Today I filled up an electronic form as part of an unsolicited script submission to a theatre company. The prompt had been to describe myself, and so I typed the following:
I’m a Singaporean playwright and performer based in London. I want to write plays that speak globally and intelligently, across borders, and to the heart of the moment.
I’ve heard of an artistic pedagogic technique that involves coming up with manifestos for your practice, but have never actually gotten around to doing one for myself. I think this is a fair start.
I’ve never been good at describing myself, or talking about my work. I remember applying for a writer’s residency in Singapore, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and being asked something to the effect of “what do you hope to achieve with your writing” during the interview. In the spirit of who I was back then, I must have spurted out something pretentious and pseudo-academic, possibly something to the effect of “creating work that disturbs the texture of the world we live in”.
I mean, I still believe this, and passionately swore by it at the time, but I was so unprepared for the question that I formed the thought (badly) in the speaking of it. I was told after the interview by one of the residency convenors that I’d come across as flighty and lacking in the self-marketing department. I was so stung by the eventual rejection from that residency that I’ve spent a lot of time cringing away from the idea of being able to speak succinctly about my work, this sort of operation being glib PR.
The past year in London’s been quite a de-stabilizing time for me creatively, and thinking on this I realise how important aphorisms, or platitudinal mission statement-y things can be in grounding myself. I recently had a long conversation with a good friend in which I gave full rein to my paranoia about not being productive and entrepreneurial enough with my time in London, at the end of which, unprompted, I blurted out: “I just want to enjoy life, and make good things while I’m at it”.
It reconciles two things that, I suppose because of my upbringing in Singapore, seem at first quite diametrically opposed. Being able to articulate it gave me a great deal of comfort. “Good things” after all is broad enough for me to encapsulate a really good meal in the same ballpark as a really good piece of art, and maybe find a comfortable medium where the making is also the enjoying. Independent, freelance practice is not immune from capitalistic divisions of time into work and non-work.
Anyway, back to “I’m a Singaporean playwright and performer based in London. I want to write plays that speak globally and intelligently, across borders, and to the heart of the moment.”
This idea of writing globally and across borders is new and exciting to me, and it comes from a newfound interest in writing drama with less specificity than I’m used to.
So much of my writing in Singapore was intensely rooted in that city and its banalities. There is a political urgency to cultivating the minutae of life in Singapore– representation of that sort is vital in a place where so much is occluded and written over by a powerful state that insinuates itself into every sphere of existence. But it does mean that for a long time I’d only painted with a very specific dramatic palette; observational naturalism, etc.
But last year, I started writing a series of short scenes that dramatized encounters between individuals and systems of power, written with no real setting in mind except a vague sense of the contemporary, give or take twenty or so years. These were vignettes that operated in no place but that were therefore able to stand in for numerous places, and in dramatizing conflicts of this sort, drew on an elemental history of the will to and abuse of power. Perhaps nothing is truly placeless, and textures will creep in that will inevitably situate any piece of writing, but I think there is value in the attempt to create something with enough openness to speak to multiple realities simultaneously.
A few years ago I read this short story that Zadie Smith published in the New Yorker. The story dramatizes the arrival of two menacing men in an unspecified community, and how women rise to resist them, putting themselves at risk. It tugs on numerous histories and realities at once, as if threading through places near and faraway with the same needle: the power that men claim, and the violences that emerge from that entitlement.
I went to revisit the piece recently and came across this interview Smith gave about the story. I find this quote, about an abstracted writing that “implicates everybody,” inspiring:
I started thinking of all the ways the local and specific enable one kind of engagement and potentially block another, particularly when you’re talking about violence. “Oh, that’s just what happens in Africa,” or “Well, Eastern Europe has always been like that.” Sometimes the specific details allow us to hold certain situations at a distance. The conversation with my friend made me wonder: Is it possible to write a story that happens in many places at many times simultaneously? That implicates everybody?
I really like implication as a dramatic operation. For me it stands at the opposite end of that other operation of the theatre, which is flattery. I think all of us as theatre audiences need to be implicated more in the drama we watch, beyond being assured of principles we already believe in, we need to see ourselves as deeply situated in all kinds of historic and ongoing crises.
We have been living, for the past 10 years at least, in a situation, globally, where there is a thread of consciousness that implicates and connects many societies across borders in a singular political and spiritual crisis: the seeming immortality of oppressive power, the dehumanising structures we have built to sustain us, and radical hope and despair in equal measure. I like being able to tug on that thread, to capture the texture of living in this moment, drawing on its most emblematic features. There’s a widening possibility of developing a language that can actually capture something universal, or close to it.
In discussing Beckett, one of the tutors on my programme at the Drama Centre described Beckett’s work, and the work of others in that lineage, as rendering a poetic vision of humanity through deep abstraction. I like this idea of a figurative drama, or poetic stage action. In eschewing literal reality, this work comes to encompass so much of it.
And beyond all that, it’s just hell of a lot of fun to write. The mode allows me to tap into different parts of my writerly brain. A uni professor of mine once said that my prose style is very baroque, and I carried a lot of that into my playwriting. I’ve found lately that writing with less specificity forces me to do more with less, and to make everything in the scene earn its place. It’s almost the same sort of compression that is so essential to writing poetry. Plus, with this sort of drama, I’ve found that form itself can produce meaning; it’s no longer just a vessel for character and story, but an active component of the drama. The choice and length of a scene, the partitions of time, become meaningful. Entrances and exits take on heightened significance. Language becomes more than utterance, and can be lyric and menace, song and violence.
Anyway, I was really glad to be able to articulate all this. I think “manifesto” is a little pompous. Maybe the term “first principles”. Today has been a little spark of motivation in what’s otherwise been a pretty glum morass of self-doubt and thumb-twiddling ennui.