New ways of performing, with the winners of the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition.
As the longest running playwriting competition in Singapore, T:>works’ 24-Hour Playwriting Competition has seen countless scripts emerge over the years. But with only the first prize winner getting a chance to be fully staged, the encouragement of such fresh voices has always been limited at best. With the pandemic however, T:>works pivoted from a single live staging, to multiple, hybrid adaptations of the scripts through their How To Break A Window programme.
Now, for the second year in a row, How To Break A Window returned, with not one but two live stagings of first-prize winning scripts (from 2019 and 2021), and a film adaptation of the runner-up from 2021, in a triple bill showcase that celebrates these new stories and their excellence in writing and innovation.
Green Leaves by Yin Mei Lenden-Hitchcock
After winning the 2019 competition, Yin Mei Lenden-Hitchcock’s Green Leaves was initially meant to have premiered in 2020, but due to the pandemic, had to be shelved. At last, with the How To Break A Window format, it sees the light of day in a public presentation, as directed by Shona Benson. Inheriting the trope of women and their relationships with trees, from plays such as Kuo Pao Kun’s The Silly Little Girl and The Funny Old Tree and Ovidia Yu’s The woman in the tree on the hill, Green Leaves is a monodrama featuring Eve, a modern day woman who chooses to escape her life by hiding up in a tree.
In terms of ambition, Green Leaves is plenty innovative, choosing to deviate from a regular staging by turning it into an aerial silk performance, which playwright Lenden-Hitchcock bravely performs. One does not usually imagine the bodies of aerialists to be like Lenden-Hitchcock’s, which already makes her choice to showcase her skill and at aerial silk a political statement encapsulating Eve’s independence and devil may care approach towards living her life the way she wants to, while also effectively representing the act of tree climbing in an artistic form.
But while the set-up in T:>works is impressive, it also serves as a double-edged sword, as Lenden-Hitchcock’s climbs and drops tussle for attention with the poetic language of her script, and at times, hinder her expression due to the effort she must put forth when performing these acrobatic feats. The script itself, while poetic, also feels rather self-indulgent, as Eve seems to act out of cowardice rather than strength, her problems proving too much for her rather than finding independence via escape.
With references to the biblical Eve, and the eventual descent into a primal, animalistic persona, as she begins to eat the rats that scurry up trees, we begin to wonder what the point of Green Leaves is. Does Eve truly escape by finding a home in a tree, or is this a self-imposed punishment for herself for the sins of her past? Either way, as much as her motivation behind her actions are understandable, Eve is a difficult to love character, and ultimately, leaves us pessimistic about her future.
Kudumbam by Melizarani T.Selva
Directed by Noorlinah Mohamed, with Brian Gothong Tan as DP and Moira Loh as film editor, Kudubum adapts 2021 runner-up Melizarani T.Selva’s Kudubum into a short black and white film. Taking a leaf from the Malaysian performance-poet’s own life, Kudubum (which translates to ‘family’) follows a father and daughter (Ahamed Ali Khan and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) in Malaysia as they work to dismantle a table, and discuss their changing family dynamics.
While the story itself isn’t particularly new, Kudubum remains a poignant experience for how both Ahamed and Sangeetha’s pared down, almost matter of fact performances bring out Melizarani’s poetic language. There are almost no big, show-stopping dramatic moments throughout the film, as the little family tragedies that emerge hit in quiet ways, whether it’s their mother’s descent into hate, jealousy and irrational behaviour, or the daughter’s inability to express her full degree of shock at the reason behind dismantling the table, a multitude of thoughts and emotions playing across Sangeetha’s face.
The black and white filter is a particularly interesting choice, removing distracting colours and focusing our attention entirely on the movements and expressions of the performers, as they continually dismantle the table, almost hypnotic in how systematic they are. The table itself of course, is a symbol of their own family coming apart, as each member drifts away to start life anew, and its eventual destruction similarly symbolic of how from the ‘death’ of the family springs new beginnings.
