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Pangdemonium’s This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls: An Interview with the Cast and Creatives

This May, Pangdemonium premieres a brand new show tackling sexual violence head on. Titled This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, playwright Ken Kwek took inspiration from the ongoing #MeToo movement and interviews with over a hundred women and men to showcase a series of stories that encapsulates some of the biggest problems with society today, a call for change in one timely and poignant theatrical event.

We speak to playwright Ken Kwek and cast members Paul Courtenay Hyu, Oon Shu An and Serene Chen to get their thoughts on the play, as well as their personal take on sexual assault and harassment in today’s world. Read the interviews in full below:

Paul Courtenay Hyu

“Paul Courtenay Hyu”的图片搜索结果

Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the character(s) you play and how you’ve been preparing for them?

Paul Courtenay Hyu: Charles Lee Purvis is a successful talk radio host, a journalist who deals with current affairs. Talk radio is becoming more and more popular in UK. Maybe this has happened since Brexit, but I used to listen to such shows on a station called LBC years before this recent surge in popularity. LBC used to stand for London BroadCasting but now its popularity means it has gone nationwide (worldwide in fact) and they now say it stands for Leading Britain’s Conversation! So I have a pretty good idea of what the professional side of this guy’s life is like. His take on issues is quite left leaning, like mine, and in his real life he has some right wing traits, which is natural for a guy in his 50s. He is married and the father to a son, which again is like me.  The one thing he is which I worry about a little as an actor is Singaporean. Singapore is a long way from my upbringing!

Bakchormeeboy: Why is this project personally important to you as a person?

Paul: Less to do with #metoo but the job itself.  Working in Singapore with my old pals Adrian and Tracie will be exciting and harks back to the time when we knew each other when they were over here in London.  We were a lot younger (which I enjoyed) and without children (no comment!)!  Good fun days!  We used to do a lot of projects together. In fact, having thought about it a little, I think I knew each of them before they knew each other! Need to check that! Coming to Singapore, a place where I have only had exciting times and enjoyed myself, for a new play after a long period away and after a major change in my life (an 18 year old son) felt like a fun adventure waiting to be had.

Bakchormeeboy: It’s quite a rare sight to see you onstage in Singapore. How did you get on board this project, and were there any challenges you faced in the rehearsal process? 

Paul: I have not been on stage in Singapore (or back in the country, even) since 1997!  That was almost pre-internet! Adrian and Tracie called me out of the blue and offered me the job. I’ve already mentioned we were mates 20+ years ago, and when the two of them were in UK they lived a short walk around the corner from me. I ended up doing a lot of acting stuff with Adrian. There was one time we were in one show on tour and we were both booked to start in another show, and the two companies accommodated each other so we could both slide from one job directly to the other. We were in a number of theatre and film projects together during his time in London, which saw us in Croatia and Hong Kong as well as a tour of England not to mention at least one market research “job for the money” project; during the briefing, Adrian made/asked a faux-stupid comment/question, which made me laugh so much for so long that I got severely reprimanded! So the answer to how come I am over in Singapore in the show is quite possibly that Adrian knows I am easy to corpse! I know the question is about rehearsals, but since we have not started them yet and I have answered the question here in UK before I’ve set off, I’ll say finding the rehearsal address is my most immediate challenge!

Bakchormeeboy: What do you feel is the next most immediate step or evolution of the #MeToo movement? 

Paul: The acting industry is where this started, so let’s look at that a bit.  When I was at drama school in London in the mid 80s, the business was different in many ways. I was one of those that was fascinated by the history of the theatre and actors’ tales of doing their training in regional repertory theatres, and tales of what shenanigans had to be experienced to even obtain said Equity membership, let alone paid work. All that has changed. One thing that was simply accepted back then was not only the idea that some characters abused their position, but that some were well known for it and (probably) some joined the profession for the opportunities it provided to be abusive.

A director (now long deceased) was famous for having a “whipping boy” he would abuse, usually in the cast. Towards the end of his career, sometimes the “whipping boy” would be an actor who was not even acting in the company but had been hired by producers as an “assistant” so that the acting company could get on with things without that extra layer complicating things. I auditioned for this director around the start of my career, shortly before he died, and he leaned over and put his hand on my crotch for about a minute, telling me that I needed to re-do the scene for him using my energy from “here”. I didn’t get the job (he probably noticed I had very little energy in that area!). I did, a few years later, work in the West End with the actor, who had been this director’s hired whipping boy for this show and who had read the other lines for my scene in this eventful audition. He never realised I remembered him from that time (he never remembered me, because I suppose he read the audition scene with a multitude of actors, not just me) and when I did mention it to him after a year of working with him he simply replied, “Oh that was another time”. That was uttered in 1993. 

