It’s not every day that you get a face-to-face interview with the people behind critically-acclaimed local theatre company Pangdemonium! Run by husband and wife super team Adrian and Tracie Pang, 2020 marks a big year for Singapore’s most ‘ass-kicking’ theatre company, as they celebrate their milestone 10th anniversary.
“There’s a lot of pressure to plan the entire season by the previous September, but we have advantages to that as well. Like how announcing it early allows people to plan their schedules and holiday plans around our season, and also, so we can book our first choice actors for each production early, and secure them before anyone else,” says Tracie. “Over the years, we’ve learnt how to space out our shows better and work around the major events, from school holidays to the F1 night race. It’s important for both us and the audience to have some breathing space in between shows so we don’t burn out.”
“While this year we didn’t have an official ‘theme’ for the season, there’s some undercurrents we notice, like how we recently realise how all three productions deal with the topics of fathers and sons, and the impact parenthood has on youths growing into adulthood,” adds Adrian, speaking about planning the season. “What we do hope to achieve with it however, it having our audiences watch our work, and then go ‘oh, I want to see more of that’, and realise that theatre is for everyone. When our sons and their friends see our shows, and give feedback that they enjoyed it, there’s a huge sense of gratification that they managed to find something about the experience that resonated with them.”
Opening their 2020 season this February, Pangdemonium! begins with Florian Zeller’s The Son. Having produced a critically-acclaimed run of Zeller’s The Father in 2018, The Son acts as a spiritual successor to both The Father and 2019’s Late Company, as it draws our attention to a young 16-year old going through difficult mental issues. These are made only worse as he goes through his parent’s difficult divorce, who struggle to find a solution to their troubled son’s problems.
“We read The Son and it spoke to us immediately,” says Tracie. “Besides being a really good play, it’s one that’s very much in the moment, and we see so many youths in Singapore struggling with mental health issues, and their parents who put their head in the sand and not realise how much of a struggle it is. We have a responsibility to the material and the playwright to create the most honest piece of work we can. We’re working closely with the designers to bring out the artistic form, and with the actors to bring out that honesty to present these characters as fully-rounded human beings onstage.”
Directed by Tracie and starring Adrian, alongside Nazray, Serene Chen, Sharda Harrison, and Shona Benson, The Son also marks the professional theatre debut of the Pangs’ son Zachary in a starring role, as the titular son of the play. This almost parallels that of how his brother Xander similarly performed in Pangdemonium!’s 2019 opening show Late Company. On the younger Pangs’ induction into the entertainment world, Adrian and Tracie are adamant that despite their own backgrounds in performance, they’ve never pushed either son in that direction at all.
“I remember how Disney was looking for just one child to interview Andrew Garfield during the premiere of The Amazing Spiderman in Singapore, and we brought one of them to the audition because he wanted to,” says Tracie. “At that time both were very young, so we couldn’t just leave them at home, and the whole family went over. The team there noticed both Xander and Zachary, and instead of auditioning just one of them, asked if they could audition both of them, at the same time. They riffed off each other quite well, and since then, it’s given them their own opportunities to continue developing, both together and independently of each other.”
Says Zachary, who is a graduate of the School of the Arts (SOTA): “In those first few years of school, we had so much opportunity to focus on the arts, and SOTA had a huge part to play in nurturing my passion for theatre in all aspects, including directing, lighting and of course, acting. It really made me realise I wanted to carry on with it into my adulthood.”
“Playing this role, I think comes with a lot of responsibility,” he continues. “Not just because it’s a main role, but because there’s such a seriousness with the message it tries to put out there, and I want to be able to represent that in a way that I can also feel proud of. It’s a demanding role too, with a lot of nuance involved, and I’m figuring out how to capture that as I go along. I’m not going to weigh myself down with self-doubt though, and just want to focus on doing as good a performance as I can.”
Adds Adrian: “We actually had 5 guys come in for auditions, and we wanted to find someone young, but not so young that they were still in their teens. We needed someone who has already been through those trying years, and have a maturity that allows them to look back on it and recall all the vulnerabilities of being a 16 year old, but not be bogged down by it. It was interesting to see how they each brought their own understanding to the audition.”
Adrian thinks back rather wistfully, to Zachary’s first role onstage with Pangdemonium! 10 years ago – with their debut production, The Full Monty. “Both Zachary and Xander were taking turns to play my onstage son, but on opening night, both of them were deathly ill,” he muses. “They had fevers, were throwing up…and we had to choose the less ill person to go up. That happened to be Zachary. 10 minutes before going on, he tells me ‘Daddy, I’m very nervous’, and I start to panic because it’s Pangdemonium!’s very first show ever, and I really can’t have anything f*ck up.”
“But I steady myself, breathe, and I tell him ‘I know what you’re feeling, but we’re going up there together, I’ll stand by you, and we’ll be nervous, but at least, we’ll be nervous together. You go up there and do it, and I tell you, you’ll be so proud of yourself.’ And he did,” says Adrian proudly. “He kicked ass, and at the end of his first scene, he grabbed me backstage and told me ‘dad, that was AMAZING.’ Then at the end of that performance he went offstage and puked, and was sick to the point he couldn’t attend the opening night party. That, in short was his ‘debut’ with Pangdemonium!”
