Arts Preview Theatre

Toy Factory’s For My Highness: An Interview with director Adeeb Fazah and playwright Shaleihin Pi’ee

Toy Factory Productions Ltd has never shied away from nurturing the next generation of thetaremakers, with programmes such as playwright incubation programme The Wright Stuff and their more experimental Lab Projects. Next week, the company will be turning the spotlight on their DIRECT ENTRY programme, a director-mentorship programme led by Toy Factory Artistic Director Goh Boon Teck, as the chosen mentee culminates the mentorship with the presentation of a final production.

That mentee happens to be Adeeb Fazah, Artistic Director of The Second Breakfast Company, who has been busy directing For My Highness, a brand new script by Shaleihin Pi’ee, which focuses on the issue of substance abuse and the havoc it wreaks on familial ties and relationships. “The way the programme works is that after coming on board the project, Adeeb was asked to find scripts he wanted to direct,” explains Shaleihin, who is also Toy Factory’s Marketing Communications Manager. “But after looking through Adeeb’s suggestions, Boon Teck said that he needed him to do something a little wilder, and asked me to write something!”

The idea for the script had been percolating in Shaleihin’s mind for a while, since 2019 in fact, where a friend’s death left him grieving, and wondering if he could tell his story in the form of a play. “I thought it was an important story to share, about this friend who passed away from substance abuse, but it was still quite raw back then and I hadn’t fully processed it yet,” he explains. “Now, I think that I’ve had more time, and I’ve helmed programmes like The Wright Stuff, and think that I’m finally ready to write it. It came to me from place that’s personal, and it was cathartic to finally write it, and I think I’m ready to let the world see it, and how audiences can watch it and understand how we can grow as a community and support each other.”

For My Highness specifically, follows Zaki, who spends his nights getting high from one place to another, before finally arriving to find refuge in the most unlikely of places – a gay sauna. What kind of comforts will he find there, and how long can he run before reality catches up to him?

“There’s a few layers to the title – firstly, the ‘high’ refers to the high you get from drugs, but you also notice the subtitle, Sex, Drugs and A Mother’s Prayer, which refers to how it’s also about Zaki’s relationship with his mother, who is also embarking on her own search for god and religion,” says Shaleihin. “And through that, it allows for Adeeb to play a lot with hallucinations, to play with the comedic and the serious, and decide what purpose and message to bring through that portrayal.”

For Adeeb, who was relatively unaware of the drug and sauna subculture, he found the initial approach to the play a challenge. “It took a lot of reading, as well as talking to people to figure it all out – why is it even a thing, why do people do it, and how does it all work?” he says. “I do think because it’s such a specific subculture, it was important to understand it before diving in. And it was integral to understanding what the protagonist was experiencing and going through, and how to make that resonant with any audience member, regardless of whether they’ve been to a sauna or do drugs.”

The setting of the sauna was a deliberate choice, with the intent to make it a confined, exposed space. “Saunas are a purely transactional space, a very ‘you scratch my back I scratch yours’ situation, which runs parallel to the synergy of chill fun,” says Shaleihin. “It’s a space which offers Adeeb a chance to create something fantastical and psychedelic, and with 24 hours in there, to really craft a well-fleshed out story.”

“The whole story is set in the sauna is because he has nowhere else to go, so he goes there for solace and comfort and to seek refuge from rest of world,” says Adeeb. “The design you get is more suggestive than realistic, and also needs the flexibility to transform and represent different spaces in his life. We had to consider how much we can leave to the imagination, and what exactly his character journey is, and allow the writing to come through.”

Playing Zaki will be young actor Zulfiqar Izzudin, known for his involvement in works such as The Essential Playlist (2022, The Second Breakfast Company) and Anything Can Happen / Something Must Happen (2019, young & wild), with the choice to cast him a unanimous decision after the audition process. “When Zul came in, his voice matched how we imagined the character to speak quite well,” says Shaleihin. “It’s not about how attractive an actor is, but about finding someone who looks relatable, who could be your friend or someone you know, to understand that anyone could be going through this.”

“We had a short workshopping process to better prepare him for the role, including unpacking Zaki’s situation and figuring out his backstory, from how he got into drugs to his relationship with his mother,” says Adeeb. “What was new for me was figuring out how to do the intimacy scenes, which required a lot of care and choreography. It was about creating a safe space for everyone involved, and breaking it down, which we learnt from videos on YouTube.”

For Adeeb, who consulted with Boon Teck throughout the process, the DIRECT ENTRY programme has been immensely useful to his growth as an artist and director. Directing has changed so much since 5 years ago, and I look back on it and think, wow I’ve changed so much. It’s just that every new project I work on adds to my experience and refinement of the craft and it’s always a good thing and why it’s hard to say no to any project,” says Adeeb. “With every show I’m looking to improve myself and my craft, and a lot of the improvement come with experience. And with such a mentorship, the more of myself I give, the more refined I can make my craft, and when working together with a team, the key is also to communicate with collaborators and coax out the best from my actors.”

“Initially there was a lot of coordinating and negotiating regarding what I liked to do, and what I wanted to do, because Toy Factory is a company with its own ideas, but Boon Teck also gave me a lot of flexibility to play and decide how to stage it,” says Adeeb. “What’s been helpful is that there’s a supportive team, and Boon Teck has given great advice whenever I consult him. In general, I’m feeling quite in control of the performance, and happy with where it’s going.”

At the heart of the story, beyond the drugs and beyond the sauna, is the throughline of addiction, whether to substances, sex, or even pleasing others, something that comes out completely in the context of a gay sauna. “In realising the script, we had to make quite a few cuts because it overrun, and we wanted to bring it to its full potential,” says Shaleihin. “The final message really is to have more empathy towards those in trouble or facing issues, whether substance abuse or mental health issues. We should take a second before judging and saying this is the solution, instead we should just sit and listen to their story.”

“It’s a story about addiction and mother and son seeking connection. Zaki is looking for connection through drugs and hookups, but he also thinks about his connection back home to his own mother, who is there for him and trying to help, while he searches for acceptance from others, and of himself,” says Adeeb. “It’s not a black and white story, not a Yellow Ribbon type inspirational story. Nobody is talking about these taboo issues, and hopefully, we get a chance to portray it truthfully and respectfully.”

“This play is meant to act as a shining light. I do truly believe in the message and issues it brings up, and even with things like equality, there are still issues that need to be talked about rather than being swept under the rug,” Shaleihin concludes. “It’s an important play not just to the LGBTQ+ community, but also people who have experienced substance abuse. We’re interested in how Zaki’s trauma manifests, and unpack the layers of being gay and Muslim and a young adult, beyond just thinking of him as ‘oh he takes drugs’. It’s a play about addiction and how it’s a trap, it sucks us into a vicious cycle, and by identifying it, we can finally see it for what it is and start to resolve it.”

For My Highness runs from 25th to 27th November 2022 at Stamford Arts Centre Black Box. Tickets available here

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