Arts Interview Preview Theatre

Blooming Through Mud: An Interview with Shannen Tan and Miriam Cheong on new show ‘Lotus Root Support Group’

For a show titled Lotus Root Support Group, you’d be forgiven if you mistook it for a tale of aunties looking for the best deals on marketplace veggies. But the truth of the matter is, it’s actually a thinly veiled metaphor for women suffering from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), where a woman’s ovaries may develop numerous small cysts, hence giving rise to the lotus-like ovaries.

Co-devised and performed by Shannen Tan and Miriam Cheong, and directed by Renee Yeong, Lotus Root Support Group explores this surprisingly common, but often misunderstood condition that affects women everywhere. For a condition that affects 1 in 10 women, it’s a wonder how there remains so little awareness of the condition, so much that even doctors aren’t entirely sure about how to resolve it, beyond managing its symptoms.

“In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, there was an article that said that people with PCOS were at higher risk of COVID,” says Shannen, on the show’s origins. “And at the time most of us hadn’t gotten a vaccine, and we had so much fear. I didn’t know anyone else with PCOS besides Miriam, and showed her the article. And I started panicking and going ‘oh no we’re gonna die without a vaccine, and no one is talking about this!'”

Ever the calm one, Miriam simply told Shannen that if she thought it’s important, it should be something to be talked about. With the arrival of the National Arts Council’s SEP grant, Shannen decided to apply for the grant, and create a show based around the condition. “I turned my sights inward, to focus on my body and health and what I could do as a performer when opportunities were limited,” says Shannen, on the conceptualisation. “Every night I was reading research articles, doing obsessive data collection, and experimenting with exercise.”

Playing from 3rd to 6th March at the T:>works Gallery, Lotus Root Support Group introduces audiences to Jane, a typical over-achieving Singaporean girl, along with her fellow “cyst-er” Xin Yi. Wrecked by the symptoms of PCOS, the women attempt to get to the bottom of this complex chronic illness to free themselves and women everywhere. Through a lo-fi rap, a spin class and a Multi-Level-Marketing scheme, the two women question – what does it mean to cope with something you have no control of?

“Even though I talk to Miriam, and we have the same condition, we have different coping strategies, and have the same feeling of helplessness that we can’t do anything about it.”

– Shannen Tan

“Not only do we have different strategies and attitudes towards PCOS, even the way our symptoms show differ as well,” says Miriam. “In a sense, the show is essentially about how there’s a push and pull between two people trying to find solidarity with each other, as we try to find common ground, but also hold our own beliefs and identity without making it a one size fits all situation.”

“That’s something that can be applied beyond PCOS, to represent women’s problems. When was the last time you had a play about periods after all, The Vagina Monologues?” says Shannen. “PCOS brings up ideas of having to police your eating and having painful periods and feeling unsexed, and as a theatremaker, my intention is quite simple – I just want women with these issues to feel seen, I know what it’s like to struggle alone, and to feel like the only one is very isolating.”

Both Shannen and Miriam know the feeling well – up till 2018, neither of them had known a fellow theatremaker who had PCOS, and felt like they were alone in their suffering. “Back in 2018, when we were rehearsing for The Old Woman and the Ox, we were in the Gateway Theatre dressing room, and the girls were suddenly talking about having kids,” explains Miriam. “Shannen suddenly said ‘I can’t have kids’. And it was like there was a radar in me that went off, and I asked her ‘do you have PCOS?’ And we ended up being each other’s first theatre person we knew with PCOS.”

“It made us feel less alone, and like we finally had someone we could talk to about what we were going through. Later on, we found out that PCOS was statistically very common, yet no one really talks about it, and it’s not a heavily subsidised condition in Singapore, so we can’t get subsidies for the medicines prescribed to us.”

– Miriam Cheong

Lotus Root Support Group may be derived from biographical material, but it is not a completely biographical show,” says Miriam, who had previously touched on the condition in her confessional, autobiographical one-woman show The Other F Word. “This time around, we’re going more in-depth with the condition. There’s a lot of intersections, and everything about it and its symptoms seem to betray what society tells you a woman should be, from a condition that gives you testosterone, to being unable to produce eggs and have a child.”

