cage and George Crumb, her performances enchant her world-wide audiences with both impeccable technical precision and lyrical whimsy.
Her latest work, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, is co-commissioned by the Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay and Asia TOPA in Melbourne (here’s ArtsEquator’s review of the Melbourne show), and is slated to be performed at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 25 to 29 March 2020. I spoke with her last weekend, where we talked about the show, herself, and the poignant message she wishes to get across to her audiences.
(This interview has been edited for length.)
Shah: Could you tell us the story behind the title of Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep?
Margaret: That title came to me in a flash of inspiration several years ago. I thought it was the absolute perfect title for my written memoir. I never got around to writing though, but I am still hoping I will write it someday. Hopefully this theatre version of it will jumpstart me, to act as a catalyst to get me going. Yeah, in fact, I see that it is easier to create a sonic version of it than a literary version. Best of all, everybody laughs when I tell them the title. It’s a rather unusually striking title that gets people’s attention.
Shah: Was the title a reference to how you see yourself and what you show others? To what extent is the show the ‘real’ Margaret Leng Tan?
Margaret: Does the title represent me? Well yes! The show is very much THE REAL Margaret Leng Tan. Sometimes I’m the girl next door, yet a lot of the time I think I do embody many of the characteristics of a dragon lady. I’m strong willed, I’m commanding, I know what I want. Sometimes people think I’m formidable, and I suppose that’s true. And the “don’t weep part” is a fact, I just don’t. Haven’t in 30 years.
Shah: Could you share with us your experience working with the creative team behind the show?
Margaret: It was definitely a departure from my normal modus operandi. You see, Shah, I am fiercely autonomous. I don’t normally collaborate with other musicians, apart from composers. To work in this team effort with five other people is to me a whole new experience and a revelation. They really had to earn my trust.
It was easier working with the composer Erik Griswold. That’s because I know Erik’s work. With the others, I did not know them nor their works, and they worked really hard to earn my respect in order for me to relinquish some of my very strong ideas that I had about the work. For me to let those go and accept some other suggestions, which, obviously I accepted it because they were better for the project than mine. And the work is definitely richer for it.
Shah: What was the creative process in producing Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep?
Margaret: I had started out with the idea of creating a sonic memoir. And as time went on, (director) Tamara Saulwick realised this was going to be a sonic portrait rather than a sonic memoir. A three-dimensional portrait of me in sound, in narratives, in movement, with beautiful visual projections by Nick Roux. The entire script is made from my writings, observations and reflections – bits of material I had jotted down on scraps of paper for this memoir that was yet to be written. Tamara asked me to send them all to her, and it was a laborious weeks’ worth of scanning all this material for her. She also asked me to write stream-of-consciousness responses to key words that she gave me – memory, loss, control, time. I just responded without thinking too hard. I just let my hand write.
Between that and the scraps of anecdotes and thoughts that I had sent to her, she and Kok Heng Leun put together such a masterpiece script that is entirely so me – it captures the essence of who I am. Erik Griswold then wrote the music, in which there are 14 pieces, and this makes up about 70% of the work. The music forms the structural pillars into which the text is interwoven around. We had a couple of run throughs now and the whole piece is 1 hour and 15 minutes. The whole work is so compact; the pacing is so tight that it just pulls you along. The transitions Tamara worked on makes it one beautiful organic whole. Nick made a montage from images given to him of me as a child, of my dogs; the video and still images really create such a beautiful extra dimension to the piece.
Shah: From what you’ve shared, this entire work is deeply personal to you. How do you feel about performing Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep to the public, knowing that many intimate details are incorporated into it?
Margaret: Throughout the performance, I’m acting as myself. Yeah, that’s right. That means that I am being myself on stage, yes, but I’m also a persona on stage. You see me both in a very intimate personal way, as well as the more dragon lady-ish way. Tamara Saulwick and Kok Heng Leun were deeply attracted to and drew out that part of me that is extremely intimate and personal, where I deal very openly to the point of rawness with my affliction with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I am not hiding anything, keeping it under wraps or trying to cover anything up about me. It’s really me in all my vulnerability. And I see it also as a way of letting people know that you can be creative, you can be successful even if you have an affliction or an obstacle, you know, that you live with. I feel that this is my public service message embedded in my work.
Shah: Where do you find the courage and strength to present yourself in this way?
Margaret: Well, there already was an antecedent to this because I wrote an article for the New York Times, called John Cage’s Music of the Unquiet Mind. It was published around the time of John Cage’s centenary in 2012. It was my tribute to John because his piece, Four Walls, is an hour-long exploration of a disturbed mind for piano, which he wrote back in 1944. When I first discovered this piece, it was as if somebody had entered the inner rooms of my mind and translated it into sound. When it was first published, there were over 50, 60 comments on the website. There were so many people and my friends also said to me, that is so courageous of you to speak out so frankly about this. You know, I never really thought of it as being courageous or brave to do this. I just was speaking from my heart, really, and this piece then becomes an extension of that.
In fact, the NYT essay is published in its entirety in the programme of the show that people can read after they leave the theatre. You see, I want a piece to speak for itself. You don’t have to read in the programme what it’s about to understand what it’s about. It is completely self-contained and self-sufficient, and you see it as a theatre production. And you can read more about it later. I want people to be with me throughout this one hour and 15 minutes, you know, to stay there with me and be so drawn into it, that they are not thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner or the grocery list for tomorrow. I don’t want that mind to wander in and out – I want them to be sucked into this journey with me through my psyche.
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep by Margaret Leng Tan runs from 25 to 29 March 2020 at Esplanade Studio Theatre as part of The Studios. The show is a co-production by Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore, co-commissioned by Esplanade Theatres on the Bay and Asia TOPA. For tickets and info, click here.
Update: This event has been cancelled as the artist is unable to travel to Singapore due to the evolving COVID-19 situation. Please click here for details.
This article is sponsored by the Esplanade.
Shahril Salleh is currently a PhD Candidate (ABD) of Sociology from the School of Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University. His research examines the relationships between arts practitioners and the State. Part of his research involves going to concerts and performances and having long and deep conversations with arts practitioners from different disciplines over tea and cake (and sometimes biscuits). In his spare time, he directs a local non-auditioned community choir and volunteers as a mentor to his peers as well as to underserved communities.