An accidental playwright: Interview with Faith Ng
Kitaab’s Interviews Editor Felicia Low-Jimenez in a tete-a-tete with the Singapopean playwright Faith Ng
Faith Ng is a playwright and an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre. Her plays wo(men) and For Better or for Worse, have both been nominated for Best Original Script in the Life! Theatre Awards. Holding a Master of Arts with Distinction in Creative Writing (Scriptwriting) from the University of East Anglia, Faith was the the writer-in-residence for the Singapore Creative Writing Residency program in 2014.
I first met Faith in March 2014 when we were put on the proposition team in a debate organised by The Arts House as part of their 10th Anniversary celebrations. The motion was “Singapore can be a city of literature” and I was immediately struck by her maturity, eloquence and sincerity. It is easy to see why she has become known for her honest, sensitive plays that touch on topics and issues that can make Singaporeans uncomfortable, but can also relate to.
Out of all the creative arts, why did you decide on a career as a playwright? What is it about theatre that appeals to you?
I am really an accidental playwright. I had been writing prose fiction for a long time (which I suspect is how many Singaporean writers start out because of all the compositions we have to write for school.) I was also painting a lot and toyed with the idea of being an artist. I stumbled upon playwriting during my first year in NUS when I took “Introduction to Playwriting” taught by Huzir Sulaiman. I discovered that playwriting combined my love of words with my penchant for strong and symbolic visual imagery.
More than that, it was really the live element of theatre—real physical bodies moving in space— that got me hooked. There is something absolutely magical and thrilling about watching your words come to life on stage, always a little different from what you imagined it to be— sometimes better, and sometimes worse, but never the same each performance.
Writing can be a terribly lonely business. In theatre, you never work in isolation. It takes a village (the production team and the creative team) that supports each other and strengthens each other to make a production happen. You get to work with people who have different talents and points of view from you, and you learn a lot from them.
Your plays often focus on ordinary Singaporeans and everyday life in Singapore. How much do you draw from personal experience when you write your plays? Where does your inspiration come from?
I draw a great deal from personal experience—there is an undeniable kernel of truth and authenticity when you draw from that place. But the flipside is that I am often unable to be objective about my own work, and it can be self-indulgent too. Thankfully, I have a group of close friends I can trust to look at my work and be honest with me about it.
My inspiration comes from people mostly. I spend a lot of time people-watching, and wondering what their stories are. Just the other day, my husband and I were eating meepok at a hawker centre, and there was a couple sitting right beside us, quarreling with each other because the meepok was so bad that it had put them in a bad mood and sparked off a huge argument about how deeply unhappy they were with each other. It got me thinking amusedly about how food can really change a person’s mood.
The characters in your plays speak English, Singlish, and other local languages and dialects. Why is it important for you to depict this in your plays?
Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of plays that did not reflect the reality that I experience and live in. I felt that a lot of the languages that I listened to, such as Hokkien and Teochew, were being negated in the media. I wanted to reclaim them back. Singlish, in particular, has always been criticized for being ‘broken’ and often has been used as a way to induce slapstick humour. But Singlish can also be poetic, can express deep and complex thoughts, and can draw people together on a very intimate and personal level.
Your upcoming play, Normal, is a production about Secondary Five Normal Academic students in Singapore who have fallen through the cracks. I know this is a topic that resonates strongly with you personally. Could you tell us why you chose to tell this story?
As a former Normal Academic student, I experienced first-hand the discriminations that Normal kids go through. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I was called ‘slow’, stupid, lazy or defiant, to the point where I started to believe in those labels. Even now, I still wrestle with a lot of self-doubt. I wanted to give voice to Normal students and show their side of the story—their struggles, hopes and dreams.
Every now and then, I would come across newspaper articles of children and teenagers who took their lives because they had not fared well in their exams. That fatalistic despair over results was something I could relate to when I first learned that I had been posted to the Normal stream. Looking back, I’m alarmed by my former 12-year-old self.
You teach as well as write. If you were talking to a group of young people, how would you define success and failure?
Success, to me, is recognising that everybody is different, has different abilities and talents, and that’s OK. You don’t have to be like anybody but yourself, even if you don’t know who you are and you’re still trying to figure that out. You don’t have to chase after the same goals as everybody else. I know it’s a cliché but it took me a long time to realize this. Failure is not game over; it is just an opportunity to take a step back and reassess your life before you try again.
As a Singaporean playwright, do you feel a sense of responsibility to tell your version of “The Singapore Story?” What does the tag SG50 mean to you (if anything at all?)
I can’t tell “The Singapore Story.” It means different things to different people, and I can’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself.
SG50 has brought with it this enormous wave of feel-good nostalgia, which, while deserving, is something I want to be careful about, because there are many issues that we need to urgently pay closer attention to as a nation.
If you could adapt any novel, short story or graphic novel into a play, which would you choose?
Dave Chua’s Gone Case.
What advice would you have for someone who is just starting out as a playwright in Singapore?
Read widely. Read books you wouldn’t normally read. Watch as many plays as you can. Keep writing and experimenting with your writing. Writing is a muscle that you need to exercise and with time, you will gain more instinctive control over it.
What comes after Normal?
A break 🙂
Faith Ng’s upcoming play, Normal, will be staged at the Drama Centre’s Blackbox and will run from 9th to 19th April 2015. Tickets are selling fast. For more information, please visit Checkpoint Theatre’s website: http://checkpoint-theatre.org/2015-calendar-events/normal
The script for wo(men) can be found in Voices Clear and True: New Singapore Plays Volume 1 and the script for For Better or for Worse can be found in This Is My Family: New Singapore Plays Volume 2.
Photo credit: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures / Checkpoint Theatre