An Interview With Gina Chew, Playwright Of Permanence
Where do you find your passion in script writing? What made you start writing scripts?
I’ve always liked writing. Even as a kid, my compositions would always be stupidly excessive. Once we had an assignment to write about a trip to the zoo, and I wrote it from the giraffe’s perspective. In secondary school, my teacher gave us this assignment to write a one scene play. I tried it out and ran with it, and it opened up a new way of conveying thoughts and ideas and stories.
I love that after creating the universe of the play, the characters come into their own voice and I get to play with building their lives from their personalities — the things they say and the things they don’t. The honest thoughts they have, and the awful lies they tell. I love how it all comes together.
My passion comes from telling the story I want to tell. Script writing is just the medium I use. So if I enjoy the lives that are unfolding in my play, going back to it over and over again becomes less of a chore. Case in point: I’ve been writing Permanence for about 5 years. Maybe if I spend any longer on it, I’ll start killing my characters off one by one. Haha.
We see that you aim to make theatre more affordable and accessible. How do you plan to do so in your capacity as a playwright?
I think writing the stories that only we can tell — shaped by my life, my experience, my background — is a good start. From there, we can draw out accessible moments for the audience.
With Permanence, I really wanted an original, relatable and raw story with moments that people can connect to — feelings that they might have encountered before, memories that might even be shared with the character. It’s not a hard play to watch at all — it’s a little racy, a little indecent, a little unabashed — not a bad way to live life, I think.
Affordability in theatre is trickier, especially if you don’t compromise on making sure the entire cast and crew and creative team is compensated properly for months and months of hard work, while ensuring that the show is not held back by any restrictions. I don’t have an answer for this yet. I will someday.
We have been introduced many plays through our years of formal education. I'm sure you are no stranger to this as well (a lot of Shakespeare and even local playwrights such as Verena Tay and Stella Kon).
Has interacting with plays impacted you in any way? Are there specific morals / values that plays and theatre inculcate which other forms of literature do not?
I think literature in any shape or form can convey what is important. So no, no specific morals or values that only theatre can convey.
The thing is, because theatre is so visceral, so “right there” in front of you, it’s a really sobering and stark way to convey its message. But I’ve felt this impact from many other mediums of literature and film. My life has changed in some small way because of books, film, plays, comic books, poetry… I’ve seen stand-up routines that left me a mess. You know what I mean? I think I feel the same after reading a good play, as I do from reading a good film, a good poem etc.
So, while theatre has a soft spot in my heart, I don’t really see it as all that different from other mediums that at their heart, want to tell a story.
Do you wish for your play to be restaged again and again for decades to come?
Ooh. That’s tricky. If Permanence becomes the crowning glory of my career, that would be nice, but I do want to explore some other narratives and genres as well, and keep pushing myself as a writer.
This play was “easy” for me to write in a way, because I could dissect what I was feeling at a certain point in my life, you know? Just translate feelings into words, rinse and repeat. In some ways, I feel like I have outgrown whoever I was when I first wrote it, that’s why the play is completely different from the first draft. So, yes, if it’s still relevant, if people still want to hear these characters on stage. As long as these words are earning the audience’s attention, definitely.
Who are some of the contemporary playwrights that you look up to?
I’m currently obsessed with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Maybe it’s because I’m writing for the film industry now as well, so seeing how Fleabag started as a one-woman play and blew up into an Emmy-winning show is amazing. And the show is so exhilarating, so tragic, so “omg-yes-exactly-that-feeling”. I want to be her when I grow up.
Some more direct inspirations for Permanence includes Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which lent my main character her name, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which is really delightful and lyrical to read. Abi Morgan’s Lovesong is a very poetic intersection of past and present.
People, Places & Things by Duncan Macmillan is a fun piece too, and Huzir Sulaiman’s The Weight of Silk on Skin blew me away when I first read it and even more when I watched Adrian Pang’s take on it. Reading Alfian Sa’at always promises a good, heavy time too.
Since your debut, what have you learned about the local theatre scene?
In every new staging of Permanence, I’ve learnt a bit more about what goes on behind the scenes, what it takes to translate the words on paper into lives that are worth listening to for 2 hours.
A lot can be said about the theatre scene from the role of a writer or director. It’s honestly a really vibrant, welcoming, encouraging ecosystem. But the biggest takeaway for me would have to be working with set designers, lighting designers, sound designers etc and the whole production team. To see people approach my play from a different creative standpoint, asking me different questions from different perspectives keeps this whole process really interesting. It’s also given me a lot more to consider when I write my next play.
In closing, what can we hope to see from you in the future?
My next project is actually not in the theatre scene. I’m currently working on a comic book, called Afterlife with an independent comic publisher based in Singapore called Difference Engine. So that’s a whole other medium and universe that I’m exploring. It’s about a girl who ventures into the, well, afterlife to rescue her brother and all the weird and wonderful things she runs into during her journey.
Writing for film, print and stage has been equal parts eye-opening and taxing. But I love finding more ways for these lines to cross, for the skills to bleed into each other, for the messiness to gather itself into new stories. Am I allowed to swear? Because it’s been a fucking ride.