I’ve found myself, lately, in a strange position where people come to me seeking advice on playwriting. The latest kicker is that I’m now facilitating a young-people’s playwriting residency at the Woodlands Regional Library, essentially tasked to “teach” playwriting.
We had our first meeting– a wonderful, probing, exciting morning– on Saturday, and as much as I left inspired, I also left sweaty and freaked out. I realised in the almost three hours that my two charges and I sat around a table talking about Singapore, poetry, art, the theatre (what is, wherefore, whereto), plays and other pertinent things, that there are ways forward on this beat that are more fraudulent than others. Do I “teach” playwriting? Do I “teach”? What’s there to teach, considering how little I actually know? The back-story here is that I’ve only been a theatre practitioner for the past 3 years, and even then in a way that I think in some structures and communities might be considered amateurish and erratic. I won’t take anyone down a list of my deep professional insecurities, but even in, say, a chirpier framing of the situation, there’s a nugget of ambivalence: “I’m very blessed to have received the opportunities I have, considering my inexperience”.
One could be very patronising about this– all kinds of false modesty and self-deprecation. I do think my experience counts for something, and that if I am clear-headed and consistent enough, I do have useful things to say. I’ve just had to be very conscious of not being prescriptive about anything: it’s not about me or my “method” or “approach” (half the time I have no idea what I’m doing anyway); it’s not about the compositional histories of my plays (all patchy, erratic and different); it’s not about my take on the history of the theatre (gaps in knowledge so big they may form their own systems of knowledge); it’s not about what I think makes a good play (I’ve had to unlearn as much as anyone else, and do I even like all my plays; question mark). It’s about what we can hope to achieve over X amount of weeks, subjecting ourselves to Z amount of consistent, enforced writing and critique, talking about the bigger issues surrounding our lives and work, and reminding each other of what we set out to do with the piece in the first place. I think that in itself is an opportunity that’s not always forthcoming (and sadly so, in a landscape where ‘mentorship’ has become institutionalised where once, I hear, it was more casual and organic). And I’ve had to say, I too am in this circle, along with you, leading the way only by dint of having done it a little longer than you, sharing what I know, but exposing myself to critique like everyone else.
On the same Saturday, I went to join a panel discussion with Ms. Geetha Creffield at the Orchard Library. It was a strangely-titled panel, “Writing for theatre in artsy Singapore,” (which is all I’ll say about that name), as part of the Singapore Book Council’s “All In” festival for young writers. So here, again, the weirdness of being put into these positions– not the first time, and always with a bit of embarrassment: what do you want me to say, really? As it turned out, my interests and Geetha’s are much aligned– she is researching for her PhD on ethnic representations in Singapore Theatre– but overall we didn’t make for a very interesting talk for the mostly teenage audience; there were people nodding off. I think the only thing I said that afternoon that may have been useful or educational ran something along the lines of: “plays come in all shapes and sizes; they can be delicate small things and huge, monstrous ones; quiet, whispering plays, or brash shouting matches; and all of them are plays”. Even then I probably ripped that off from somewhere, and question: do I even believe that? Sometimes I think I’ve swallowed some of the water in the pool we’re all splashing about in (like, what does it even mean to say “I hated that play?” maybe it’s a dramatist’s natural inclination for hyperbole, but hating someone else’s art must surely be the silliest thing imaginable). We’re all trying to stay afloat, and, heart-on-sleevely, I think it’d be easier if we all just clung onto one another instead of trying to push each other underwater, which water, by the way, often tastes of piss and shit and sweat and wasted opportunities.