If anything, Kudubum succeeds at keeping us hooked throughout the film, buoyed by the constant developments and shifts in story, Ahamed and Sangeetha’s onscreen chemistry, and the little, beautifully written anecdotes, that make us care for this family, and mourn the inevitable weight of relationships that have eventually pulled them apart.
#WomenSupportingWomen by Amanda Chong
In the final piece of the night, Sim Yan Ying “YY” directs 2021 winner #WomenSupportingWomen, by poet/lawyer Amanda Chong. Presented as a hybrid piece that was simultaneously staged both live and on Zoom, YY utilises her wealth of experience directing online and live pieces to full effect, in this thrilling piece that questions the nature of performative feminism, and the struggle for change.
#WomenSupportingWomen stars Jo Tan as Karina Teng, a hotshot lawyer and youngest female partner at a top law firm, chairing the ‘Young Women’s Empowerment Forum’ on Zoom. As Karina, Jo is dressed in a crisp white jacket and a scarlet jumpsuit, and displays a cloyingly hyped up personality, reminiscent of Cate Blanchett in her most off-kilter roles, as she rattles off catchphrases and reclaims words like ‘bitch’ to inspire her attendees. Armed with a bottle of rosé and soft pink background, the forum is split into breakout rooms to pair younger, mostly university-going participants with successful ‘big sisters’ in professional careers for mentorship and advice.
Karina, to her surprise, gets paired with Sarah Ismail (Tysha Khan), a former promising young intern at her firm who was unceremoniously dismissed after she unsuccessfully pressed charges of sexual assault against a male superior. As Sarah, Tysha Khan’s appearance completely contrasts Jo’s, still stuck in bed and dressed in a t-shirt and loose sweatpants, encapsulating the depths to which she’s fallen. There’s only so long that Karina can keep up the bubbly vibes, as they finally get down to unpacking their history, and defending their own reactions to the traumatic incident.
YY truly shows her skill at getting actors to connect online, as Jo and Tysha never speak face to face except via Zoom, yet the tension is a palpable one, and one can sense their anger and frustrations and fears growing onstage. It is especially horrifying to watch Karina’s slow descent into madness, as she begins to hallucinate the sound of drilling, lets strange men into her house, and downs the bottle of rosé, her physicality transforming from calm and controlled, to almost shaking with fear.
What makes #WomenSupportingWomen such a good play, is that besides feeling like a fully-realised script, in terms of story and characters, it is also nigh impossible to pick sides over the central conflict. While it may initially seem obvious that sexual assault is what it is, and Sarah was right for speaking up and speaking out against it, Karina makes a strong case as well, as she recalls her own encounter with the accused, and questions her own truth, especially with how Sarah’s integrity was ripped apart on the stand. Karina’s points are hard to stomach but all too true – in a society like this, there are times it makes more sense to work one’s way to the top and change the system from there, even if it’s an excruciatingly slow process, while Sarah stares in disbelief.
Watching the timer count down till the close of the breakout rooms, Karina ends the conference with a crazed look on her face, no longer as put together as before, and does her best to salvage the situation and calm her own nerves. Hysterically recounting the history of the ‘pussy bow’ blouse’ and usage by Thatcher and in women’s marches, how much of this really matters, when Sarah has already logged off, and all these actions do nothing to move the needle? Disturbing on multiple levels, #WomenSupportingWomen is a carefully-constructed critique on #feminism and society, and one of the best scripts in recent history to have emerged from the competition, and likely have legs to either be restaged, or even expanded upon in future.
Growing and learning from their first edition, T:>works has crafted a well-curated. well-executed triple bill in How To Break A Window II, showcasing a wealth of creative stagings and adaptations, and allowing these new writers to shine. It is precisely such opportunities and platforms we need more of if we are to generate a new canon of local plays, growing these playwrights’ confidence, and letting audiences hear these voices loud and strong.
Photo Credit: T:>works
How To Break A Window II played from 15th to 19th February 2022 at 72-13 and online.