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Unbreakable: An Interview with Tracie and Adrian Pang on Pangdemonium’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Since they made their debut on the local theatre scene in 2010, “ass-kicking” theatre company Pangdemonium has been staging one contemporary script after another, each one carefully curated and selected for entertainment value, and for their ability to shine a light on key societal issues ripe for discussion. On the cusp of their 10th anniversary however, the company was about to change things up, and for the first time ever, present a ‘classic’ script as part of their 2020 season – American playwright Tennessee Williams’ magnum opus, The Glass Menagerie.

But with the (at the time) evolving pandemic situation and global shutdown of live theatre and gatherings, The Glass Menagerie became impossible to stage as it had been envisioned, and was shelved until further notice. Furthermore, the last two years have been far from easy for the theatre scene, and especially so for Pangdemonium, who had managed to stage shows to fully-filled theatres prior to the pandemic, down to just a fraction of their capabilities for their last two shows, Girls and Boys, and The Mother.

Now though, The Glass Menagerie is finally seeing the light of day, where it will play at the Victoria Theatre with a brand new cast, and more importantly, is ready to welcome audiences into a theatre at full capacity, under the National Arts Council’s (NAC) Live Performance Pilot. “We’re really happy to be back in the rehearsal room, and the whole team has been feeling really positive and upbeat with this production,” says Tracie Pang, co-founder, co-artistic director of Pangdemonium, and also director of The Glass Menagerie. “There’s a really good sense of moving forward with this piece, where everyone is working together to make sure we’re all safe and secure, and bracing ourselves for any changes.”

Adrian Pang, Pangdemonium’s other co-founder and co-artistic director, echoes his wife’s views. “Though we’re not sure how the public will react to this new scheme just yet, it’s a lovely feeling to have reached this juncture, and certainly a lot of excitement,” he says. “We’ve been receiving messages from people saying how happy they are for us, and there’s been a strong daily boost in ticket sales since the announcement.”

Jamil Schulze and Catherine Grace Gardner

With so much uncertainty still hanging in the air, Tracie and Adrian are both still hesitant to rest easy, but remain confident that things are getting better. “It’s been very clear over the last few weeks many people out there are very willing and happy to book their seats to sit beside a stranger, but as to whether the 600-seat theatre reaches full capacity still remains to be seen,” says Adrian. “Still, it’s our first step back to ‘normalcy’, and it’s a significant first step of many to come. We’re very grateful to have been given the opportunity to be one of the first to do this pilot, and we’re doing our utmost to ensure the safety of our cast, crew and patrons. Needless to say, we’re grateful for the patrons who continue to come out and support us, and hopefully, everyone who attends takes responsibility for their own health as well, and we can move forward together.”

Coming back to why Pangdemonium is even staging The Glass Menagerie at this stage, the choice arose out of practicality. “When we first went into lockdown in 2020, we were already preparing to open The Glass Menagerie in a few months, and all the design and planning had already been done, ready to build the set,” says Tracie. “We didn’t want that to go to waste, with so much work and effort that people had already committed and put in, and well, it really was a show we wanted to do. Not to mention, it’s a text that’s studied in schools, and it’s a good opportunity for young people studying it to see a great production of it. Yes, they can watch film versions or recordings online, but there’s nothing like seeing it live and going on that emotional journey, and understand it the way it was meant to be – performed.”

The Glass Menagerie, in short, tells the story of Tom Wingfield, a blue collar worker who wants out. The only problem – his obligations to his dysfunctional family, comprising his cripplingly shy sister Laura living in isolation from the real world, and his overbearing Amanda, a faded Southern Belle whose time has come and gone. When a charming gentleman caller by the name of Jim sweeps into their life, they gain new hope, and dare to dream that things are about to change for the better.