But sometimes I look around, a young person trying to do more work in the theatre, and see primarily the ghosts of neon billboards from a faraway country’s theatre belt being willed into corporeality, and think: gee, maybe we do have to be a bit more exacting about what we think is good and bad. God, where are we going? Geetha, as part of her presentation, had prepared a simple powerpoint slide that compiled production images and/or marketing images from professional theatre production in Singapore between January 2014 and February 2015. She says it’s totally representative and that there were no omissions (other than of non-professional productions, question mark, but hey), and even before seeing the slides, I already kinda suspected what I’d see. But it was in the seeing that there was some real power: image after image of big, splashy productions, American plays, British plays, Western repertory, big, gauche musicals, the high-speed flickering of billboard lights… and then just a tiny cluster near the end of new Singapore writing. The rhetoric is tiring, the arguments almost stale, but boy are the pictures bright and glaring, and it seems the ghosts of foreign theatres have found small passes across the threshold and emerge here in a dazzling aspect. I don’t even know what I feel about it, to be honest. I don’t want to be that grump in a corner going “no one produces my plays anymore,” because that’s not true. So maybe all of this amateur ethnography is in service of having something political to whinge about over cocktails at those fabulous gala night parties, to drink down the complicity and share a knowing smirk about how ironically one takes the enterprise, air-kiss, air-kiss.
So then, a quite separate anxiety hits me square in the chest last night as I’m falling asleep: what’s it all for? Who comes to watch the theatre anyway? Some gay lawyer friends of mine, right now in their mid to late twenties like I am, have been attracting my attention lately because it occurs to me that I don’t like them anymore. One of them posts, in response to recent Budget announcements, that he’s irritated about having his taxes increased. Now I don’t know what his financial situation is, and maybe heavier taxes are a chore, but then there are these endless albums of long vacations in expensive cities, fine dining plates, lovingly documented alongside pictures of luxury buys. And it’s easy to caricature the type: young ambitious, smart, well-educated gay man with a high-paying corporate job, cashing in on visions of douche-bag male glamour– the leather shoes, the bespoke suits, the high-end food, the gym-sculpted bodies– and willing a capitalist fantasy of a life led amongst equals into the world around them. And so when I hear him complaining about his taxes, I hear a complex humble brag about how much he earns, and think: douchebag.
Another one of these friends of mine, before I blocked him in a fit of rage from my feed, had posted that he wished for Singapore a rapid transformation into, zero-irony, Manhattan, blithely arguing away provocations that for many Singaporeans (the not-his-ilk sort of whom he is openly contemptuous), that vision is neither appealing nor fantastical, and that many of the things people hate about Manhattan– over-crowding, costliness, douche-baggery– already exist here and would be compounded many times over in such a Cinderella sea-change. Most recently, perhaps facetiously if we give him the benefit of doubt, he posted something along the lines of how Orchard road had become overrun by “low-life scum”. I hope I read it out of context, but something tells me not.
So this relates to my anxiety about my work because I wonder: is the work I do really just a bauble in a wealthy douchebag fantasy of a civilised life? Even then, let’s not flatter myself: do these people even bother coming to my plays, or is the knowledge of the theatre’s existence enough to sustain a magic vision of this city? It’s a vision I saw one day, stumbling accidentally into a douchebag cocktail party at the top of a tall building in the financial district, where people cooed patronisingly as I described my writerly occupation, as they drank themselves silly and pretended to care about issues they had clever things to say about.
What kept me up was that in the final assessment, one can’t get away from the fact that the theatre is a bourgeois institution. And what really does and can it do except uncover “humanity” and “empathy” and the “complexity of life” for people who have turned those things into flattering fetish objects; occasionally show “how the less fortunate live” or “expose injustices” in an echo chamber of mutual re-assurance; provide complex ideas for people to chew on and mull over just to say they have. Hold up pleasant images saying “this is you,” holding up ugly images saying “this could be you if you don’t agree with the play”. I have no answers, except to hope that in small ways, the work mixes up the alchemy of the air we breathe and wishes into being a future that is more tolerable (and even then, why should playwrights be seen as bringers of truth as if we aren’t, too, impossibly imbricated in the same ideologies we appear to resist?). So for now, it’s a matter of framing and personal reckoning: I can no longer pretend with any dignity that my work has any power outside the auditorium, nor am I going to pretend that I’m doing this work to “change the world,” least of all flatter myself that the work is “important,” worse still, “necessary”. It sometimes makes me feel dirty to think of who gets to clap along and think they’ve fulfilled their annual quota for deviance. I don’t want to be an instrument for that kind of soft-headed fantasy. The same audience that seems to enjoy my plays can also laugh along to another show’s offensive, intelligence-insulting caricatures and that frightens me: how complicit am I?