Michael Chiang's Private Arts
Michael Chiang on connecting with the audience
By Felix Cheong
Michael Chiang is widely acknowledged as Singapore’s most popular playwright, thanks to the many hit comedies that he has written in the last two decades.
His playwriting career began with a 30-minute play, Beauty Box, which was commissioned for the 1984 Singapore Festival of Arts. It broke new ground in its liberal use of Singlish, though the play also hinged on stereotypes to milk the laughs.
In 1985, Chiang published a humour book on national service called Army Daze, which became an instant bestseller. It was later adapted to a full-length play in 1987 and made into a movie in 1996.
In 1988, Chiang and composer Dick Lee were commissioned to write a musical for the Singapore Arts Festival. The result was Beauty World. It played to full houses and by popular demand, returned for another sell-out season a few months later. Four years later, in 1992, a new production toured Japan for three weeks at the invitation of the Japan Cultural Foundation.
In 1992, Chiang again broke new ground with Private Parts, a ‘serious comedy’ about a popular TV star whose life turns upside down after he meets three patients in a sex-change clinic. It won Chiang his best reviews yet, with the Straits Times commenting that “Private Parts is a special production that should not close until every person in this country has seen it”. No less than 20,000 people caught the show during its sell-out season.
Felix Cheong caught up with the 50-year-old playwright, fresh after a year-long sabbatical, just as a new production of Private Parts was due to open at the Esplanade Theatre last August.
FC: Why did you go on this sabbatical and what did you do during the period?
MC: It took me a year and a half for my bosses [at MediaCorp Publishing, where Chiang holds the position of Editorial Director] to agree to let me go. At that point, there were a couple of projects that had been sitting on my plate for a long time. Channel 5 had wanted me to write Army Daze: The TV Series for a long time. I kept saying: I don’t have time.
I was also approached to do a screenplay for Beauty World. Again, it had been sitting on my plate for a few years. At the rate I was going, with publishing being such a fulltime thing, it was unlikely I’d have the time to do the projects.
Also, I’m starting to value my personal time a lot more, to spend more time with family. At this point in my life, I just want to slow down and do the things I didn’t have time to do, whether it’s writing, family or travelling. That was the idea: to take 12 months off and not have an agenda. But in the end, I didn’t write a word!
FC: You must be feeling suitably guilty about it?
MC: No, not at all! When I came back, Channel 5 asked me: have you finished writing the series? No, I haven’t started! And the movie people asked: did you write it? No!
FC: What was the rationale for turning Army Daze into a TV series, since a movie version has already been made?
MC: For Channel 5, they’re probably keen to develop something that already has a following, rather than try to create a new series. The name Army Daze itself has a certain recognition factor. So it’s a spin-off about these five characters. Actually, I think it’ll work out.
FC: Would you be willing to let someone else do the writing?
MC: That was actually the plan. But I told them I don’t mind doing the pilot and maybe work with a pool of writers to do the weekly show. At that point, I was still working fulltime, so I said I don’t think I could be doing this on a regular basis. I would do the pilot and then draw up the links between the characters and the subplots, and let somebody else write it.
FC: Have you thought of writing fulltime, becoming, say, TheatreWorks’ resident playwright?
MC: It’s crossed my mind many, many times. It’s something I’ve always wondered – whether it’s possible to eke out a fulltime existence being a writer.
But I think it’s been enjoyable and fun precisely because it’s not the thing I live for. It’s a hobby. I don’t feel pressured to constantly produce something every two months. It takes the pressure off. I write when I feel I have something to say or when somebody offers me a slot in a theatre season. I’ve sort of conditioned myself to see my writing as a part-time thing.
Maybe 10 to 20 years ago, I might’ve thought this was something I could seriously do. Right now, there’s so much going on. The good thing is there’re more theatre groups. The chances of getting something out there are possibly higher. But at the same time, I’m also competing with a lot of younger writers with more experimental work.
FC: Speaking of the theatre scene now, over the past few years, there seems to be a dearth of good playwrights. A lot of self-indulgent stuff that has nothing to say. What’s your take?
