An Interview with Playwright Chong Tze Chien
Hi Tze Chien, tell us more about yourself and what you’ve been up to these days!
Hi I’m Chong Tze Chien, I’m a playwright and director, and I’m currently the Company Director of the local theatre company The Finger Players (TFP).
Right now the running of The Finger Players takes up time. I work on HR issues, strategic planning, and whatever else that needs to be done. More than half my time is actually spent running the company.
What do you love most about writing and theatre?
Funnily enough, I never liked writing. Maybe it was school, I just hated writing in school. But I love theatre and theatre-making, and I’ve always been drawn to the process of creation. I was lucky to be introduced to The Necessary Stage (TNS) via two incidents - the first when I was 12, when I got on board as a child actor for TNS. That was in the early stages of TNS when they were doing Shell Theatre performances. The second incident was because my JC Drama Club teacher, Josephine Peters, was one of the founders of TNS, so I participated in acting workshops conducted by TNS and they recognised me from the work I had done earlier as a child. So I kept in touch with TNS since, and then I went to the army. While I was serving the nation I also took the time to watch many theatre productions. Then I entered NUS, and decided to try to spend as little time as possible in school, so I ended up cramming modules on specific weekdays. The remaining time I used to do everything from from acting to sound management, cleaning up, or even wardrobe. I was very much an observer, and I would watch how theatre companies conducted their rehearsals and how they carried out their devising processes.
Actually I ended up writing only because, joined Action Theatre’s 10-Min-Play Contest out of spite. I had a senior there who was a playwright, and I thought he was just very arrogant and hated his guts. So I went and borrowed a few books, one of them being “A Collection of Singapore Prize-Winning Plays”, and then I started to write, and my play won 2nd prize! From then I guess I knew there was something in me to write.
Around the time when Theatreworks launched the Singapore Dramatist Award, I had decided to write a play out of stress, actually. Writing helps me with stress, and that was when I wrote PIE, and it won the award. Theatreworks staged it, and almost immediately after, Haresh Sharma invited me to join as an associate playwright, under a mentorship by Haresh himself. There were two of us under Haresh - myself and Alfian Sa’at. Soon I just got round to being a full-time playwright.
What do you think of the local theatre / playwrighting scene?
Well, firstly there are very few of us playwrights around. I mean, there’s a Theatre scene for sure, but writers are few. From what I gather mentoring emerging and aspiring playwrights, I don't think people realise how technical it is to write a play. It’s not like normal writing - it’s not language-driven.
Writing a good play that invites an audience to infer meaning from what is portrayed on the stage, it requires the playwright to rely on the power of suggestion. It’s very different from prose or poetry because the words aren’t meant to be read, but read out loud. So the way that meaning is constructed on stage will definitely be different from prose and poetry. If you want to write a good play, technical considerations of the stage and of theatre need to be mastered before putting words on stage.
I think there are so few of us playwrights also because a) it’s daunting, and b) it takes a long time to develop a play, let alone develop a playwright who has mastered the skill of playwriting. And more often than not, chances are that aspiring playwrights may not even have the platforms needed to produce their own works. And this is an issue because for a playwright, the play you write is itself not complete until it is staged. I think at one point crafting a play was very director-led, meaning that directors found a text, and then started devising from there. There’s generally a lot of risk that you must take when you develop a play, and picking up a script requires a lot of theatrical consideration. To continue developing a playwright’s body of work is a huge undertaking.
In terms of how some playwrights have succeeded in putting their work out there consistently, I think the reason why the playwrights who have persevered and found a voice for themselves within our scene is because theatre companies have taken them in and invested heavily in them. Just think about Theatreworks supporting Elanor Wong and Tan Tarn How, or Haresh Sharma with The Necessary Stage, or Action Theatre and Ovidia Yu.
I think we have to understand that playwrights meed a lot of support. Playwrights are like very lonely single people looking for spouses - theatre companies - to produce their work. Some playwrights can be directors and producers as well but not all of us are, and if you’re just a playwright who’s reliant on theatre companies to produce your work, chances are you will always be a single entity struggling to find someone. I mean it’s very much unlike a director who can pick up a script or devise. A playwright can’t do that - plays written have to have a platform to be staged. Good playwrights who have managed to consistently produce are very, very rare. Writers need to be protected! We’re an endangered species and we don’t have many playwrights. But the few that are around, especially aspiring and emerging playwrights, do need all the support they can get.
I think it’s been mentioned that a lot your plays have a strong common issue of death, save for your most recent production under The Finger Players, ‘Framed, by Adolf’. But your earlier plays like ‘Poop!’ and ‘Spoilt’ all deal very much with death. Why this pet topic of yours?
Actually this wasn’t at all intentional. It was only after my fifth play that someone pointed out that my plays revolved around death, and that in every play I’d either have someone dead, or someone dying. I guess my obsession with death came from my personal experience of having to deal with multiple deaths in my family one particular year. I was very young, probably still back in primary school then. And suddenly there were just so many funerals that I was being brought to. I remember it felt like Chinese New Year to me - I got to meet my cousins play with them, and then there was always a lot of food… So to me attending funerals became a happy occasion actually, in a very macabre way. These experiences then influenced and altered my view of death. From a young age I’ve always seen death as a kind of closure of a chapter that eventually leads to healing, and this has always given me a peace of mind. Death can be a beautiful thing.
Where my writing is concerned, I did not consciously tackle death as an issue until I wrote ‘Poop!’. In a way ‘Poop!’ really crystallised my experiences and view on death. Death heals, and in ‘Poop!’ I wrote death to be a celebration. Actually ‘Poop!’ came about by accident as well. It was originally meant to be Jean’s monologue about the suicide of a close relative, ‘And Buddha Said Mop The Floor’. She didn’t want to touch it again but she approached me and asked if I would like to adapt it. Along with this I was also given “The Book of Living and Dying”, which is a book on Tibetan Buddhism and reads like a scientific manual. I was reading both at the same time back then, and I wrote a draft and showed it to Jean who read it. She called at around 11am one morning and said “Maybe you’re being held ransom by these 2 texts. Just abandon the briefs and write whatever comes to your mind.”. It was a huge relief, actually. So I begun to think about my own take on death, and how nice it might be if I could look at death as a child from his point of view and put that into ‘Poop!’. So I had this rare eureka moment and went up to my office and just sat there furiously typing. By 5pm, I had the first draft.
Theatre and Literature seem to have a co-dependency. What’s your take on the relationship between our local Theatre and Literary scenes?
I see them as distant cousins. 2 years ago, I wrote ‘Rant and Rave’, which is a play that charts the development and history of the literary scene. What is interesting is that the relationship between a writer who writes novels and poet is that they need a good working relationship with the publisher and bookstores, and vice versa. In the theatre scene, we tend to have a comparably tumultuous relationship with authorities or people who provide venues, for example. These bonds, or rather the lack thereof, reflect what Singapore is like today: politics. Social dynamics. We’re also obsessed with local representation and trying to define a singular Singaporean voice, a voice that belongs to us. For us in theatre, it’s about finding the platform to convert any possible audience prejudice into support and give them reason to have faith in local works and local artists. We fight from different angles and through industries. The theatre and literary scenes don't meet that organically, despite there being a few collaborations only in recent years. I’d say the two usually work in isolation but the struggles are pretty much the same.
So more local plays and literature need to be published?
Definitely, but it’s very lopsided. It’s like the content creators - novelists, playwrights, poets, artists, creators, are producing content, but the infrastructure - reviewers, publishers, bookstores, the media - haven’t caught up. We know more about what’s happening in the West than right here in Singapore. That’s because there are people there talking about the art being produced, and we read essays, reports, and reviews on what’s being created there, but for someone to know anything about our scene, if you think about it there actually are only very few avenues. And while we are producing work and content, no one is actually keeping track. It’s the same for our local literature as well. Until 2 years ago when I was commissioned by SWF to document the scene, there hasn’t been a consistent effort to do so. And it’s only recently that we’re starting to include local texts as part of our school syllabus, but even then they are very selected texts and they’re very safe choices. And because not every school includes these texts, the number of students who actually end up accessing and studying these texts is only a small percentage of the total who study Literature. Exposure to local works is still a minority of a minority. Our work needs to go to the mass media - the TV, the papers, anything you can find. But the problem is, in the current socio-political climate, many things are deemed offensive, and so many works cannot be brought to light - and especially not by the media. So our reach is only to a certain minority of our population who know we exist, but we need our works to reach the majority of the population and we need advocates of local Singaporean culture. We need to enter the consciousness of the masses. People from the masses may not choose to read a book, but they are at least aware of that book. So the challenge for us playwrights, artists, and writers has always been to try to discover: What can we produce that is something demands respect from the average Singaporean, and how much do we have to do to finally have enough done?
I also feel that for most of us, we see culture as something that is either elitist or too foreign that we should to partake in only once in a while. And then there’s the whole conversation about local works being deemed as something of inferior culture, which is sadly, the common man’s perception of SingLit. We see that in prejudices against Singapore texts and comments that go round like a certain book is “good for local standards”. What do you even mean by ‘local standards’? And this prejudice is reinforced right from day one when we’re students because we are not introduced to local works and the local scene. Rant and Rave should be taught in History classes. A lot of things should go into schools, but educators think local works are subpar. Why should we be studying Shakespeare instead of Haresh Sharma? And even then, those who are in favour of Singapore literature don’t have the resources to teach. I think a few schools have been trying to incorporate more local texts but they’ve said that the trouble is there are no companion guides. No one is writing enough about local plays and books to use them as teaching aids. So realistically-speaking, much as we want to advocate a revolution I do understand that there are many hurdles. And help and support needs to come from the supporting industry and people’s mindsets. I mean why else is BooksActually still struggling? At the end of the day we’re all struggling with the same issues, but no one is consolidating these efforts to bring about a kind of revolution. On an institutional level, we need people who can go into these institutions and say local texts are compulsory. Exposure to local works is compulsory. Without advocates who support local works, it’s a difficult road to trudge.
Interviewed by: Cheryl Tan, July 2018