By Akanksha Raja
(530 words, 5-minute read)
Blue Bean Productions’ maiden show Dear Jay was spawned from a series of e-mail exchanges between producer and lead actor Benedict Leong and playwright Euginia Tan, about personal experiences coping with mental illness. They had met while working on the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival in June 2016, him as assistant producer of the 8-day event and her as a playwright whose work Tuition was staged at the festival. The two struck a close friendship that laid the foundation for Dear Jay.
Dear Jay is an epistolary play that is retold from the perspective of Leonard (played by Leong) coming to terms with his closest friend’s suicide. Through non-sequential flashbacks, the play explores their relationship, Leonard’s grieving, and speaks about mental illness among youth, including its impact on caregivers.
The play was conceived a monologue, but after Tan roped in director Hazel Ho to get involved, it grew to become a more dynamic piece. “When I read it for the first time I felt it needed to be a physical, ensemble show, even if the other characters weren’t saying anything for most of it.” The NUS Theatre Studies graduate, now a producer at The Improv Company, had never directed a physical theatre piece before, so it was a challenge she was excited to take on. “It’s been a steep learning curve. But now it looks pretty good!”
It’s not the first time mental illness as a subject has been explored on stage in Singapore. There is the acclaimed 1993 production Off-Centre by The Necessary Stage, that was made an O-level Literature text by the Ministry of Education in 2007, after which it was re-staged multiple times. As cases of suicide, anxiety, and statistics of mental illness among youth show a distinct increase, there has been a rising number of community and governmental efforts to encourage discussion about the issue. Yet a recent study led by the Institute of Mental Health still finds that there is “a critical need to create more awareness”.
Actress Juliana Kassim Chan acknowledges that even though there is increasingly more discussion on issues such as anxiety and eating disorders, for example, “it’s still difficult to listen to people who actually face it.” That’s why such plays are important, “because it’s very personal.” Fellow actress Darrell Chan agrees, adding that the play steers away from preaching counsel or sugarcoating the reality of those who experience mental illness. Nor of the struggles of caregivers, as co-actor Amil Adam Sharif points out, who also face difficulty finding support for themselves due to the psychological effort needed to take care of their loved ones affected by mental illness.
That’s why the team has invited various organisations that focus on different aspects of mental illness support to each of the performances to lead a post-show audience discussion, including Over the Rainbow, Singapore Association for Mental Health, Silver Ribbon Singapore and Happy Youth. The aim, as Leong reiterates, is to grow an understanding of different aspects of mental illness, from the various people it affects including friends, caregivers and support groups, and to encourage openness and discussion concerning an issue most of us are well aware of, but about which few feel comfortable opening up a conversation.
Dear Jay by Blue Bean Productions will show at Esplanade Theatre Studio from 15 – 18 December 2016. For tickets and more information, click here.