I mention all this because it is interesting to contextualise the whole thing before coming out with a glib response. There is an argument that almost everyone over a certain mileage in the business (at least whatever mine is) is colluding with this abuse, by not naming names.  Everyone of my vintage knows stories like this and hardly anyone has named names or will name names in the future. I’m not even naming names now! Even though the guy is long dead and the whipping boy is no longer even an actor. The main thrust of the #metoo movement is that at last these people will be unmasked. But is it really happening? When Kevin Spacey was named suddenly a whole lot of actors were telling their own tales amongst friends. But before then, quite the opposite. There’s a lot of hypocrisy to deal with before this process can do much else beyond going after individuals on the back of one brave person naming an individual.

Before meaningful progress can really be made we need to look at the double standard, where actors will “support” #metoo but simultaneously put their names to petitions to prevent Roman Polanski from being extradited to face sentencing for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. You will be hard pressed to find any actor going on the record to say that Polanski should face trial, let alone be shunned from the business like Weinstein has been. In 2009, 100 major film names from around the world put their names to a petition to demand Polanski’s release from Switzerland. I was in the West End when this happened and this sentiment was echoed by the actors in my cast. This is a confused message when it comes to #metoo.

I have witnessed the most astonishing and cruel withering verbal abuse in a rehearsal room by a world-famous director with my own eyes. The director shouted at and humiliated (an admittedly less than good actor) in front of everyone.  For a long time. It went on and on. And on. Being an older hand, one of the other elder statesmen on the stage at the time, turned to me and whispered, “That’s the worst dressing down I’ve ever seen.  Awful”. Implicit in the statement was the idea he had, being an actor of advanced years, seen a lot of this kind of thing. And he had. But this was happening now! But did any of us stand up for up to the actor in question? No. Any of the young ones? No! Older ones? No! Is that director a very well respected international director and still working? Yes.  

It is possible that no significant further steps can be taken with #metoo until the industry clarifies its position with all this stuff which might only happen when my generation hands over to the next one. We of my age are perhaps all too complicit to ensure a real overhaul of the culture.  

Oon Shu An

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the character(s) you play and how you’ve been preparing for them?

Shu An: I play Amanda, a literature professor. She is smart, funny. And eventually finds herself in a compromising situation with a student. Ken’s thrown in some big reads in there which she references, I’ve been looking into those. Also reading lots of accounts of survivors of sexual violence. 

Bakchormeeboy: Why is this project personally important to you as a person?

Shu An: When you hear so many stories of sexual violence, the victim-blaming attitudes that many people aren’t even aware of- that actually re-traumatizes the victim and actually makes it harder for us to get to the root of the problem, because we aren’t looking at the perpetrators. When you hear all these stories, and also, with the knowledge that even after knowing what we know, people still don’t want to start with basic things like… I don’t know… teach comprehensive sex education. Things need to change. It is truly heartbreaking.

Bakchormeeboy: Why is this production relevant to any and every audience members, regardless of whether they themselves are ‘pretty girls’ or even girls?

Shu An: Ok, firstly, the pretty girls thing. That is one of the many myths of sexual violence. Such a pervasive myth that a president can say “As long as there are many beautiful women, there will be more rape cases.” In 2018. And I think a lot of us grow up hearing absolute nonsense like that. And people believing that leads to things like… people not being believed when they report an act of sexual violence because “You aren’t pretty enough to be molested.”

There are so many more myths that we have been brought up on. We are all part of a system that needs to change. So this is relevant to everyone. There isn’t a them and us when it comes to sexual violence. Anyone could be a target of sexual violence, anyone could be a person a survivor of sexual violence turns to, and we are all part of this conversation now that will help us to shape a, hopefully, better, safer world for children to grow up in. And I think this production lays a lot of that out in a way that is very real, with very messy situations and characters that I think anyone would be able to find someone to relate to. 

Bakchormeeboy: What do you feel is the next most immediate step or evolution of the #MeToo movement?

Shu An: Education. For everyone. The other day i saw this article on The Guardian, and the way it was titled made it seem so benign. What was heartening was going into the comment section where a whole bunch of people were saying “Boxer sexually assaults/harasses reporter during interview. There, fixed your headline for you.” 

