From Spoleto to New York

On January 6 and 7, in New York City, you could enjoy the staged readings of two new plays by two Singaporeans. Developed during the La Mama Umbria International Playwright Retreat, the plays will be directed and read by Singaporeans too. On January 6, Monday, Dora Tan will present her play “The Race.” The next evening Suet Lee Tan will present her work “The Swing.” Both plays will be performed together with the work of other participants of the retreat. The drama showcase is part of the celebration of art and culture from Spoleto, which opens on January 5, Sunday, with a Festa della Befana. Details about the celebration can be found on La Mama Umbria’s website.

Singapore Poetry talks to Dora Tan about the retreat and her new play.

SP:  The La Mama Umbria International Playwright Retreat aims to help participants develop an entire play from scratch in the course of 10 days. What important lessons did you learn from the process?

DT:  I learnt that it is possible to write a play in 10 days. (Having said that, I did go to the retreat with a story idea and some characters in mind so it wasn’t completely from scratch. Then again, some of the other participants did complete their plays in 10 days.) I learnt many things during this retreat such as how to write a non-linear play, that it’s ok to let go of inhibitions and preconceptions, that the most important thing in playwriting is to be able to engage the audience.

SP:  What is your play about? What aspect of it are you most pleased with?

DT:  “The Race” is about a group of people in a dystopian universe trapped in a Race they don’t want to be in. This play has broken new ground (for me) in so many areas and I’m happy that I’ve attempted it. Erik Ehn, our mentor encouraged us to go to the limit and beyond. And this is what I’ve attempted to do. Some of the devices I’ve used  may be too much. But for an early draft, I like to throw everything into the pot, then slowly take out elements that don’t work.

SP:  How would you relate your play, or your play-writing in general, to the tradition of Singapore theater?

DT:  I usually write straightforward linear family dramas–about aging, marriage, relationships. In fact, the Singapore Repertory Theatre will be staging my dark comedy, “A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky the Fish” in March 2014. “The Race” is as different from this as molecular gastronomy is from laksa. So let me answer your question using my main body of work as the context. In the 80s, the few theatre companies we had did mainly western plays. Then [Kuo] Pao Kun wrote his own plays and a slew of local plays came up in the 90s but they were usually political, experimental or plays about sexual orientation, or “Beauty World” kind of musicals. No family dramas, until recently with Jean Tay and Faith Ng. I think it’s timely that such plays are written. That they become part of Singapore’s theatre legacy. People need to know that the person who cooks and cleans for you at home, the one who seems to have it all in control, has problems too.

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About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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