“The devising process has been deeply confrontational with myself. There are so many questions I’ve never had to grapple with before, because here I am with my ‘secret’ experiments in my secret lab doing secret things that people don’t see,” shares Shannen. “But then people in the room start asking whether I’m being too hard on myself or eating right, and I start to wonder if it’s because I never really had many people to talk to about this. And it turns out there’s a whole group, heck, in our team alone there’s more than just the two of us with PCOS! So it was a matter of opening up, questioning myself, and figuring out the answers.”

Comparing her experience on this project to her one-woman show, Miriam considers how they’re taking a step back, and presenting characters based on experiences, rather than a full-on personal story. “As an actor, my duty is to give the audience vulnerability,” says Miriam. “In the case of Lotus Root, there’s now one degree of removal compared to The Other F Word. It’s no longer Miriam playing Miriam talking about Miriam, but instead, it’s a character. It’s all still real, and sometimes triggering on a bad day, but maybe it’s not as frightening as a confessional show.”

“Back when I was in an all girls school, people were more open about their issues, like openly talking about their periods. But these things become increasingly hidden as you grow up and want to appear a certain way.”

– Shannen Tan

“By nature of the issues, you see the side of women that you don’t necessarily see in most media representations, their issues and problems,” says Shannen. We’re not here to ‘educate’ people on what this is – I mean, it’s so complicated, so complex, and even researchers don’t seem to fully understand this condition, let alone us. What we can do is to explore the sense of vulnerability and women’s struggles, basing this one viewpoint on our experiences, from the community’s experience, and what we hear from our own friends. There are no right or wrong answers, just us showcasing the experiences as truthfully as we can and for the audience to make of it what they will.”

Speaking of their own personal stories, PCOS perhaps affects theatremakers in a much more impractical and personal way, as it has an indirect impact on their rice bowl. Besides infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods and failure to regularly release eggs, PCOS may also cause symptoms such as excess male hormone levels, sudden weight gain, and devastating pain and exhaustion.

There are so many symptoms that affect us, and particularly as theatre people, as actors, we often have to look a certain way for roles, and we have to keep taking on jobs that pay you, nurture you creatively, and it can be so exhausting to balance that while handling PCOS.

– Shannen Tan

“The PCOS symptom that affected me most was the balding and body hair. It made me feel so lonely because I was the only one around me who seemed to be experiencing it, and left me so despondent,” says Miriam. “Back when I was in school, I took Theatre Studies as a subject, and it was tough for me, because my suite of PCOS symptoms were really all the aesthetic ones. I started balding and had a lot of leg hair. There was even this one time when the makeup artist in my drama CCA was doing my face, and all of a sudden he got mad and told me ‘can you please shave your moustache?’”

“It even limits the roles I can play because of the way I look; for A Level Theatre Studies, I was trying to perform a seductress type character who had to sing, and while the performance itself was good, I was told to use a different character instead because I didn’t look the part.”

– Miriam Cheong

Even when they do manage to keep the aesthetic symptoms under control, the solutions aren’t always met with open arms. “When I finally started getting treatment for PCOS, I was prescribed birth control. It’s interesting because there’s so much stigma associated with it. I had my hair under control at last, and people around me were like ‘Miriam, you need to get off it. Birth control is like a DRUG.’ And I started to panic. But it’s people like Shannen, people with PCOS, who reassured me by sharing how it actually regulates hormones, who have a more specific understanding that’s valuable rather than people who don’t know.”

There are times the simple fact of knowing that someone out there is just like you, and can share their experiences with you and vice versa, that makes it that much easier to live with the condition, be it simply confiding in each other, or trading information, or even doctors that they’ve had good experiences with.

