Duration: 30 min
This year, Esplanade’s The Studios series runs from 29 March to 29 April at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, and features five deep and thought-provoking works by five female creators: Edith Podesta, Faith Ng, Kaylene Tan, Michelle Tan, and Zizi Azah. Corrie Tan speaks with Edith, Faith, Kaylene and Michelle about their inspirations, the intimacy of their works, the monologue form, the apparent dichotomy of the personal and the universal in writing and performance-making, and much more.
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Corrie Tan: Hello everyone, I’m Corrie, guest editor of Arts Equator. Today I’ll be speaking with the the four women writers and creators who are the key creative forces behind this season of The Studios 2018 at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. With the theme “Between Living and Dying”, the Studios features five productions this year and runs from the 29th of March to the 29th of April at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Here at the Arts Equator office today we have playwright Faith Ng, whose play A Good Death opens the season from March 29 to April 1. Kaylene Tan writes and directs In the Silence of Your Heart, an in-ear audio experience for the theatre, which runs from April 5 to 8. Then we have playwright Michelle Tan whose play I am trying to say something true from April 12 to 15, and finally Edith Podesta, who wrote, directed and performs in her production of Leda and the Rage, which concludes the season from April 26 to 29. The Studios this year also features a revival of a very popular one-woman show by playwright and former artistic director of Teater Ekamatra, Zizi Azah, titled How did the Cat Get so Fat. It runs from April 19 to 22 and stars award-winning actress Siti Khalijah Zainal. Unfortunately they could not join us today – but welcome to our office everyone else, thank you so much for being here.
I wonder if each of you could tell me a little bit more about the origins of the work you’re doing and how they came into being, and maybe a bit about what audiences can expect to see in these productions. So Faith, since your work opens the season [Laughter] – from what I understand A Good Death follows a palliative care doctor (played by Karen Tan) as she begins to ponder what a dignified, good death really is. I was curious if any of this stemmed from your own encounters with palliative care or mortality, or issues such as this.
Faith Ng: It’s something that I had been thinking about, for very, I don’t know, stupid reasons? One being that my dog passed away. And I remember one of the remarks that the vet made was, there isn’t really pal care (palliative care) for animals, and how it would be really great if there was. And it just got me thinking about that. And then, during the run of my previous play, Normal, I actually bumped into a junior college friend, I hadn’t seen her for a really, really long time, and then she told me that she was now training to be a pal care physician. That was where I started thinking about all those questions about what would make a human want to dedicate his or her life to people who are at the final chapter. What does that entail? I guess that’s what the play is really about.
Corrie Tan: It was quite interesting for me to see that a lot of the work in the season looks at loss in different ways. And I think, Michelle, your piece also looks at different kinds of loss – not just death, as we just spoke about, or mortality – but also departures or relationships ending. I was just curious how you started to begin to write I am trying to say something true, which I understand is a one-woman piece starring Ellison Tan.
Michelle Tan: It definitely wasn’t the play that I intended to write when I started writing. I sent a very early draft in, and that draft doesn’t exist any more, so it’s a whole different thing. I think a lot of it is really encompassed in the title in and of itself, and I never, for myself, realised the effort that it takes in just trying to do something as ostensibly simple as ‘saying something true’. So that’s, I think, the main driving force behind this. And I think the other big reason for why this has happened is also – that phenomenon of ‘a grief deferred’? So being able to speak about something perhaps only years later because, say, at the time at which the thing happened, the time at which this loss had occurred, whatever it is, you just didn’t have the words for it. There needs [to be] this passage of time in which the words appear, or the words come to you, and I think that was what happened. That’s how this play has come into existence.
Corrie Tan: I think there’s something interesting also about how each of your work draws from real-life or the intimate experiences of your own lives. Kaylene, I was curious about In the Silence of Your Heart. As I understand it, the audience will listen to the words of a man who is paralysed? So he’s lost his movement, but I feel like there’s a sense of a reclamation of this loss in the sense that he gets the chance to speak? I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about this piece and the experience it will take for the audience member?
Kaylene Tan: The play is an in-ear audio experience, so it’s from the perspective of a man who has a stroke. And he’s not only physically disabled, he also cannot speak. It’s inspired by my grandfather, who had a stroke for many years, for 13 years, so all that time, I only knew him as the person in bed. I was always very fascinated by what went on in his head. Because he was kind of a larger than life character, he was a journalist, he was a politician, and he loved to drink and smoke, gamble – that was his life, and all I knew of him was this person in bed. So this was an attempt to try to figure out, or piece together something that could be an internal life of someone who cannot speak or move. And with the in-ear audio, it’s like a stream of consciousness that people will listen to. So, he doesn’t really get to speak to people, but people get to hear him.
