Theatre fans have much to look forward to starting this week, as the ‘Alfian Sa’at – In The Spotlight’ festival by theatre company Wild Rice opens its run on Wednesday 3 July.
Playwright Alfian Sa’at and Wild Rice founding artistic director Ivan Heng are spearheading the showcase, which includes the premiere of Alfian’s latest work, ‘Cook a Pot Of Curry’.
Also read: War of the words - The works of Alfian Sa'at
Directed by Glen Goei, ‘Cook a Pot of Curry’ tackles the issue of foreigners in Singapore. Its title is taken directly from the nationwide event that took place August 2011 in response to a news report that a Singapore Indian family had to cook curry less frequently after their new neighbours from China complained about the smell.
There will also be a series of workshops and discussions.
In this interview, Alfian and Heng gives inSing a glimpse of their creative process (and the odd lo-fi curry joint recommendation).
How intertwined is your work and personal life?
Heng: The best theatre reflects human experience, and in order to connect with characters or a particular issue, I've always tapped on my personal experience, whenever possible. And when I can’t, there is always research, observation and the imagination. The theatre is a professional calling for me. So I find myself living, breathing and dreaming theatre. It is my passion. So I don't work, but neither do I have a "personal life".
Is there anybody from whom you can say you learned the most about writing?
Alfian: I would say I learnt most from my playwriting mentor, Haresh Sharma. He was the one who taught me that character integrity was paramount in a play; one shouldn’t use characters either as mouthpieces for one’s viewpoints or to milk laughs from the gallery.
How do you weigh, judge and discard material in your playwriting process?
Alfian: I don’t think there’s any standard formula for this process and like many other writers, it all boils down to what is instinctive to me. After you’ve launched your work into a public arena, you start to be able to tell what will work and what won’t, which is why it’s very important for playwrights to have their plays staged; it’s the only way for them to learn.
In your previous interview, you mentioned you spent time eavesdropping on your neighbours?
Alfian: Well, I don’t really eavesdrop on my next-door neighbours, but sometimes I do mentally record the way people express themselves. That’s why I like to chat with taxi drivers because sometimes, they can encapsulate some very complex ideas with a pithy turn of phrase.
I met a taxi driver who complained to me that the Government was the kind that was paranoid about being generous to the population. Even if there were handouts during times of crises, it would calibrate them such that one had to prove that one was entitled to these handouts. He told me that Singapore could be summed up in one line: ‘Terms and conditions apply’.
Does writing still have the initial urgency that it had when you were writing ‘One Fierce Hour’ (the first poetry collection in 1998) and ‘Corridor’ (a collection of short stories in 1999)?
Alfian: I think it’s very difficult for me to write anything if there was not some kind of urgency driving it. For me, what is urgent is anything that society fears discussing in an open and honest manner, which can range from something like systemic racism to treatment of foreign workers, to environmental and heritage issues.
Let’s talk about muses: is it a reality or myth?
Heng: I have many muses – people who inspire me, challenge me and turn me on. Alfian is one of them. And so are all the actors I am working with at the moment.
How would you characterise yourself on the stage?
Alfian: I’m just going to do an idiosyncratic reading of this question, and take it that you mean how I am as an actor. I suck. I get the kind of stage fright that makes me incapable of turning in an authentic performance.
I get into a default mode of acting where my face becomes a fixed mask rather than a transmitter of emotion and ideas.
Part of the reason why I write plays is that I fantasise about playing the parts that I’ve written, knowing full well that I’m not equal to the task. And then when the script gets passed on to actors, I just live vicariously through their God-given talents!
How do you like your curry?
Alfian: There’s a roadside stall in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, that sells the best fish head curry. I eat everything except the eyeballs. How can anyone?
‘Cook A Pot Of Curry’ seems to have more voices than the Singapore Conversation movement started by the Government. How was it like developing the work?
Alfian: Frankly speaking, I do believe the Singapore Conversation involved a larger number of participants. And I do not intend the play to be exhaustive. It’s a snapshot of voices at this particular moment of transition, where the number of foreign-born Singaporeans might eventually exceed that of the native-born.
It has been an illuminating journey, because I found my own preconceptions being challenged along the way. And I hope the audience has theirs challenged, too.
To revisit Alfian’s earlier works and presenting them to a new audience, what was that experience like?
Heng: The first time I ever heard of Alfian Sa'at was watching ‘The Optic Trilogy’ in 2001, so it is like coming full circle for me. I remember at the time appreciating its distinctive Singapore voice and how it managed to tap into our national psyche, our soul. It's a moving, soul-searching piece and now older and, hopefully, wiser.
I directed both ‘Asian Boys Vol 2’ (2004) and ‘Asian Boys Vol 3’ (2007), and felt I had to complete the trilogy with ‘Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol 1’.
Written at the tentative turn of the millennium, this is one of Singapore’s first openly gay plays, and it shines a light on a community emerging from the shadows. It’s a wickedly funny camp extravaganza and presents an alternative reading of Singapore’s history, reclaiming it for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community – proudly, loudly and fabulously.
To know our struggle, our history, to understand who we are, these are the first steps to fulfilling one’s potential and one's role in the community. Given that the world is finally waking up and recognising LGBT rights as human rights, this play becomes significant. It becomes a story about Singapore’s evolution as well as the history of civilisation.