Because I Love You: An Interview with Shen Tan and Tan Shou Chen of Theatreworks’ 13.13.13
Theatreworks is having a busy July, dedicating the entirety of the month to activities surrounding their Writers Lab programme, from dramatised readings of plays born out of the Lab to the annual 24-Hour Playwriting Competition to be held at Haw Par Villa. But amidst it all, they’ll also be premiering their first mainstage show of the year in the form of Shen Tan’s 13.13.13 in her professional playwriting debut.
Shen herself is a winner of the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition in 2014, and developed the play under the mentorship of Tony Perez, who has been conducting Theatreworks’ playwriting workshops this year. Says Shen on the origins of the play:”I first wrote 13.13.13 in 2011, and I remember reading about the USA’s Defence of Marriage act, a federal law that refuses to recognize same-sex marriage, and prevented married gay couples from receiving the same federal marriage benefits as straight marriages, and there were arguments along the lines of how the gays were destroying the sanctity of marriage. And here I was thinking about the irony of how so many straight couples were the ones really doing that with their affairs and getting divorced, and that got me thinking about why people get married in the first place and why it’s important.”
Directed by Tan Shou Chen, 13.13.13 follows William and Samantha, a couple living in unmarried, childless bliss. But when William’s best friend Lynn expresses her want for both marriage and children but cannot, William does what he believes a best friend should, and helps her out, leading to complications in William and Samantha’s relationship. Says Shou Chen: “There’s this phenomenon of how marriage is suddenly becoming a subject of debate, both coming under question and being championed and defended as well. 13.13.13 is so relevant for the time, and really questions the institution of marriage itself – why do people get married, why do people stay married and whether we even need to be married. Marriage’s value is changing as society and culture shifts with the times, and 13.13.13 finds itself at the crossroads of all that, and the difficulty of challenging such an established ‘value’.”
He continues: “But you know, there’s still something beautiful and tearjerking about marriage isn’t there? I can be quite cynical as a person, but I do cry at weddings, and I think, ‘why am I crying? She’s just walking down the aisle and I’ve known her for years.’ Perhaps there is some value in how much history this ritual has, or how there’s even a whole industry dedicated to it. 13.13.13 isn’t a play that’s saying ‘don’t get married’ – at the heart of it, it’s a touching love story that conveys meaning without being didactic.”
13.13.13 stars the stellar cast of Thomas Pang, Chanel Ariel Chan, Sharda Harrison and Jo Tan, the latter two of which are reprising their roles from the earlier dramatised reading. On how the play has evolved over the years, Shen says: “It helps so much to be able to hear the play performed or read by professionals, it sounds so different from how you think it might sound or when you’re the one reading it out loud. The most humbling part of the entire process was how the various cast and creatives explained what the lines meant to them as we went through the reading, and how it was so different for each one of them.”
She continues: “Tony is so experienced, and he helped me to learn to clarify my intentions, about the use of theatrical conventions, and really helped me help myself to clean it up. With the dramatised reading, the live audience reaction helped me confirm or debunk how I thought certain scenes would go over with people, and I could better finetune my script. But even then, once it’s left in the hands of the cast and creatives, it’s a script that takes on its own meaning as they breathe life into it and becomes its own thing.”
On the staging itself, despite being a naturalist play, Shou Chen suggests that he will be taking the chance to get a little experimental. Says Shou Chen: “I got a lot of leeway from Shen to dramaturg and direct, but my mantra is to never overstep the voice of the playwrights and artists I’m working with. My role is to understand and bring out her voice, but also respect that. But there’s also some schools of thought that says that you have to do some hard things in plays, and I’ve taken some liberties pushing beyond what the script naturally gives us. The wonderful thing is that Theatreworks provides such a wonderful space for experimentation, and I wanted to achieve a fine balance between that and ensuring it’s still a very accessible play, simply because Shen’s story there is accessible.”
Shen concludes: “People refer to me as a playwright and my response is, one play does not make a playwright. There’s this common saying that one should write about things you know about, but I bucked the trend and didn’t write from experience, and consulted my friends who were married. But on why I do write, it’s because I have a story on my mind that I want to put down in paper and tell, and I think doing this has really rekindled my interest in writing.”
This July, take a closer look at the value of love and marriage with 13.13.13, and watch Shen’s development over the years culminate into this full length play as Theatreworks presents its first full length play of the season, celebrating the power and value of new writing.
13.13.13 plays at 72-13 from 19th July – 4th August 2018. Tickets available from SISTIC