Petrina Kow is a storyteller. And we don’t mean that metaphorically – she is, after all, a co-founder of storytelling platform Telling Stories Live, and as a vocal and speech trainer, not to mention a former top radio deejay, she’s basically a master of the spoken word. So when she was approached by M1 Singapore Fringe Festival artistic director Sean Tobin to do a show this year, naturally, it would revolve around finding and harnessing the power of stories to enact a real form of change or evoke emotion in her audiences. That of course, will come in the form of the upcoming show Walking in Beauty, curated and directed by Petrina.
Sitting in Bao Makers on Jiak Chuan Road, hiding from the sudden downpour of torrential rain while sipping on iced tea and coffee, we’re meeting Petrina properly for the first time, along with television presenter Anita Kapoor, who will be one of the six women telling deeply personal stories of womanhood and life during Walking in Beauty. “If a storyteller does the story right, it goes straight into your heart, and you’ll come out of it feeling like life is good again,” says Petrina.
Besides Kapoor, Walking in Beauty will also be starring a diverse cast of women, namely writer Arianna Pozzuoli, spoken word poet Deborah Emmanuel, actress Frances Lee, actress and drama educator Oniatta Effendi and physician and dancer Dr Uma Rajan. Says Petrina of how she went about choosing these six women, she explains: “I wanted to show a diverse range of women, people with stories and with some perspective on their lives. Anita gave her answer right away, a single text that said ‘Yes!’ I also wanted an older woman, so Dr Rajan immediately came to mind. As a mother of five, Oniatta was sure to have some interesting stories and I’ve always admired her work, while I met both Deborah and Arianna through Sean (Tobin). Frances is just immensely talented, and she used to have a big weight issue, so I wanted her talk about that and go through a process of crafting it from her subconscious.”
At this point, we’re ready to broach the elephant in the room and talk to these strong, independent women about their thoughts on feminism, toxic masculinity and what society should be doing. Anita begins: “Our mentality needs to shift from not just coming down on men, but empowering one another to rise together and support each other. The media are presented with an opportunity to hunker down and get with the movement, but they haven’t. It’s like the recent Babe article about Aziz Ansari, they did it just for the eyeballs, and not as a means to open up real discussion about it.”
Petrina chimes in: “You know, pornography seems to be the scapegoat. But the problem really lies with everything else, from social media, to our adverts, to our daily attitudes in the whole entrenched system. It sounds prudish, but we’ve become so desensitized to it that we don’t even want to say anything about it anymore.”
Anita agrees: “I watch music videos these days and I’m much more disturbed, because more people are watching these than porn, and it comes in at such a high pace and high velocity, to people of all ages.” She pauses, and comes to a realization: “We don’t have rites of passages anymore. We go from zero to a hundred so fast, and desire has died in the process. Just that tension and charm, whether you’re 12 or 24 or 34, and the feeling of someone wanting you for being you. It’s been cut away because of things like Tinder, and there’s an entire generation brought up on this, and people have forgotten what it’s like to form love.”
At this point, Petrina has just gotten off a phone call from her daughter and sighs: “My daughter turns 15 tomorrow, and she’s already so cynical. Unlike in real life, there’s no one to police kids on social media, and a hundred people might be angry at you but people don’t change. Social media may connect people, but I don’t think it feeds the fundamental form of connection.
Anita takes this opportunity to brilliantly turn the topic full circle and says: “Which is why old school storytelling is still so important. Social media started out as wanting to let everyone tell their stories, but then it suddenly became a competition of who got more likes. I believe strongly in storytelling because it’s the one little way I think can change the world by gathering people to really listen to each other. It’s a way of thinking about and considering how to improve our actions. It starts an inward journey for them, creates a sense of bonding, and gives the space to discuss things openly.”
Says Petrina: “In Walking with Beauty, we’re not offering solutions. We’re offering an opportunity to hear stories. I think if stories are done right, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love if only you knew their stories. There’s a saying that good stories happen to people who know how to tell it. Stories really help people gain perspective, and listeners take what they want from stories in the way they need.”
Petrina continues: “Just listening to someone’s story can be life changing, for both the listener and storyteller. I once partnered up with an Indian doctor when running a workshop, and after a few question he just poured his entire life story out to me. It was quite sorrowful, and I needed to wrap up but he just couldn’t let go. He was at the point where somebody just needed to listen to him and I happened to be there. Fundamentally as humans, we want to be acknowledged, we want to be loved and we want to know our lives matter. And on a fundamental level, storytelling brings them all together.”
On what she ultimately wants audiences to walk away with after the show, Petrina sums it up nicely: “Strength, courage, beauty and love.” Anita adds: “That, and for all of us to start listening to each other a lot more, and realize there’s always so much more to a person than your first impression. That’s empathy in action.”
We have no doubt in our minds that that is exactly what we’ll be feeling once we walk away from the theatre.
Photo Credit: Kelly Fan
Walking in Beauty plays at the Esplanade Recital Studio from 25th – 27th January. Tickets available from SISTIC