“It’s a play we’ve wanted to stage for a long time now, and it’s just this beautiful, timeless play with such gorgeous language,” says Adrian. “It’s a classic, but it still speaks so many truths about human relationships, and family, and yearning and wishing and dreaming, things that are perhaps even more resonant today given our current restrictive climate, and constantly want to escape into another life, another world, another version of us.”

One of the most major changes to this staging of The Glass Menagerie is the cast, which has been almost completely replaced. In the original 2020 version, Tom and Laura Wingfield would have been played by real-life siblings Thomas and Tess Pang, while their mother Amanda would have been played by Philippines-based actress Pinky Amador. Now, those roles have instead been filled by Jamil Schulze (Tom), Inch Chua (Laura), Catherine Grace Gardner (Amanda), and Salif Hardie, who remains the only original cast member, and plays the gentleman caller Jim O’Connor.

“As much as we wanted our original cast in this production, the fact that 3 of them were in different countries made it almost impossible to plan around the schedule and uncertainty of travel restrictions,” says Tracie. “But having found this cast, it’s a testament to the immense amount of talent we have here in Singapore, who’re really being given a wonderful opportunity to show what they can do.”

Inch Chua

“Even though we had to recast, we have an equally strong ensemble – Inch Chua is going to break hearts as Laura; Jamil Schulze really embodies Tom; Salif Hardie has injected Jim with this whole new energy I’ve never seen in any other performer, and it was a happy coincidence that Catherine Gardner happened to be in Singapore during this period, and is fantastic as Amanda,” says Adrian.

As much as one of theatre’s key tenets lies in suspension of disbelief, one of the undeniable facts that remain is how there is an obvious difference in all three cast members playing members of the same family, in a realist play set in pre-war America, a setting that Pangdemonium has opted to maintain, alongside the entirety of Tennessee Williams’ original script. “I feel that the story is so strong that you very quickly forget to look at the colour of people’s skin, and see past it to understand their relationship that makes up a family,” says Tracie. “It’s not the first time we’ve done it; Jamil was playing Janice Koh’s son in The Mother after all, and it’s really about creating the right chemistry between cast members to make them believable.”

“We actually addressed this right from the beginning during rehearsals, and other issues that emerged included Amanda’s line which mentions ‘darkies’,” she adds. “But we can’t just go in and change the wording, because that was the language that was used in that period, and highlights how commonplace it was at the time. Rather than sweeping it under the carpet, it’s important to showcase the language as it was written.”

“I’d like to hold onto my conviction that audience members are mature enough and certainly, intelligent enough to suspend their disbelief and accept that two actors of ostensibly different cultural backgrounds can play blood relatives,” says Adrian. “That’s the ‘magic’ of theatre, and besides, you see it already happening all over the world, on stage and on TV. I trust that the audience isn’t going to let something as superficial as this get in the way of the heart of the story.”

Considering that The Glass Menagerie has already received countless stagings and adaptations, the pressure is certainly on Pangdemonium to deliver a unique work that stands on its own, which audiences who are both new to the play or diehard fans can appreciate. “Oddly, I don’t feel as pressured with this show as I did with Rent, which I feel had a lot more expectations from the audience,” says Tracie. “I believe that my absolute love of the writing will see the journey through, and I do think we have a strong artistic vision for it. Our aim with performing a classic like this isn’t to reinvent it – but to go back to the original intentions of the piece, and really dig deep to tell the story as it was intended, and do justice to that.”

Could the staging of a classic like this mean that Pangdemonium is shifting away from their identity as an “ass-kicking theatre company”, and looking to do more such works in future? “We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into being a company that only does a certain kind of work; we want to try our hand at staging all kinds of writing that speaks to us,” says Tracie. “This is our first classic, and may not be the last, and it represents the kind of play we want to expand our repertoire to include. I think there’s always room for a classic to be performed – there’s always something still relevant about it, and as much as we’re known for our modern, edgy works, I hope that this will still have an air of ‘Pangdemonium’ about it, and people will come see it for what it is.”

“Over the years, Pangdemonium has built up a distinct identity for ourselves, and established that to the people who follow our work. But beyond that, I think the works we choose are ones that make them feel things, sometimes disturbing or discomforting, sometimes provoking debate,” says Adrian. “So even in choosing a classic, we’re very cognisant that it should tick the same boxes that a contemporary play we pick would, and make audiences react in a similar way.”

“Don’t think of this as a change in direction, but a moment where we shake things up a bit and challenge ourselves with something radically different,” he adds. “At the core of it, the script will still be something that makes you think and feel, and one that spoke to us when we chose it, one that isn’t just entertaining, but one that also provides artistic ‘nutrition’ for the heart and mind, and says so much more than what’s on the surface.”

Catherine Grace Gardner and Inch Chua

In the past, Pangdemonium have always released their annual season ticket around the fourth quarter, but the pandemic has made that impossible for the last two years, releasing plans one play at a time rather than all at once. “Over the last two years, we’ve been putting up pieces that we both want to and can perform under the restrictions, and at this stage, we’re still managing a whole backlog of pieces we paid the rights to perform but had to delay,” says Tracie. “Our focus for now is putting on shows that will entice and encourage people to come back to the theatre, and not always putting on challenging work that may not get audiences in. But like Adrian said, it’s not just entertainment, but food for the heart and soul, a way of letting them see what they’ve been missing.”

“At this point, we’re planning for our 2023 season, and if all goes well, we can hopefully launch a season ticket again at the end of the year, and come back in a post-pandemic era in 2023. This pandemic isn’t going to turnaround overnight, but a journey, one that we’re looking at with hope as we head into the future.”

One of the most enlightening aspects of the pandemic has been how vulnerable the arts scene is, and how even the most long lasting of companies could disappear in the blink of an eye. On the topic of survival, Pangdemonium has completely shifted their focus to pure production over the last two years as a means to ride out the pandemic, and even as one of the most successful and renowned companies locally, has faced their fair share of struggles. “Even before the pandemic, we’ve had some good business practices, so we’re lucky we had some security for rainy days like the last two years that allowed us to face this period,” says Tracie. “We’ve had to tighten our belts, and made the decision to cut some of our education programmes to return to the core of what makes Pangdemonium what it is – productions.

“Everyone goes into theatre with ‘passion’, but having run this company for the last ten or so years has made me realise how you need to have a head for business as well,” she adds. “With Pangdemonium, it was no longer just myself and Adrian, but we now had a responsibility to our staff, who were relying on us to pay them a wage to take home every month. We’ve managed to do that for the last decade and gained so much experience from it. I think if we had been a younger company, we would have been hit much harder. We’re very lucky and thankful for all the help that has been rendered, be it venue rebates or the Job Support Scheme. Yes, we will always ask for more, but we cannot deny that all these initiatives have really been a lifesaver for us during this time.”

“You know, it’s been a tough period for everyone, and we’re all caught in the same storm. We’re all survivors, making our own rafts to stay afloat and go with the flow, while building up energy to swim against this tide, and hope the strength of the current will ebb a little as time goes on,” says Adrian. “It’s been tough, but we’re very grateful for the blessings thrown our way, without which we would have drowned ages ago. But I think at this point, we’ve come downstream enough that just surviving alone isn’t enough, and we’re going to try to live again, to live meaningfully and for us, as a little theatre company, that means we’re going to create more meaningful work.”

“Especially for a piece like The Glass Menagerie, which is set in the 1930s, with this family living in their own bubble isolated from the rest of the world on the cusp of World War II, it’s a lot like us isn’t it?” he concludes. “And despite all this, this young man still wants to live, still wants a future for himself. And I hope that when people watch this, it gives them a sense of how no matter what the circumstances are, you have to keep holding onto some personal fire inside you, keep that fire alive, and hope.”

The Glass Menagerie plays from 11th to 27th March 2022 at Victoria Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC

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