Corrie Tan: It’s so interesting that a lot of each of your work draws from really personal, specific figures so far, so with you [Kaylene], your grandfather, or with Faith, the loss of a loved pet and then talking to your friend about palliative care, and then Michelle about your own experiences in your life. For Edith, I’m curious, because when I first read the title of your play, which is Leda and the Rage, I immediately thought of the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, in which the Greek god Zeus seduces Leda in the form of a swan, and there have been some really graphic images produced in art about this encounter, so I was wondering how this work came to be.
Edith Podesta: I think for me, this is not a personal story. Unlike the rest, it’s not my story, it’s the story of an academic whose research looks at trauma in art, in literature and in film, and her journey of recovery. The play starts with her lecturing about the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, who is a baroque painter, one of the most successful – or the first woman, actually, to make her living through the art that she painted. It just so happened that alongside of her wonderful life, friends with Galileo, and getting commissions from the King of France and the UK, that she was raped quite early on by one of her father’s friends, and we have documents from the Roman archives – it was a 10-month rape trial that she won, or her father won, because back in those days, rape was not against the woman, it was against the father, especially if she lost her virginity, the man owed 50 silver coins, basically. So it was not about her being raped, it was more about her bride price being lowered because she was raped. So the artist speaks, as I have just now, looking at the history of rape through art, and then we find out that she’s seeking help from a therapist, because she’s having flashbacks for the first time in seven years since she was involved in a stranger rape. There’s another character in my work, played by Jeremiah Choy, a man who works with perpetrators of rape and also educates judges, lawyers and sometimes does workshops for the police force to look at rape myths, and the psychology of trauma. And she knows him and goes to see him.
The play charts her personal journey as well as a journey that’s presented very much against the backdrop of art and literature, so we’re drawing on kind of like the rape culture in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I think is like, 250 rapes in those books, which we don’t really think about. So actually the play comes from me looking at rape culture, in my own kind of research, and then finding PhDs about the rape culture in Ovid, and rape culture in the gallery, and rape culture in our films and TV and wanting to write about that.
Corrie Tan: It strikes me – even though this [Edith’s play] isn’t a personal story – I think there’s also a great sense of intimacy, just hearing all of you share about your work, whether it’s a single-woman piece, a solo performer – or if we have in-ear audio and we’ll see performers performing?
Kaylene Tan: Yes, it’s from his perspective, so it’s what he sees. His caregiver and his grandchild.
Corrie Tan: I feel like there’s a strong sense of intimacy about all of these works, so the audience has, is listening to this and can see from his perspective what is happening, and it’s quite intimate coming from someone who can’t really care for himself. Or when you’re close to death, assessing end-of-life and how to decide on those large decisions – there’s a lot of intimacy in the work, I think, that you’ve talked about. How do you present this intimacy that you want to talk about to the audience, how do you draw from the solo performer, perhaps the way he or she confides, what are the ways in which you can present this intimacy to the participant or to the viewer?
Edith Podesta: In Leda and the Rage, we have kind of three planes. One is a very public lecture plane, and one is a therapy room kind of plane, and then there is an interior plane, where she, very much like what everyone has spoken about today, tries – is very articulate in the interior, in her internal monologue, but it’s forming, or trying to articulate the images in day-to-day conversations that she’s having trouble with. Leda and the Rage also has two interpreters, so we have a signed performance. And you actually see this kind of intimacy between the two interpreters, because it’s shadow interpretation, so I have an interpreter – Leda has an interpreter and Jeremiah’s character has an interpreter as well. But their communication is much more intimate than my communication with Jeremiah’s character. So you get to see that intimacy between their communication, even their literal body languages is in closer proximity than I am to Jeremiah.
Corrie Tan: I was also wondering, with work that draws from a very personal place in your life, how do you distinguish between confessing and confiding what you want to share about something that can be quite autobiographical, and also preserving that private part of yourself? Or is it something that you’d also like to share, or be vulnerable with the audience? Especially with the death of an animal or someone close to you, for example, how do you put it up for the public to watch?