“Back when I was 17, I had this fear that one day, I would meet a man I really love and he wants kids. But because of my PCOS, I’ll find it difficult to do that, and it’ll be the thing that breaks us apart,” shares Shannen. “I even wrote a whole monologue about it, and shared it with someone. She didn’t mention it for weeks, but recently she came back and said ‘oh this actually happened to me, and a relationship fell apart because of it, because of the difficulty of having kids.'”

“The other day, I met a lesbian couple – one of them has PCOS and could only talk about it to her partner. Her partner has always been studying more and trying to help her, asking what can she eat what can’t she eat, trying to create a structure around her so she has an easier life, because there’s so many issues she’s grappling with,” says Shannen. “But even amidst all that, talking to her, I was the first person she was able to have such a long conversation with about her condition.”

With such a niche, never-before-staged in Singapore subject, Shannen, who is also producing the show, was initially afraid that tickets wouldn’t sell. “You know, there was this fear – who’s gonna care about our problems?” she says. “But surprisingly, people do actually want to watch, and in the course of our research, we’ve met so many women from random corners of my life who suddenly go ‘eh, I also have PCOS,’ and it’s a subject that would of course resonate with them.”

“On the other hand, with regard to men, we were wondering if we were alienating half the population, since people without ovaries can’t get PCOS. But I was talking to Shaggy, who is a dude, and he told me that ‘if [men] care about women, then they’ll care about the issues here,'” she adds. “And it’s true – there’s a surprising number of men who’re buying tickets – maybe they know someone with PCOS too and want to understand it better.”

“Ticketing-wise, every buyer is different. Different people buy this for different reasons. Some people want to support Shannen’s playwriting/producing debut, while others just want to see a show since theatres are opening up again,” says Miriam. “I don’t think we can attribute it to any one thing, but I do hope that people come in with the right mindset. After all, if women can watch shows about the army all the time and come out singing ‘Purple Light’, then men can definitely watch a show about something they don’t know and take something away from it.”

Maybe if we look at macro trends, people are hungry to watch theatre, and there’s lots of shows getting sold out. It’s encouraging, because people are going ‘we want more!’ People want to make the time for theatre, and maybe I’m optimistic, but maybe it shows that we already know the mainstream story, and people are looking for more personal stories that speak to them on a more personal level.

Shannen Tan

For a first time producer and first time performing a script she wrote, Shannen went through a steep learning curve, and is thankful for all the support she’s received along the way. “I’ve created this opportunity for myself, and I’ve also been so lucky to receive so much support throughout. Honestly, the reason why I got the T:>works space was because of how I worked with Heman Chong once, and he linked me up with (Ong) Soo Mei from T:>works, and they let me work within my budget to use the space, reserved the space for us, and even called me up to have a discussion on how best to use the space and produce the show properly.”

“And I’m just so blessed that we’re getting all this space within our budget, whether it’s T:>works or our rehearsal space or even working with Miriam and the rest of the team,” she muses. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever get this same luck again, but whatever the reason, the fates have aligned and I will do my best to make the most out of it.”

Finally, both Shannen and Miriam come back to the show’s title, and how exactly Lotus Root Support Group was named. “The PR answer is that a lotus grows out of the mud, and the mud is the difficult circumstances,” says Shannen. “But in all honesty, it’s meant to be a humourous title, and I remember us laughing a lot at how it would be a funny name.”

“We don’t want it to be like a ‘boohoo I’m sad’ story, because we didn’t feel inclined to go that way. It goes back to feeling hopeless. You can boohoo a while but not forever, so make fun of it, squeeze what you can out of it.”

Shannen Tan

“A JC classmate commented how the lotus is such an ironically beautiful metaphor because it’s a symbol of fertility, but also, PCOS makes you infertile, despite making your ovaries a ‘lotus’,” concludes Miriam. “I think there is a time and place for ‘boohoo’ shows, but theatre spaces have to accommodate and acknowledge that there are a multitude of ways to cope. Some days you’re sad, and some days you make a joke out of it, and maybe, you feel less alone.”

Lotus Root Support Group plays from 3rd to 6th March 2022 at T:>works Gallery. Tickets are available here. There are also plans for the show to be released as video-on-demand at the end of the month.

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