M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019: A conversation with playwright Nabilah Said and director Koh Wan Ching
Emerging playwright Nabilah Said and theatre veteran Koh Wan Ching might seem they have little in common on first glance, but both women have gone through theatre programmes, devised productions around the historic Bukit Brown Cemetery and have revisited an earlier work for the upcoming M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. We sat down with the theatre-makers to spark a conversation around their formative experiences, stubborn self-doubt and the key takeaways for their female-focused shows: Wan Ching's precise purpose of being broken and Nabilah's ANGKAT: A Definitive, Alternative, Reclaimed Narrative of a Native.
How would you define a good piece of theatre?
Koh Wan Ching: I try not to define what's good or bad theatre, but I know it when I go in, sit down and get into it physically and viscerally. I might disagree with their viewpoints or what's been put up, but even then I feel it's worthwhile if it affects me deeply. It will give me something to think about and talk to my friends about after I've seen it.
Nabilah Said: As an artist and art-maker, it takes a lot out of you so I'd be hard-pressed to say this is good and this is bad. The kind of theatre I really enjoy would be, after the show, I would have a lot to talk about with whomever I'm watching it with. I don't need to agree with everything. Sometimes points of disagreement are interesting as well. Anything that provokes thought and discussion would be something that I enjoy and that's why I keep going back to theatre.
Do you ever put yourself in your audience's shoes when you work as a director or playwright?
Koh Wan Ching: When I'm working as a director, I'm the piece's first audience. It must affect me viscerally, emotionally, mentally, conceptually and in every way possible. I do not want to frame it as this is the definitive story I want to tell. I like to be as collaborative as I can with my actors. The audience is not stupid; we do not talk down to them. They would be able to make their own journeys and they would have their own reactions to the piece. It is something no one would not be able to anticipate.
Do you remember your first encounter with the theatre? For Nabilah, I read about a piece that you wrote about your teacher when you were 12. Could you talk about that a little?
Nabilah Said: I had a very interesting teacher. My teacher was a discipline master, so I used to see him disciplining kids from the other classes. At the same time, he could be quite funny. He gave an assignment once to write an essay about any subject we wanted. I wrote a satire that was a bit Robin Hood-esque in which he was the Robin Hood. When I handed in the essay to him, he loved it so much that he read it aloud to the whole class. At that time, I didn't even know what satire was. It was liberating to write about anything I wanted, and to get that kind of response was exciting.
Both of you attended theatre programmes. Wan Ching, you graduated from the inaugural SITI Conservatory Program in New York while Nabilah graduated from the Playwright-Director Mentorship Programme at Singapore's Teater Ekamatra. What did you learn from these experiences?
Koh Wan Ching: In New York, the training is highly physical. There was physical training every morning, followed by more in the afternoon. It has shaped my idea of what theatre is. It is very much about the body, time and space. It was technical, but it was more about the body and being closer to our humanity.
Nabilah Said: When I saw Teater Ekamatra's Facebook post on the programme, I dropped them an email to ask if I could apply without any prior acting experience. When I got selected, I learnt about every aspect of theatre and I came out of it thinking that writing was something that I was most comfortable with.
Nabilah, when you were at Teater Ekamatra, you did a version of ANGKAT, right? The character Salma is in both iterations. How does it work?
Nabilah Said: The title is very long, ANGKAT: A Definitive, Alternative, Reclaimed Narrative of a Native. However long and ambitious the title seems, it reflects how challenging the script was for me. I started writing it as early as 2016. When I was working with Teater Ekamatra to stage it, it was actually not ready to be staged and I can objectively say that. After the show, I was wondering if I should revisit my ideas, and the answer was yes. Noor Effendy Ibrahim was my first collaborator to say yes, and I knew I could do it.
Koh Wan Ching: precise purpose of being broken was first staged in 2017 as a work-in-progress. I decided to submit it to festivals because I wanted a second chance to work on it. It is also an ambitious piece because it brings together nine texts of Haresh Sharma. I consider the cast as actor-creators because they were devising the movements and structure with me.
Nabilah, you were a journalist before you became a playwright. As a journalist, you were narrating other people's stories. As a playwright now, you're imagining narratives. How does it work for you?
Nabilah Said: The journalist side of me is still present, even though I'm no longer a working journalist. I was covering the arts and heritage scene for The Straits Times, but I was always approaching it with the spirit of the artist. There is a sense of liberation now. Sometimes, I don't know what to do with the liberation.
Wan Ching, you have worked on stage and behind-the-scenes. What was it like to put on many different hats?
Koh Wan Ching: All of us have fluid identities. I always try to negotiate this fluidity. I started as a stage manager, and I can think of stage management as part of the artistic process now. When I become a performer or director, all these experiences continue to add to everything I do.
What has been the hardest lessons you have realised in your careers so far?
Nabilah Said: I'm starting to trust my inner voice. As a woman, a lot of the self-questioning is because I felt inferior or on the back foot sometimes. A lot of things go on behind-the-scenes before I start working where I have to find a way to elevate myself, whether it's through self-care or surrounding myself with the right collaborators. That is equally as important as the art-making. As a female theatre-maker, do we still need to say "I'm a theatre-maker and I'm female", and does that make us different from a male theatre-maker?
Koh Wan Ching: I identify with Nabilah's second-guessing. I specifically chose to work with women in precise purpose of being broken, because I saw an audition notice for 10 men in 2016. I agree that we do not need to genderise everything, but when I saw that notice, I had an emotional reaction and I decided to cast only females in my show. When I make a choice that's based on a personal and political response like that, it will continue to affect the piece for better or worse. The piece is about women; it is about power and control, but that's not the only things the piece is about.
What are the key takeaways for both your productions?
Koh Wan Ching: Mine is more of an appeal to the audience to be patient and generous with us. There are multiple stories, but we didn't randomly put them together. The hope is that they'll be able to weave their own meaning.
Nabilah Said: In ANGKAT, I talk about Singapore's history in line with this year's theme of Still Waters. The key takeaways are about who gets to tell their story and who gets to decide what is the official story. If the stories I'm telling are not accurate, does it mean that they don't have space to exist? Imagined histories are still part of a certain kind of consciousness in Singapore's story.
Nabilah Said's ANGKAT: A Definitive, Alternative, Reclaimed Narrative of a Native and Koh Wan Ching's precise purpose of being broken are showing at the NAFA Studio Theatre and Esplanade Annexe Studio respectively as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival from 24 to 26 January 2019. For more information regarding ticketing and programming, check out the festival's website.