RL: Following up on that, what do you think of the diminishing importance of the playwright in a theatre scene such as Singapore’s?
SK: In this style of directors’ theatre, it is actually better if the director works with the playwright to see what they’re going to do with the script rather than just take the script as a piece of given material and proceed on from there. I haven’t had this experience of working with the director to produce the play according to the director’s vision. I don’t know whether I’d like such a thing, but I haven’t tried it. I understand that Haresh Sharma, who works with The Necessary Stage, does it all the time, and they do beautiful things.
With “Human Heart Fruit”, I was invited to a rehearsal just as a courtesy, just to say “so you don’t get a terrible surprise when you show up on opening night.” But I didn’t think he was going to change his course from anything I said.
RL: Do you think that playwrights should become a little more assertive? That they should say, “Look, this is our work, and you just can’t ignore certain stage directions; these are a part of the text.”?
SK: I don’t think saying that would have much effect. I think it depends on the first assumption from which the director proceeds. If a director comes in, takes a text, and says “I am a director, and let’s see what beautiful, strange and new creation I can make with this text”, then he will only select what input he wants. No, I don’t think putting the foot down at that stage is going to have any effect. Maybe the stage to put the foot down is to say who’s going to be the director, what kind of director you have.
And I do not know which are the directors working in Singapore who want to see eye-to-eye with the writer and say, “What were you trying to achieve? Let me help you achieve it.” I don’t know whether there are such directors in Singapore.
RL: So you think it would be better for playwrights to agree with the production company on a director?
SK: Yes, yes, why not? Why have fights later on? Why not choose a compatible person?
The director whose work I was most happy with on any of my productions was Lee Yu Mun. He did his production of “Trial” with Jurong Junior College. It doesn’t seem to be the most promising material, but you see, the play “Trial” was originally written to be spoken by people with Singapore speech rhythms, to be acted by people without great acting skills.
Lee had an English teacher, an Englishman actually, at Jurong Junior College who was sensitive to language. His great feat was to get the students of Jurong to speak the speeches with their natural speech rhythms without attempting a foreign speech rhythm. And it worked so well. And Lee Yu Mun saw that I wrote “Trial” with an awful lot of reliance on the audience’s imagination. And possibly because of his budget constraints, he gave it the kind of bare-bones studio production which I had wanted. So I was very happy with that junior college production of “Trial”.
RL: Have you done any directing yourself?
SK: In school, I directed a version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and it won the Interschool Drama Competition. But nothing since then!
RL: Following that early period of serial instant gratification, you have encountered problems getting some of your plays produced. In fact, they’re often not produced in professional theatres, but in schools and similar institutions. What do you think this says about the situation of the playwright in Singapore?
SK: (A sly laugh.) I quote from Max Le Blond’s foreword to Emily way back then. He said it “reflects the pusillanimity of the local producers.” But now it doesn’t reflect any pusillanimity because the directors are very, very daring, very brave, and now they start finding my stuff too old hat.
RL: Do you think this is a problem, that many of the groundbreaking playwrights of the 70s and early 80s can’t get produced? That their plays are today seen as something to be discarded rather than as the classics of Singapore theatre? Do you see that kind of attitude yourself?
SK: After the fiasco with Dragon’s Teeth Gate in ’85, I was sending that original script around to the various companies, and I think the problem may have been that it was not the kind of thing they wanted to do, perhaps because my scripts are so dense that they don’t leave them the space to do their own thing. Yeah, they may have been looking for stuff with less freight attached to it. So it has been a problem getting my plays produced.
RL: I’ve noticed that your language is sometimes very poetic, as in Silent Song and other pieces. But rarely do we hear anything like Singlish in your work. Just a little here and there. And even then, it’s a sort of “High Singlish”. Have you ever tried writing a real Singlish play?
SK: No, I haven’t, though actually, Emily is probably written in a Peranakan speaker’s Singapore English, which is probably what Mister Lee Kuan Yew would have been brought up with.
RL: Did you yourself grow up speaking English as a mother tongue?
SK: Oh yes, indeed. In my family, it was English all along. My mother had grown up speaking English. I believe my father had grown up speaking Hokkien. But English was the common language of the household.
RL: In the introduction to Butterflies Don’t Cry, you say this might be a portrait of the deracinated Singaporean Chinese, and you said that that might be the group you yourself belong to. Could you elaborate on that just a little?
SK: Yes, indeed. In that play, the Chinese culture is a pastiche, something derived at second-hand, or even third-hand, in English translation. So Chinese culture is something I see through a glass darkly, at one remove. It’s not in my blood. And yet one feels one has a certain right to claim it. So one tries to build these bridges, and yet is aware, at least in my case, that it’s not a native thing. My personal feelings about China come up, to a certain extent, in my play Dragon’s Teeth Gate.
RL: Every play you write seems to be a new departure – you try new things stylistically, you explore different themes. Would you say that there is anything like a Stella Kon style of theatre, any Stella Kon themes?
SK: Oh yeah, definitely. The themes are, like, personal exploration, spiritual exploration. For me one of the most dramatic moments is a person’s confrontation with his destiny. And then he makes a decision to change or not to change. I think that’s one of the most crucial moments in life, that of conversion. And it makes for great theatre if you can capture it.
RL: You also write fiction. Why?
SK: Hah! Well, in fiction, you’ve got total control. I don’t have to rely on directors and actors. What you have is direct input into readers’ brains, and what you do is what they see. There’s a lot more control there.
RL: But you have editors.
SK: Ahh, hang editors. Yes, I had big problems with editors at one point. But apart from that, also, there are certain themes that just lend themselves to the narrative of fiction and wouldn’t work in a play.
RL: Do you feel there are certain aspects of yourself – your personality, your spirit – that are best expressed in theatre or conversely, are best expressed in fiction?
SK: Okay, I do feel that very deeply spiritual matters, I want to write about in poetry. But apart from that, the choice of medium seems to be dependent upon the subject. For example, I have long wanted to write about my ancestor, Dr Lim Boon Keng, who was a statesman in Singapore in the early part of the century. And I’ve tried different media. I’ve had him doing a guest cameo appearance in a novel which is called The Scholar and the Dragon. I’ve tried to write a whole novel about him; it didn’t work. I’ve tried to write one kind of musical about him; it didn’t work. Now I’ve got him as a minor character in another musical, and in the end, a musical seems to be the best format for a character who is quite heroic and yet not to be explored in great psychological depth, because we don’t have any factual information (about him).
RL: One last question. In 2000, you wrote in your introduction to “Trial”, “Looking back, it seems strange to remember how I struggled to find words for what it feels like to be a Singaporean.” Do you feel that it’s in any way easier these days to write about what it feels like to be Singaporean?
SK: I suppose it might be easier because so much has been written on those themes. There’s a great vocabulary of ideas and, you might say, clichés and images and songs that didn’t exist at the time I was writing.
It’s so easy now to find National Day songs that would inspire and say exactly what one wants to feel in patriotism. The struggle to be new, of course, is just as difficult as it ever was.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002