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Pangdemonium’s The Mother: An Interview with Tracie Pang and Janice Koh

It feels like Pangdemonium’s production of The Mother has been coming for a long time now. Naturally, having previously staged The Father and The Son, it seemed only a matter of time before they would complete Florian Zeller’s ‘family trilogy’, with this final piece of the puzzle.

But beyond that, the production has had a chaotic journey over the year, facing not one but two postponements due to the constantly changing rules for live performance in a pandemic. Originally slated to be performed in June, The Mother will finally make its Singapore premiere in October at the Victoria Theatre.

“It’s a tough time to be a theatre producer, and often, the best laid plans are thrown out the window,” says Tracie Pang, director of The Mother and Artistic Director at Pangdemonium. “Initially we were planning on staging some other shows, but because of the pandemic, we couldn’t get the actors we wanted from overseas, or the cast sizes were too big to stage. As a result, we had to re-plan the entire season, and eventually circled back to The Mother.”

Rather appropriately, The Mother also seems to thematically follow on from Girls and Boys, Pangdemonium’s first show of 2021, which similarly looked at a mother in distress, following a traumatic incident. “Think of it as a companion, female-centric piece,” adds Tracie. “In terms of subject matter, this was also a play that was very dear to us in terms of how it was about mental health, especially in a pandemic situation. It’s a four-hander, so it’s quite a manageable cast size, and ticks a lot of boxes for us to stage under these restricted conditions.”

Starring as the titular mother is none other than veteran actress Janice Koh, who’s become well-known in recent years for her star turns as various stage mothers, and the first person Tracie called when they had decided to stage the play. Despite her familiarity with the character archetype however, this role may well prove to be one of Janice’s most challenging ones yet.

“When Tracie called me up, I read through the play very quickly, and said yes,” says Janice. “I thought, and still think, that it’s a nice full circle moment for me after being part of the trilogy back in 2018 with The Father, and coming to be a part of this play, it’s almost like returning to this same world Florian Zeller has created, and these same type of characters you see across his plays.”

“But it’s only after we got into rehearsals that I started to realise just how difficult and challenging this role was for an actor!”

Janice Koh, on her role in The Mother

The Mother is probably the most challenging of Florian’s trilogy of plays, both in terms of performance and directing,” explains Tracie. “It was the first of the three plays he wrote, and compared to The Father and The Son, is not as straightforward. With The Mother, there’s a lot more questions the creative team needs to ask, almost like trying to put together this huge puzzle.”

“During rehearsals, we’re always wondering – is it in her head? Is it really happening? And whatever we feel it is, can we get our audiences to understand which it is onstage?”

Tracie Pang, on the difficulty of staging The Mother

The Mother feels a lot more experimental than The Father, and written in a slightly disjointed, non-traditional way,” says Janice. “What you see on the page doesn’t necessarily reflect what we perform onstage, and sometimes, it can be hard to work out our journeys as characters. In The Mother, my role is isolated in her journey, and doesn’t always make sense from an outsider point of view – it’s really been all about trying to connect the dots, and there are times we wrestle with the lack of emotional flow or logical reason while the characters are interacting with each other. As such, we need a lot of clarity as we’re peeling back the layers to the lines and characters.”

“There are scenes that repeat themselves, but with very minor differences,” adds Tracie. “Think of it like seeing one scene, then rewinding it and seeing it again, only with very minor differences. Actors and the director then have to decide what the differences mean, whether they’re real or imagined, and how to portray that. That’s also what makes remembering their lines so difficult, so it’s been very challenging to put together.”

Without giving away too much of the plot, Tracie elaborates on what makes this such an unusual play, in terms of its subject matter. “This particular period of motherhood marks a point in the journey where her children are becoming independent and leaving the home,” says Tracie. “Your role as caretaker to your child for the last 20 years is now in upheaval, and people don’t realise how much it can affect you until you go through it.”

“I have girlfriends slightly ahead of me in the game, and seeing their children go off to university, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. But maybe it’s because of the pandemic, but I’ve been feeling a lot more distance from Zach, who’s studying overseas at the moment. I find it very very difficult, knowing that he’s there, and though I do know he’s safe and sensible, I miss him, and hate the fact that I can’t just jump on a plane and spoil him to death for a couple of weeks by giving him a good meal.”

Tracie Pang, on motherhood and missing her son Zach

“The Mother then pulls focus to this often overlooked experience,” she continues, “where this mother has put all her eggs in this one basket, and doesn’t have the support of girlfriends, her husband doesn’t see her struggles and her son can’t take the intense pressure from her anymore, and wants his independence. She’s stripped away of all the things that make her a mother, and she’s struggling to come to terms with how he’s now at the age where she became a mother herself.”

“Even if it’s not an experience an audience member directly relates to, it’s a very familiar portrayal of a woman going through menopause and middle age, where she’s reached the sunset of her career, with a grown child leaving the nest,” says Janice.

