A child dies because her mother accidentally leaves her in a car. How does one come to terms with such a tragedy? This hard-hitting question, which did confront one mother, is the subject of a new musical theater work by Singaporean director Mei Ann Teo. Working collaboratively with composer Jon Bernstein, librettist Christopher Chen, and opera singer Marnie Breckenridge, Teo will explore the four dark months when the mother left her own life and disappeared. What happened in that time somehow enabled her “to come back to the same job, the same husband, the same community,” as Teo wrote. How does one wake up from the nightmare?
“WAKE” will run from March 5 – 8, 2014, at the Connelly Theatre. Tickets may be bought from Columbia Stages. You can also donate to the project through Kickstarter. In the video on the crowdfunding website, the director and the composer speak about the process of bringing the work to the stage.
Singapore Poetry caught up with Mei Ann Teo, who is deep in rehearsals, and asked her a few questions.
SP: “WAKE” is a a piece of theater about a mother who unintentionally killed her 10-month-old baby by leaving her accidentally in a car. Before this theatrical production, you spent five years making a documentary about this family. You write that “this intimate involvement with a family who has overcome this terrible tragedy has been life-changing.” How have you been involved with the family in the making of the documentary and the theater production? Or, to ask the same question in another way, how have the family been involved in the making of these works?
Teo: I know the mother’s sister very well – she is a dear friend and theatre collaborator on a show that was about to go on tour while the mother was having hearings at court. I saw the entire experience through the eyes of a sister’s unconditional love. I met the mother soon after as we all lived and worked in the tight-knit Pacific Union College community up in Angwin, CA. I had met her extended family already, and they trusted me fully with the documentary, allowing us full access into their homes and lives for multiple interviews. The trust that they gave Carol Ho Tsui Lyn (the director, also Singaporean) and myself was humbling, this having been a very difficult time of grief for all of them.
For the theater production, I called the mother to ask permission to use her story as our jumping off point, and she graciously allowed it. I would not have pursued it if she said no. She told me a little more about the missing 4 months – when she went away after the accident. Those are secrets I will only tell those who ask me after seeing “WAKE.”
SP: “WAKE” is your thesis production for your Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing, a three-year program at Columbia University. What aspect of the program has been most valuable to you? Least valuable?
Teo: The mentorship and teaching at Columbia from Anne Bogart, Robert Woodruff, and Brian Kulick has been invaluable to my continued growth as a theatre director. I came to graduate school having toured internationally with professional shows and taught undergraduate theatre for 7 years, and had discovered already the power of having a WHY in making art. What I received at Columbia was space and time to hone my abilities under the close eye of great artists, and colleagues who taught and inspired me just as much through their work. While there were definitely difficulties with a lack of resources (welcome to the world of theatre), I think that every experience is really what you ultimately make of it.
SP: You have lived in many places around the world, and have produced works in many countries, yet in your biography on your new website, you identify yourself as “a Singaporean theatre/film maker.” What does being Singaporean mean to you personally and artistically?
Teo: Singapore is still the place of my dreams. It is the recurring landscape of my imagination, where I’m most vulnerable, bringing up intense emotions that are irrational and beautiful. It is where I’m from, and the place where, though I desire to return, I don’t yet know how to do so.