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George Town Festival 2019: An Interview with The Glowers Drama Group

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PENANG, MALAYSIA – It’s not every day you get to see a Singaporean theatre company perform overseas, let alone one made entirely of older actors and crew members. But with the highly successful Kampong Chempedak, which made its international premiere at the 2019 George Town Festival, the Glowers Drama Group can give themselves a pat on the back and more for a job well done.

Founded by Catherine Sng, produced and written by Peggy Ferroa and directed by Ace Chew Keng Long, Kampong Chempedak follows members of the titular kampong as they’re confronted with the prospect of moving out into the city, forced to leave their old lives behind and embrace the reality of a changing world and modern HDBs.

Catherine Sng, Photo Credit: FLY Entertainment

On the origins of the group, Catherine explains: “We used to just have acting lessons together at Dramaplus, but when that closed down, we knew we couldn’t just leave them hanging. I told them to come along with me, and we’ll work it out, and quite simply, that’s how it started.”

Regarding the survivability of the Glowers, Catherine continues: “As an arts group, it can be difficult finding sponsorship sometimes. I’m an actor not a writer, and to get funding there’s all these forms you have to fill in, and that’s one of my biggest hardships. But thankfully, people like Peggy are always willing to help me out. When it comes down to it, we operate on a limited budget, and all of us at the Glowers are all rounders – we take care of our own stage management, our props, our stagehand duties and set design. Even for me, I’ve been attending courses and lessons and ended up designing the sound for Kampong Chempedak, where I focused on creating an atmosphere that would remind all audiences of the past, from English to Cantonese songs.”

She adds: “Actually, all of this may be a blessing in disguise. The actors end up a little more independent, and their mind is certainly more active. We work step by step, year by year, because we’re all so old, we don’t know if all our members will end up living that long. So we take on the projects we can, and with the help of friends we push. So far, that’s worked out well for us – during Silver Arts, we performed at the Gallery Theatre in the National Museum, and because some people caught the show then, we were then invited to Saitama in Japan to present the work.”

Photo Credit: National Arts Council

On attracting an audience, the Glowers, while certainly capable of putting on a good show, find the challenge in the reception of theatre itself. Says Peggy: “We grew up with the passion for theatre, but our peers did not, with many of them happy enough just to work or be a housewife. There’s a lack of familiarity for them with coming to the theatre, and it’s hard to convince them to spend time and money on it – they’d rather go to the cinema or sing karaoke.”

But amidst these struggles, they carry on anyway, spurred by their enthusiasm and passion. Says Peggy: “It’s nice how there aren’t any internal politics happening, and everyone just comes in with the intent to learn something new and have a good time. It’s both a social and a professional group, and everyone does treat each other with a lot of respect.”

Peggy Ferroa

In a sense, it’s almost similar to the way Kampong Chempedak plays out, with a group of tight-knit villagers attempting to get a handle on their fast-changing lives, adapting and thriving as one community. Says Peggy: “Kampong Chempedak takes its title from the chempedak fruit, and how it’s one of those fast disappearing fruits, just like kampongs. A lot of the stories featured actually come from the Glowers themselves. I wanted to break the romanticism of the kampong we all have – honestly, some people really wanted a working toilet, and not to have to worry about actually experiencing an actual fire.

She continues: “There are so many internal conflicts within the self about whether to move or not. It’s sentimental, but there’s so much possibility waiting in life beyond the kampong, and you meet so many people who are so happy to move out. Even for myself, when we went for family holidays to kampongs, I couldn’t stand how there wasn’t hot water and all the lizards! And what’s more, a lot of kampongs were actually controlled by the gangs. The conflicts and struggles are all out there, and make for some truly rich, emotional material we can mine.”

On the creative process of working with the Glowers, director Ace says: “My first priority is always keeping my cast safe, and then to keep them always active. One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s much easier when we present it as a game, and then their energy really begins to come out onstage, something that really spreads to their other cast members and the audience when you couple that with some confidence.”

“With each production, I’ve grown, from actor to assistant director and now, director,” he adds. “My cast aren’t at the level of professional actors, but you can really see them trying onstage, where they’re trying their best onstage. It can be hard sometimes, and I was really scared this time since our show started so late in the evening, compared to our usual 11am – 4pm rehearsal timings. I always remind them though, that in theatre, it’s sometimes not about what others can do for you but what you can do for others, and we all end up working together to make sure this production is a success.”

Photo Credit: National Arts Council

Peggy concludes: “When I developed Kampong Chempedak, I was very sure it would sell. It’s got a charming story, a great cast, and the George Town Festival was the right place to show all of that. And I was right – the night before the show, we jumped from 0 tickets sold to 50% sold, and that’s a breakthrough, something I hope will help the group grow in time to come. It’s so important that this piece evolves and just gets richer and richer with each new version. I do wish that it’ll eventually become a piece synonymous with the Glowers, and remind us all of what we’ll lose to urbanisation and modernisation.”

“The script has been evolving for a while now, and each time I write, I write for the cast, so that they can manage the role well and the story is carried out well. And even today, when I watch the run, I’m still asking myself whose story I wanna hear more of, because I’m sure Kampong Chempedak isn’t over yet.”

Kampong Chempedak played on 18th and 19th July 2019 at Auditorium A, Komtar, as part of the 2019 George Town Festival. For more information on the Glowers Drama Group, visit their website here

George Town Festival 2019 runs from 13th to 28th July 2019. For tickets and full programme details, visit their website here

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