“On my end, my own kids are still living with me, but I recognise that they’re teens and on the cusp of going away very soon. I can already feel that sense of loss and longing for what it used to be, and I imagine that there are so many women out there who wrap their entire identity and life purpose around being a mother. Who do you become when you are no longer that person? How do you deal with the isolation that comes with the loss of motherhood, especially when you lack the connection with a wider network? All you can do is fall into a crisis.”

Janice Koh, on what it may be like to lose the sense of motherhood

Inevitably, one might come to think of The Mother as a profoundly depressing play. The other two plays in the trilogy do deal with similarly dark topics, from dementia to depression, and empty nest syndrome isn’t far off. Janice, however, chooses to put a more positive spin on things. “Florian Zeller may seem bleak, but I’ve always seen his work more as a case of understanding what these characters are going through,” she says. “Take The Father for instance, and how it was more about accepting that he has been afflicted with dementia. It’s hopeful because he accepts his condition; only then can he move on and learn how to cope with it.”

As mothers themselves, both Tracie and Janice reflect on what it’s like to be working in such an unusual career, particularly when it comes to relationships with their children. Janice, for one, sees the time away in the theatre as a welcome one. “On my end, sometimes I think I need the space to be away from the children,” she says. “Theatre for me has always been an escape, not just from real life, but to escape into the work. Tracie has a tough job of having to direct and be in charge of this company, while myself, as an actor, I simply allow myself to be absorbed by the show for 2 months.”

“It’s almost like slipping into an oasis, like going on tour for two months. Yes, I do feel the anxiety and nerves at times missing my kids, but a lot of it disappears when I go to work, and it’s so important for kids to see their parents love the work they do.”

Janice Koh, on the nature of her work and her relationship with her sons

Meanwhile for Tracie, Pangdemonium has unexpectedly become a family affair, not only with her husband and actor Adrian Pang co-directing the company, but also with their sons occasionally in starring roles, with Xander in Late Company and Zachary in both The Son and Waiting For The Host.

“I think it was inevitable that my boys ended up being drawn to theatre – they’ve been exposed to the industry their whole life, and they’ve been performing since they were 12,” says Tracie, reflecting on one of their earliest stage appearances in Pangdemonium’s first ever production, way back in 2010. “I’ve always enjoyed working with them, because I see it as an opportunity to spend more time together and see them develop as young actors.”

“Part of me still hopes and dreams that maybe one of them will be a doctor or something, but nonetheless, I’m very proud that they’ve chosen to make this difficult career choice.”

Tracie Pang, on her sons’ decision to pursue the arts

Circling back to the challenges of staging the show in the first place, and how the pandemic’s been affecting the industry, Tracie grits her teeth, and admits how difficult it’s been, but remains optimistic for the future, and thankful for all the support rendered. “Everything has been delaying, and because we always do big shows, it’s hard for us to put on anything because we need all the pieces to be in place,” she says. “Venues are an important part of the ecosystem, and often, they’ve been kind enough to work together and see how we can shift the dates we originally booked it for, and adjust our contract. We need to help each other in terms of managing ourselves within the industry, and over this period, we’ve also been very thankful for the help we’ve received from the government, getting discounts from venues, and all of this, as an effort towards ensuring the industry stays alive.”

“We’re hoping we reach the endemic soon, and that would help with things like opening up the backstage to more people. As a company trying our best to present shows as they were intended, COVID just means we need to choose different shows to present going forward, and certainly not a stripped down version of it. This pandemic has shown how vulnerable the industry is, and if you want an industry like this to thrive, it’s so important to support it through the good times and the bad.”

Tracie Pang, on the challenges Pangdemonium has faced during this period

“It’s the people who’re running companies who’ve been hit hardest by this pandemic, along with the crew, because it’s interrupted the flow and consistency of work,” says Janice. “Freelance actors though, we’ve always faced unpredictability in our work, where it’s not a guarantee we’ll get the job. We’re used to the gig economy, and we know how to diversify into things like voiceovers, film and teaching if we don’t get a theatre job. I suppose that COVID has reduced those options, but I think if performers are industrious, versatile enough, and willing to evolve, then they will find a way to survive.”

Ultimately, how do both women hope audiences will be able to make this puzzle of a show more accessible? “Like with all the shows that touch on this issue, come with an open heart and an open mind, and be willing to be provoked, because the way Florian Zeller manipulates his audience can be quite provocative,” says Janice. “You won’t have much control over what’s going on, and it can be hard to get a grip over the characters, so learn to let go, and go with the flow.”

“You have to come in with an open mind, and not expect to watch The Son or The Father,” Tracie concludes. “It’s a play that will take you on its own unique journey, into a mother with a slightly damaged mind, and if you’re willing to go on this rollercoaster with her, then perhaps you may just be able to understand what’s going on, and realise the difficulties she’s going through.”

As her behaviour becomes increasingly manic, how far will she go before she disappears into this emotional rabbit hole? Directed by Tracie Pang, and starring Janice Koh, Adrian Pang, Jamil Schulze and Mehr Dudeja, watch as Pangdemonium! stages this searing examination of mental illness, in a surreal and suspenseful psychological thriller balancing on the knife’s edge between reality and hallucination.

The Mother plays at the Victoria Theatre from 22nd October to 7th November 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC

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