MC: I have to agree. Sometimes it’s because it’s a younger batch of writers, so they write about things immediately relevant that appeal to them. Sometimes they just want to make a statement or raise an eyebrow. I can understand that, because they’re younger. [But] the motivation is not totally sound sometimes. You get a lot of [new] works but not all of it connects with the audience.
It’s a fad, but the reality is: if you do too much of that kind of stuff, the audience will also pick and choose. If they see three shows in that same vein, they’ll probably say, “Enough of these local experimental and self-indulgent plays. I’ll wait for a foreign play to come.” Which brings us back to 20 years ago, when all we ever had were foreign productions.*
FC: How accurate is the perception that the theatre scene is a closed circuit? For instance, you tend to work with the same people like Ong Keng Sen and Dick Lee. Isn’t it kind of incestuous?
MC: That’s the word I’d use! I don’t know why, but with TheatreWorks, we never thought of doing it with someone else. They’re the core group that started it and they’re always ready to do your stuff. It’s not as if they’re not keen to do it and therefore you’re forced to find another theatre group to work with. You just grew up with these people.
Kuo Pao Kun, for a long time, wanted to work with me. I never had time. I guess I was also a bit intimidated because he might think my stuff is very silly!
FC: There’s often criticism that your plays rely too much on stock characters, to milk the laughs.
MC: I think in the beginning, that’s very true. The first thing I did was Beauty Box, about beauty pageants. Of course, there you have stereotypes. In Army Daze, same thing. We have the Indian boy in the Indian movie, the Chinese ah beng, the Singlish.
At that time, when I was writing, I just wanted to get the flavour of Singapore. You recognise stereotypes immediately. You have a boss like this, a colleague like this.
By the time I reached Beauty World, it’s less so, because it’s set in a different period. And with Mixed Signals, I started venturing more into creating my own characters. And with Private Parts, I don’t think I can be accused of creating stock characters anymore. But definitely, when I started, it was all stereotypes.
FC: Would you now cheerfully disown the earlier part of your career?
MC: I’m very proud of where I came from. I think it reflects my own tastes and interests. I enjoy popular things. It’s not like I read theatre classics and then write broad comedies. I enjoy Neil Simon; Woody Allen’s my favourite comedy writer. I like blockbuster films. I watch a lot of Hong Kong movies. I feel I understand what connects with a broad audience. Maybe I don’t know how to connect with critics as such. I still haven’t found that formula where I write stuff and get rave reviews.
FC: Does being popular mean going downmarket?
MC: Not necessarily. To me, the challenge is how to connect with as many people in the audience as possible and yet not turn away the so-called typical theatre-goer who wants something to think about. I’m conscious of the popular elements, but I think the broad storyline of my plays is interesting enough to break down. I feel there’s enough for you, if you want to go there, to think about. But if you just want to have a good time and laugh, it also works.
FC: Does it perturb you that being so popular, you’ll probably never win the Cultural Medallion?
MC: [Laughs] Yes, unfortunately, it’s one of those things. I guess I’m quite realistic. I think, if you write popular comedies, I don’t think you’re viewed with the same regard as someone who writes more artistic works. You win some, you lose something.
FC: People who write comedies are often very serious people in real life, for instance, Woody Allen and Rowan Atkinson. Do you fit that description?
MC: I can be quite serious. I tend to disappoint journalists – they find me very dull and boring, because they expect a laugh-a-minute, very extroverted joker that goes on and off like a light bulb. I’m not. I tend to be slightly more reserved and introverted. It only surfaces in my writing. That’s my double life, my alter ego, the playwright.
* - Editor’s note: In fact, 20 years ago, in the 1980s, there was a spurt of growth in the local theatre scene. Many major theatre companies today (TheatreWorks, The Necessary Stage, The Theatre Practice, etc.) were starting to create work then. Kuo Pao Kun’s plays, including seminal works like The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, Mama Looking For Her Cat and The Silly Girl and the Funny Old Tree, were being staged during that time. Prior to that, in the 1970s, there were local productions as well, but generally, there were few plays in Singapore then, local or foreign.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005