Speaking about the issues The Son tackles, Tracie thinks about the differences between parenting of the past and present: “In our parents’ time, there was no talk of mental health, while the youths of today are so open about it. Our generation is caught in the middle of that. It’s difficult finding ourselves in that position, and to see so many parents struggle to adapt to this world and understand what’s going on.”
Adds Adrian: “In our time, kids would just be termed as moody or weird, or a little bit later on, just suffering from ‘angst’ or being ’emo’. I was a moody teen myself, and maybe even depressed in certain periods. It’s so different now, as my own boys are able to talk so openly about people they know going through different mental challenges. Certainly, it’s still a huge stigma, but it’s step up that people are now able to speak about it, and take the steps they need to in order to get help. That’s a chasm we’re still trying to bridge, and it’s always difficult for a parent to admit that their child is suffering, and that they can’t save them. They need to bring their child to a professional because they themselves cannot help, and that is a very difficult hurdle for them to cross at times.”
As a member of the younger generation, Zachary adds his own take on the situation, explaining: “We’re certainly not going through the potato famine, and life is way easier now on a practical basis. But you’ve got things like social media now, social pressures and climate change issues being new concerns. We can’t just say we had a bad day and leave it at school, because it follows us on social media. Is it a cause for more anxiety and mental health issues, or does it just reveal the issues that’ve been there all along? It’s a double-edged sword for sure, but at least it offers us a way to speak more openly about it, especially with the safety of anonymity. The awareness is so important, and not just for youths, but for parents to stay in touch and be aware of these changes and openness, and to be better equipped to deal with this new normal.”
“There’s still a huge fear of places like the Institute of Mental Health,” Zachary continues. “Parents are still also very afraid that when their child admits they have a problem and sees a psychiatrist, it goes on record, and might affect their employment prospects. Certainly, you get people who misdiagnose themselves or do it as a cry for attention, perpetuating the stigma, and the onus is on all of us to learn how to better identify when they are just feelings, and when they’re symptoms of a larger problem. We need better understanding and support.”
Adds Adrian: “As a parent, when your child is born, you take on the role of protecting him no matter what he’s going through, and you never want to fail at that. And when a child has a mental issue that seems to be beyond your own help, you end up feeling like a failure. But really, they need to realise that it’s like having a physical ailment – you take them to the doctor. You can love them and assure them all you want, but it’s not gonna go away like that, and they need professional help if you want them to get better. The first step is admitting you need help, in helping your child get better.”
On the relatability of the play, Adrian explains:”The situation in The Son is very specific to the play, and it’s easy to imagine how incredibly difficult it is to go experience parents going through a divorce in one’s teens, while also watching his father start a new family of his own. While we’ve never been through anything so extreme, I know the feeling of helplessness as a father, for when your own child is going through something extreme, and having to admit that you don’t have the tools to help. It’s a feeling of failure and reconciliation with yourself that you need to seek help for your family.”
“I went through a bout of depression myself in my teens, and I do recognise some familiar things my character is going through in the play,” says Zachary. “There were moments myself I knew I was approaching a danger zone, and I ended up having to tell myself that I can and will have to talk about it as best as I can to someone to resolve it. It’s lucky that Pangdemonium has done so many shows about mental health before, and living with my parents in such an environment really helped me be more aware of such situations, and I did my own research to equip myself with the knowledge that eventually helped me through.”
“Even for the carer, it can be so hard to listen to someone speak about these things,” Zachary continues. “So that’s why it’s so important to be in a family or some kind of community of friends who do know, and who help encourage you to do healthy things, and get you through the most difficult times. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that, and I guess the play hopes that more people learn to enable that and make it less uncommon. I want people to be able to talk openly about mental health, and for there to be less stigma and taboo surrounding it. It’s certainly intimidating, but the first step really is to open up a conversation, and let people know that it exists, and that it’s ok to talk about it.”
On what they hope audiences walk away with after watching The Son, Adrian once again reiterates how it’s as much a message to parents as it is for the teens in the audience. “Encountering mental health concerns in teens should not be a shameful thing to admit you’re going through,” he says. “It’s something that’s out of your control, and it’s important to focus on building a supportive community around the individual, and not be hysterical and worsen it. It’s important to show that care and love, but also admit you’re not in the best position to offer direct help. There’s plenty of accessible, professional avenues out there, be they psychiatrists or even helplines that would help so much. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help.”
Adds Tracie: “I hope watching this play helps people better able to look out for the signs of mental illness, be it in their own family or even in the workplace. Maybe there are some people who don’t have the tools to speak up and say they’re not feeling ok. And for the older generation, to understand that the environment has shifted, that they must now have the awareness of mental illness in the world and to keep an open mind about it. Hopefully, it goes beyond the play, where they make an active attempt to find out more after learning about it, and to better, actively intervene before it’s too late.”
The Son plays from 20th February to 7th March 2020 at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC