Book in at your own time

NOTE: I am posting this story here for future reference. It was originally published on the ChannelNewsAsia website at this link.

Many thanks go to The WayBack Machine for archiving a copy of the webpage here.

Book in at your own time
By Serene Ong, | Posted: 20 June 2009 0114 hrs

SINGAPORE: How many productions can boast a 100 per cent sell-out run these days? I know of one and it’s reprising its wildly successful staging in July with a new and improved version.

W!ld Rice’s Own Time Own Target (OTOT) was presented as a triple bill during last year’s OCBC Singapore Theatre Festival.

Heartened by the massive response to the National Service themed comedy-musical, the team behind the production is tightening up scripts, adding more scenes and fleshing out characters for this year’s double bill – Laremy Lee’s “Full Tank” and Julian Wong’s “Botak Boys”.

In fact, the musical “Botak Boys” is actually undergoing its third revision. It was first performed as “Singapore Boys” in the Five Foot Broadway Mini Musicals in June last year and caught the attention of local audiences.

Asked why the army genre seems to be a perennial favourite among Singaporeans, director Jonathan Lim, 35, said: “A lot of it is familiarity – you always feel warmer towards a theatre piece when it deals with something that you know… the connection is there.

“These are plays that are important to us because they really do capture something which is under-written in Singapore. No one talks about it half as much as they should, considering that practically everyone has to deal with NS, either by going through it or by having to lose family members or friends to it.

“The good thing about OTOT is that it looks straight into the Singaporean heart. It’s not just about army, there are so many characters in it – journalists, shopkeepers, uncles in the street… just faces in Singapore.”

And with the recent developments on the homeground, such as the overdue arrest of Jemaah Islamiyah leader Mas Selamat Kastari in Malaysia, those who caught “Full Tank” the first time round can certainly expect some hefty reworking of script by playwright Lee.

“There’s a lot of contextual relevance now. We’re lucky that the news (about Mas Selamat) came out the way it came out, at this time – there’s definitely more material to update!” the talented 26-year-old quipped.

Despite the lightheartedness of it all, the production touches on some serious topics and hopes to evoke discussion and critical thinking.

“In ‘Full Tank’, we discuss issues like bureaucracy and civil service – anyone can relate to that. Gender doesn’t play a part and the military theme is just a vehicle,” said Lee. “Theatre provides people with a space to talk about issues that SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) is not willing to talk about in the open.”

Lim added: “When we talked to MINDEF before the festival last year, one of the things they were quite keen about is that these plays would help to open up discussion, which may eventually lead to more suggestions, more changes.”

“All of us want to see a better system,” Lee qualified. “It’s not to criticise; it’s just that this is also something that belongs to us and we want to talk about it too.”

Catch Own Time Own Target at the Drama Centre Theatre, from July 8 to 25. Tickets are available at SISTIC.

E-mail Interview with IS Magazine.

  1. You graduated with a degree in English literature, and you’re also doing a postgraduate diploma in education now. Do you see any parallel in a playwright’s job as compared to a teacher – that of a moral obligation of teaching society at large?

    I don’t think it’s a “moral obligation” to teach society, in the sense that the playwright or teacher is compelled to do so because it is her/his duty. I feel that both the playwright and teacher are well placed to start the ball rolling by discussing issues that are important to a society’s growth and maturity. People in these positions should take up the opportunity to interact with not only young people, but also every individual of society, in fact, with the aim of having everyone grow in knowledge.

    In her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark points out that everyone already has innate knowledge that education can bring to the fore, when she says: “The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul”. I share similar sentiments, and hope to be able to do the same in the future.

  2. Tell us a bit about your own experience of NS. What about it prompted you to write two plays about NS for the Theatre Festival?

    My Full-time National Service (NSF) was one of the best experiences of my life. I learnt a lot about administration, management, organisation, fitness, etc. while in service, and met some very interesting characters along the way. Nevertheless, I also had my fair share of frustrations such as having to stay back on weekends for duties and ‘burning’ public holidays for extra duties, so there were unhappy moments too.