We need more education so that we know headlines like this are not ok, so that we can immediately identify wrong behaviour so we can support the person who has been assaulted before thinking about what it might do to the perpetrator’s career and future. Educate the authorities, so that when someone goes to them, the police officer doesn’t say “But you went to his house right? What were you wearing?” Educate people from young so everybody understands that their bodies belong to them and that they have no right to other people’s bodies. 

We need to change our attitudes towards sexual harassment and assault. And have laws that reflect that, to a point where its no longer a movement but just the way things are.

Serene Chen

“serene chen singapore theatre”的图片搜索结果

Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the character(s) you play and how you’ve been preparing for them?

Serene: I play Becky, mother of Sean, played by Thomas Pang, and I’m a sociology professor in the university. I’ve been watching videos, interviews and commentaries voraciously. It’s interesting whose making the programmes and the angle being taken. Indian women are very passionate, and it’s quite emotional listening to some of the accounts.  Obviously this is interesting research for me, but when you’re double-hatting as a woman and a mother of a son, your allegiances keep changing.

Bakchormeeboy: Why is this project personally important to you as a person?

Serene: Innocence and ignorance are only a hair apart. I feel a need to educate myself and those I care about. The more we know about what constitutes sexual harassment, the more we can recognize it, perhaps deal with it even in a civil space…If the law does its job, sexual assault and harassment would in theory be taken care of in some way or the other. But the whole trouble is that the problem is not two dimensional. Many women do not say anything about assault or harassment because there is a need to protect self, family, or even livelihoods. Men are also socialized to talk to or about women or behave in ways which they are now starting to be told is a “problem”. How does one begin the conversation and not risk more damage to oneself? (It’s so complex that Becky needs to go away on a retreat to write about it.) Is there a real buy-in for honest conversations?

I think it’s also important to me because beyond #metoo, we hear instances of men saying they don’t even dare to ask women out one on one, or to an innocent coffee anymore. In another recount, a male manager is especially careful about how to conduct one on one performance conversations with a female report… this is the other extreme of the pendulum swing that the #metoo movement has begun. Social media has given some courage to some women to speak out which was missing before, but it’s also caused the human interactions to stall in other cases. Highly fascinating, and a minefield to navigate.

Bakchormeeboy: What do you feel are some of the biggest misconceptions about sexual violence and assault?

Serene: That they always happen in a dramatic way. They don’t. Sometimes incidents happens innocuously.

Bakchormeeboy: What do you feel is the next most immediate step or evolution of the #MeToo movement?

Serene:Gosh, I don’t know…everything happens so fast. Wasn’t it #whatnext that sprung up? I heard it in an interview, but I heard rather many interviews and this “sociology professor” is still letting everything percolate in her brain.

Ken Kwek (Playwright)

Ken Kwek

Bakchormeeboy: How and why did you embark on this project in the first place?

Ken: Adrian (Pang) and I were working on a different story when the first of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers went public in late 2017. Though the MeToo movement first gained traction in Hollywood and the United States, it soon became a worldwide phenomenon, signalling just how endemic and widespread the problem of sexual assault and harassment is. We felt it was too big an issue to ignore so we switched course and started work on this play.

Bakchormeeboy: How did your treatment of the script differ from writing for film, which you’re primarily known for? Was it challenging?

Ken: My approach to every story – regardless of whether it’s a film, play or book – is the same. It’s about creating strong, compelling characters. However, for this project, I felt I needed to build characters based on people’s real-life experiences. The challenge then was to attack the project journalistically, to get as many people as possible – mostly women – to open up to me about the times they had to deal with sexual misconduct. It’s a big ask and a very difficult thing to talk about, and I’ll always be grateful for how candid the interviewees were with me.

Bakchormeeboy: What made you select certain stories over others in adapting, based on the interviews conducted? Is there a certain structure to the play?

Ken: #MeToo covers a wide range of issues—too many to deal with in a single play. In the end, though I heard stories of egregious abuse – child molest, violent rape, incest – I knew this play was about something more widespread: the banal threat that women feel everyday going out into the world in their bodies, and the mistakes men make in expressing their attraction to those bodies. In the end I focused on three things: one, workplace sexual harassment; two, toxic masculinity; three, the ambiguous moments between men and women that can prove treacherous if consent is not explicitly discussed.

Bakchormeeboy: Why should audiences watch this play, and what do you want them to feel as they walk away? 

Ken: This play is going to unnerve and possibly anger some audiences. I honestly don’t know what to expect. My hope is that, whatever people feel about the play, it opens up a space for discussing a bunch of difficult issues, including how men and women can change their behaviours to get along better as sexual creatures.

This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls plays from 10th to 26th May 2019 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC 

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