Showcasing the winners of this year’s 24-Hour Playwriting Competition.
T:>works’ annual 24-Hour Playwriting Competition is one of Singapore’s longest running playwriting competitions, unique in how it puts competitors in different site-specific writing locations, and of course, the chance to discover brand new writing talent to contribute to the canon of Singapore scripts. With the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the competition was held in the only safe place to house all of the competitors – their homes, and taken completely online, as they received writing prompts digitally and were tasked to write scripts intended to be performed onscreen screen. With the winners announced in September, five out of six of the winning scripts from both the Youth and Open categories have been produced, and were presented this week by T:>works as the hybrid, transmedia experience How To Break A Window.
Inspired by this year’s competition theme of ‘Window’, audiences were given the option to either watch the presentations in person, via Zoom at home, or later on, see the digital works compiled into a single film on Peatix video. For ourselves, we attended the first night of hybrid live performances and digital presentations at T:>works’ home at 72-13, and watched winning plays by Wong Chen Seong (First Place), Carolyn Camoens (Second Place) and Rajkumar Thiagaras (Third Place) from the Open Category, and Sarah Zafirah (First Place) from the Youth Category. While the competition prompts weren’t explicitly revealed to us, it was evident across all the plays when certain recurring words or symbols kept popping up, including cats and soap bubbles. Interestingly, all four plays also featured a death in the family, a standard trope for creating drama, and making for some heavy material across the board.
We opened the evening with a live dramatised reading of Rajkumar Thiagaras’ Onthakan (The Blue Hour), as directed by Kaylene Tan. Taking its name from the Thai belief of spirits having a single, supernatural hour to commune again with the living, Rajkumar’s script sees an Indian man in Singapore (Jaisilan Sathiasilan) catching up with a former university mate in Thailand (Salif Hardie), and bonding over their shared love of literature over video chat. A simple exploration of a flirtatious conversation separated by physical distance, Onthakan’s greatest flaw is Raj’s determination show off his literary flair, making the dialogue cloyingly cheesy at times. Loneliness and the need for human contact in a pandemic are feelings familiar to most of us, and with Onthakan, Rajkumar captures a simple snapshot of love and loss in the new normal.
Also directed by Kaylene Tan, Sarah Zafirah’s The Correspondence takes the form of a short film, where Theo Chen plays Hal, a university student navigating the fraught relationship with his father (Peter Yu, mostly heard and seen only once) and coping with his death. Due to Sarah Zafirah’s young age (a Year 5 student at SJI International), the subject matter is understandable, as Hal copes with his father dissuading him from choosing a course in the arts for its impracticality. In terms of its presentation, it’s somewhat disappointing that the performances are told almost entirely in voiceovers and not visual performance, with most of the shots focusing on Hal as he gets through the night thinking up a proper eulogy for his father’s funeral, and doesn’t necessarily come across as a theatrical script. While the writing does reflect Sarah’s age and her reliance on certain predictable tropes (to the point we could even pre-empt lines in the eulogy), hopefully, she’ll continue practicing and honing her craft, and showcase stronger theatrical writing in future.
In the second digital presentation of the night, Carolyn Camoens’ Tadka received an adaptation by Jasmine Ng, and takes the form of a (pre-recorded) YouTube Live video, where Geeta (Aiswarya Nair) attempts to become an internet cooking celebrity, and unwittingly begins oversharing about her own life, the difficulty of being a housewife and mother. Tadka showcases how much attention Carolyn pays to Geeta’s idiosyncrasies in her language, and generates visual humour from her inexperience with operating the camera. As a ‘live’ video, Tadka also resembles an actual play with how Aiswarya Nair performs the entire piece in a single take, and makes Geeta an endearing, sympathetic character with her perseverance amidst the screw ups, and the nostalgic story she shares about her late mother. While it’s not necessarily the kind of work the general public would probably pay to watch, Tadka showcases a creative approach towards playwriting by presenting it as a ‘livestream’, and interesting enough as an uncommon sight for a character like Geeta to be represented in the arts.
The night ended off with Wong Chen Seong’s monologue Third Eye, which received a full staging directed by ex-T:>works artistic director Casey Lim. Performed by Leong Seng Onn, Third Eye follows Seong as he returns home from abroad to visit his sick father, and sees him recounting his life to a spirit in his hotel room while serving out his quarantine. It’s understandable why Third Eye won over the other presentations; while the material and topic has already been covered, Third Eye was the most fleshed out of the entries, and paints a vivid image of Seong’s life abroad, his supernatural experiences, and his relationship with his family. As a monologue however, Third Eye feels like a bit of a cop out, as the quarantine hotel setting is merely incidental, and not integral to the plot, along with its abrupt ending, leaving us unsure what the final message of the play really is, a pity as it was the only play given a full staging with a set and a digital element (unfortunately underutilised).
What How To Break A Window results in then, is a glimpse at each of these potential writers and what they can achieve given a competition setting. Certainly, it’s a nice that T:>works has made the move to increase the number of scripts produced for presentation, going from the usual single production, to almost all the winners receiving an adaptation. But at the end of the day, the works presented have neither broken new ground, nor is it likely that any of them will receive a restaging or further development in future. Is there space in our scene to continue training and growing the writers that have emerged from this programme, or will they primarily follow in the footsteps of other alumni, mostly fading from the public eye with no notable scripts to speak of? Perhaps it is time to consider the relevance of staging plays from the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition, and how, having established itself for so many years now, needs to adapt to the scene’s needs and find more relevance than simply being a competition held for programming’s sake.
The hybrid version of How To Break A Window ran from 16th to 19th December 2020 at 72-13. The home theatrical version of How To Break A Window ran on the same days, on Zoom. The three digital productions featured in How To Break A Window were also available to watch on-demand from 20th to 23rd December 2020 via Peatix.