    I went through the entire spectrum of NSF ranks – I was a Recruit, Private, Corporal, Third Sergeant and Officer Cadet before finally commissioning as a Second Lieutenant. That, coupled with the fact that my various postings to different units required me to constantly utilise different skill sets resulted in a very challenging two and a half years for me. But it also meant that I saw many things that most people would never get a chance to see.

    This alternative perspective has a part to play in why I have chosen to write about NS in Singapore: while I fully understand the importance of NS to Singapore, I have also managed to get a glimpse of the tiresome yet comical aspect of military bureaucracy from various angles, along with the segments of military life that seem really absurd in both the original and the philosophical senses of the word. I feel it necessary to juxtapose these tensions dramatically in order to highlight little known facets of the Singapore military to society at large, as part of my outlook on education and how it should also seek to provide different points of view for and from as many people as possible.

  3. You credit your development as a playwright to Huzir Sulaiman. How did he inspire you to pursue the craft of playwriting?

    Huzir was actually the tutor of two playwriting modules that I took as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. I consider myself very lucky that it was him who tutored us and not anyone else – his experience and innate knowledge of the written word meant that he was the best candidate to educate us, and educate us well he did. Not only did he show us much about writing and life that we otherwise would have had to learn by ourselves at a slower pace, he was instrumental in helping us make our mark in the Singapore theatre scene: he organised a staged reading of our plays in May 2007, and invited the crème de la crème of Singapore’s theatrical talents to read for us. That’s how Ivan Heng first noticed Radio Silence, and the rest, as they say, is history. But in terms of continued inspiration, encouragement and support, Huzir has always been and is still there for me, so in all truth, I am only where I am right now because I had the chance to stand on the shoulder of a giant.

  4. Also, tell us a bit more about both Radio Silence and Full Tank!. Can girls, who have never been through NS, catch the jokes going on in the play?

    Of course they can! Women are equally, if not, more responsive to the nuances of text and subtext, so any inability to catch the jokes going on in the play would possibly be a failure on my part as a playwright.

    Radio Silence deals with the issue of communication. One of my personal beliefs is that even though humankind has made so much scientific and technological progress, especially in terms of communications technology, we still lag far behind in terms of basic human communication; we still don’t know how to speak to each other in terms that all of us can understand, because of all the layers of power, rules and rituals we have shrouded ourselves with.

    For Full Tank!, the play deals with the issues of responsibility, governance and power, and asks the question: do the people in charge really know what’s going on, and what are the decisions they make based on, in terms of logic, coherence and relevance to the people they lead?

  5. What do you think are some of the important characteristics a successful playwright should have?

    Humility, love and respect for the people and the world around her/him.

  6. Besides working for your diploma, what else will you be involved in theatre-wise after this?

    Theatre-wise, I intend to publish Radio Silence and Full Tank! together with another military-themed monologue called The Duty later this year. Also, I have something fermenting in a corner of my mind, a play tentatively called Sons and Daughters. It’s a theatrical dystopia that discusses nationhood, leadership and humanity’s never-ending search for a utopian ideal.

    I also plan to embark on a long overdue book project that my sister and I have been discussing for the last five months. It’s tentatively titled Crossroads, and will contain the oral history of our family as told to us by our Indian and Chinese grandparents and their children i.e. our parents and relatives. It will explore the ideas of transnationalism, migration and identity, as we look to find our own answers to what it means to be children of mixed heritage in modern-day Singapore.

  7. How much time did you spend on writing each play until you were satisfied with each?

    Quite a bit! I would say about one year for Radio Silence and six months for Full Tank! I’m still not fully satisfied with either though, but I guess it’s emblematic of life itself: nothing can ever be perfect, so our only human response to this understanding is to keep on tending towards perfection.