Faith Ng: This is completely not autobiographical at all, I think it just stemmed from that, and very quickly became about the stories of other people. I did almost close to a year where I shadowed a lot of pal care doctors in different settings – hospitals and hospices, and homes. I went into homes of people and really saw just how difficult it was for them, but also they kept repeating what a gift it was, actually, to know that you are dying, because then suddenly there’s a very sharp kind of mirror that lets you see life for what it really is, and every little thing suddenly takes on a new significance. And when I went through that experience with all of them, I just felt my life is so small, and my problems are so tiny. It was more about them and wanting to just be very quiet and almost just sort of let the camera run, I guess, and just see what they are going through.
Kaylene Tan: I’d like to say that for mine, my grandfather’s situation was very much the starting point, but I’ve sort of filled in the blanks my own way to fictionalise it, there is that personal – I feel very close to it, but at the same time I won’t say that it is biography. Also in terms of the kind of intimacy, of the kind of experience, in our setting, in the setting of In the Silence of Your Heart, it’s a very intimate setting in that it’s not a conventional seating arrangement. The audience is in the space of the house, so they are very much witnesses to what’s happened.
Michelle Tan: I think I struggle a lot with that feeling also, that you mentioned, Faith, about after you churn something out, you look at it and you’re like, this is so trivial, this fear or this terror that this story is so unimportant, why would anyone care about it, if it’s so personal, if it’s so small, if you look at what’s happening in the world – there are much bigger things we can be talking about, so why bother about this one very personal life. I have no answer to that, that’s just something that I’m constantly trying to fight as well, and to be like, to believe – you have to believe in the work in order to put it out there.
Corrie Tan: I think it’s very interesting that you talk about how something is very personal, and I just happened to be reading an article that Lyn Gardner, The Guardian reviewer, wrote in 2015, where she talked about how – we’re all women here – she talked about how, when men write about their experiences for the stage, and I’m quoting her here, “it is often perceived as being universal. [But] When women write about their experiences, it is too often dismissed as personal, marginal or domestic.” But then again, I don’t know if it’s a connection that unduly lessens the idea of the personal? And that the personal and the marginal and the domestic has no overlap with the universal? So I wonder how you look at this – I don’t know if it’s a false dichotomy – between male-produced work or female-produced work, or male-identifying-produced work or female-identifying-produced work, how you’d respond to this kind of statement about the personal and the universal.
Michelle Tan: I think the universal can only be reached through the personal. I had a lot of trouble with this also, when I first started writing years ago, when I was much smaller and less smart. It was also about being very ambitious, and saying ‘I want to deal with death’ – without knowing anything about it. Without feeling anything for it. I want to talk about war without having lived through it. And then I guess, as you age, you sort of realise then that there is something to be said about your lived experience and how that would inform your writing, and that then makes what you say about the universal hold more weight, and expands the truth about what you can say about the universal. Otherwise it’s all just – it’s all just conceptual, it’s not rooted in anything real.
Corrie Tan: We’re talking about the very personal and the very specific in your work. In this piece in particular, did you struggle with putting stuff, as mentioned earlier, that was very personal and very close in the words you want to say on stage, and having another person convey this?
Michelle Tan: Definitely, I did, and I think I’m still struggling with it up to this stage of rehearsals. But I think it’s like what Kaylene said also, that it stemmed from a personal place, but at the end of it, it’s also about shifting certain details, it’s about knowing how to fictionalise certain things, or how to remake details such that as the creator of the work you then have a little bit more distance from it, so that you can make it work. What helps me also is working with a performer that I know personally. She’s also a very good friend of mine, Ellison, so I think that helps the sharing of the work and talking about it on a deeper level than just artistically.
Corrie Tan: Quite a few of the works in this season of The Studios are for solo performers or very small groups of performers. For Faith, in particular, I think you have Karen Tan as the solo performer – is this the first time you’re doing a monodrama?
Faith Ng: I can’t remember? Yes? [Laughter] Yes. That was the brief that was given.
Kaylene Tan: Yes, it’s a season of monologues, we were told.
Corrie Tan: I guess some detracted from it [the brief]. But was that a good creative exercise for yourself as well, to write for that one voice?
Faith Ng: Definitely, and actually I think about two years ago, I was asked by The Necessary Stage to write a monologue for Karen. And then I rejected it because I had nothing to say. [laughs] But then when the Esplanade approached me, the first actor that I recommended was Karen. So I think Alvin Tan [artistic director of The Necessary Stage] was a bit, ‘what is this!’
Corrie Tan: But what was that experience like, crafting a monologue, because Karen of course is a veteran solo performer in that she’s done Emily of Emerald Hill, she’s done Chong Tze Chien’s To Whom It May Concern, where she does quite a virtuosic performance – what has it been like working with her and crafting this piece.
Faith Ng: It’s been such an exercise, for me as a writer. She [Karen] questions everything, which is really good, and also she’s very generous. It just so happened that at the time of workshopping the play, her dad was going through a very difficult time. Eventually, her dad passed on. A lot of what she went through – I didn’t realise, because I was writing privately during my own time – then during the read we kind of realised that there were a lot of similarities. That made it very difficult for her, as a performer, a lot of it hit very close to the bone, we weren’t sure if that was a good thing, if she was ready, if I should change certain things – it’s been so challenging.
Corrie Tan: It’s so personal to work with someone in such close proximity as a writer as well. Michelle, did you feel the same way with Ellison, these negotiations with the solo performer? Being in the room with her, did you have similar challenges that you had to figure out about her voice and how she navigated that?
Michelle Tan: Not yet – I think we haven’t jumped into that yet. I think a lot of her negotiations with the text so far have been between her and Sasi [T. Sasitharan] as the director. When I’m there, I’m kind of just sitting and listening and occasionally there’ll be like, ‘oh, maybe this line doesn’t quite work on the floor’. So I feel like any edits I’ve had to grapple with have, in that sense, been quite minor. And have not been quite as deep or emotional as Faith has described with Karen.
Corrie Tan: And Edith, as someone who’s both performing and directing this work, and you’ve also written it, how do you navigate those three different roles where you have to take on quite different positions in each one, to shape the work. How does that work for you in Leda and the Rage?
Edith Podesta: I think for me, I chose to return to a smaller way of working. I find to be doing everything, trying to be doing everything is a smaller way of working, it’s kind of like going, okay, what is the potential that I can create. I want to try things that I’ve never tried before, or haven’t been able to try just as a performer, or just as a director, or just as a writer. So when I’m writing, this time I am thinking about the final product, whereas in a show like Bitch, for instance, that I was doing the same kind of thing, I just wrote first. And I hated myself, I hated my writer self, and then as a director I hated my actor self – and now I’m trying to love all my selves and go, ‘Okay! So you want to write that? Fine. But how are you going to do that – ‘ So it’s in conversation, or in concert, all three things are working kind of together. So I find it easier, in a way. It’s a mad thing to say, but I find it easier because there is less to negotiate.
Corrie Tan: How large is your creative team? I guess apart from yourself.
Edith Podesta: I have Adrian Tan, the lighting designer; Brian Gothong Tan, the multimedia designer; Boon, the sound designer; the set designer, costume coordinator – and Mirabel, who’s in the rehearsal room almost like an assistant director, constantly giving feedback, like ‘I still don’t understand that’. So I have to go away and go, ‘do I fix that as a writer? Do I fix that as a director? Or can I fix it as an actor?’ I’m not by myself, even though it’s a small, private, intimate work – it’s still shared amongst a lot of people whom I trust.
Corrie Tan: Kaylene, how was the process of developing this work as a kind of immersive piece? I know with your performance collective spell#7, you’ve done a lot of these kinds of audio tours or audio walks in Singapore, and I think the audience can download it and go on that journey. But here it’s very specific, it combines both that sense of the tour but also the performance – I don’t know if you’re going to let the audience kind of wander round the space?
Kaylene Tan: No, they’re trapped, they’re trapped. [Laughter] Wait, what was the question?
Corrie Tan: How you kind of direct the audience experience through this space and environment.
Kaylene Tan: I think for me, I think once they put on the headphones, they’re stuck. [laughter] Lim Kay Tong is doing the voice of the man, and it’s been really nice to work with him.
Corrie Tan: So that recording with Kay Tong is done?
Kaylene Tan: No, so we did a preliminary recording, and then that was like the first draft, which we tried to work with, then we redrafted it, so this is another version now, that we’re going to record soon. I think one of the challenges for this show is to find the world in which the women exist. Because they are silent, because it’s a season of monologues. [Laughter] So finding that world, and the challenge is working with them physically – how do we make this a complete world, you know? And we’re doing it through physical actions and movement.
Corrie Tan: I know this was designed as a season of monologues –
Edith Podesta: I swear to God, I started off writing a monologue! Everything I’ve written, I’m like, yeah, yeah, I’m going to write a monologue, yeah. And then I start writing it and I go, oh God, and more and more voices –
Kaylene Tan: She needs to talk to someone –
Edith Podesta: Yeah, she needs to talk to someone! I’m going crazy.
Corrie Tan: I guess sometimes that’s just how the work develops as well, and through no fault of anyone, it’s just how that grows. But I’m also interested in the monologue form because it’s something that – I don’t know if Singapore’s just quite fond of this form. We have a lot of very prominent monologues, whether it’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, No Parking on Odd Days, especially the female monologues in particular with things like, as I mentioned earlier, Emily of Emerald Hill, or Talaq, which also talks about a very difficult divorce experience, or Rosnah, where someone goes abroad and comes back to look at Singapore a different way, or Huzir Sulaiman’s Occupation looking at a very specific period of Singapore’s history through the eyes of his grandmother – and it seems like theatremakers are drawn to this form, and I’m curious what you make of having that solo voice on the stage speaking to the audience, I’m curious that as theatremakers yourself, what draws you to this experience, if you will?
Michelle Tan: It’s quite low budget.
Corrie Tan: That is true! That’s one aspect to it. It’s very mobile.
Kaylene Tan: I think it’s a chance for storytelling. People enjoy a story. I think people enjoy watching a character unfold on stage. Also, you know, seeing the virtuosity of the performer, because in the monologue form, often the performer doesn’t just do one person, the performer does like, ten gazillion other characters you know, like Claire Wong in Atomic Jaya. I think that that’s why it’s appealing, and it’s intimate. You feel like oh, this person is telling me their story. So I think there’s something very personal, very raw about that, that is appealing.
Corrie Tan: I was quite interested [to find out] if each of you had seen any of each other’s work. Because I think a lot of you are meeting for the first time today as well. There are some connections between each of you, but I was wondering if any of you had seen the work of the others that delighted or formed an impression on you in some way, or even influenced or informed some of your work?
Edith Podesta: I remember seeing – now I can’t remember the name of the play. The Tree?
Kaylene Tan: Tree Duet.
Edith Podesta: Tree Duet! And I remember just going, oh wow. I was so moved by that production. And I think it really opened my eyes that – it really did open my eyes that you could write about something that you were passionate and in love with that wasn’t a human being. And that kind of love letter to a tree and to our environment is something that really sparked something in myself. Also that it was not just a performance – that idea that our presence there, or how much the show cost, or what was wasted environmentally in the show as well was paid for or offset by carbon, what’s that, carbon –
Kaylene Tan: Carbon footprint?
Edith Podesta: The carbon footprint was paid for! And I thought, ah, okay, so theatre is not just – if you are talking about the environment and a love letter to the environment, then it is beautiful, it was beautiful to be able to teach me how to write my own love letter by simply offsetting my carbon footprint. You know what I mean? So it opened me in a lot of different ways. But of course, I’ve seen every single person’s work.
Michelle Tan: The most recent thing I’ve seen of yours, Faith, is that play reading at TNS.
Faith Ng: Whale Fall?
Michelle Tan: Yes, Whale Fall, which I really enjoyed, because I felt it was – and I don’t know very much about all your work, but it struck me because it was quite different from the rest of the things that I’d seen. It was so short, and I really wanted it to go on a little bit.
Faith Ng: Thank you.
Corrie Tan: That was quite a departure from – as someone who’s watched some of your work, that was quite a departure from, I was pleasantly surprised by this encounter.
Faith Ng: Thank you!
Corrie Tan: And Edith, you were in Versus [which Michelle Tan wrote], and then Michelle, both you and I saw Duets 2 by spell#7 quite a long time ago, which unfortunately you [Kaylene] weren’t in –
Kaylene Tan: That Duets show was what sparked off Tree Duet, because at the end, there was this tree that popped out of the basement of the Substation, backstage, and Paul was just so unhappy with that tree, he thought, ‘it can’t end like that, I have to do something with the tree’. So that’s how Tree Duet came about.
Corrie Tan: I like that we’re all here responding to each other’s work across a season where usually you have separate weekends and a show exists and is gone. It’s quite interesting to see a lot of the relationships not just in theme, between each of your works, but also in the work you’ve seen of each other in the ecosystem. Thank you all very much for being here today, have a wonderful Studios season – Between Living and Dying.
All: Thank you.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.