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An Interview with Gangguan Theatre’s Edward Eng, Writer/Director of new play ‘The Change’

In a year where we have finally begun to move beyond the shadow of the pandemic, new global problems begin to rear their head in our face once again, with the most prominent of those being climate change. But in the face of a global crisis, how do we keep our chin up and do something useful about it?

New theatre company Gangguan Theatre will be addressing that with their debut production The Change. Created by, and written and directed by Singapore-based theatremaker Edward Eng, The Change is a new play full of complaints about celebrity capitalism, dodgy PR, and questions about what the climate is doing to our heads. Drawing on Edward’s personal experience working on climate policy and his difficulty explaining it. We spoke to Edward about what Gangguan Theatre stands for, what to expect from The Change, and what activism means in 2022.

“Gangguan Theatre was created as a platform to produce work that explores less commercially viable themes, and essentially, do what we want, that bigger companies cannot risk doing,” says Edward. “I came up with the name when I heard some family members use the term ‘Gangguan’, usually as an expression of disturbance or annoyance. When Benjamin Lye came up with the logo, where it repeats thrice, it looked like it would sound like a gang chant, and feels in line with our intent to create these independent shows that go against the grain.”

“We’re a small company who operate on a revenue share model, rather than as a non-profit, so the best way to support us is to actually buy tickets for someone else rather than donate,” he adds. “As a smaller company, we also have more freedom and flexibility to change things around, choose the plays we want, and keep costs low. Think of it as a collaboration between myself and artists I want to work with, and being able to offer artists an opportunity to try more interesting things at a lower cost and risk.”

“So the first time I thought about The Change was while I was on holiday in Athens, where we had the nicest Greek lady who owned and ran our Airbnb. But at some point, she started telling us about how she heard that installing wind turbines on the island would cause more wildfires to happen, and I wanted to laugh at how ridiculous it sounded, but also felt sad and angry that somewhere out there, someone had fed her this fake news,” explains Edward, on the origins of the play. “So The Change ends up being sort of about climate change. But it’s also about ourselves and our responsibilities, from intergenerational obligations, to whether you should even have children. It’s about pondering when hard, bullheaded activism is a good thing, or what to do when there is uncharted territory, and linking that back to climate change.”

The Change initially takes the form of a naturalistic play, starring Dennis Sofian, who plays a civil servant stressed about his inability to do much to change things, but tries to effect change anyway. Dennis also doubles as an artist and theatremaker friend of the civil servant, who inherently believes people can become better versions of themselves, and spends his nights dabbling in socially-conscious theatre. Together, they collaborate on a “performance-lecture” about climate change in Singapore.

“Dennis was chosen because he’s good at doing voicework, and can play both comedic and dramatic roles. He’s got this malleable stage persona, and a very nice ear for dialogue, and while it wasn’t initially planned as a one person play, it made sense for him to play multiple characters, and represent the tensions between people, as well as within ourselves,” says Edward.

Midway through however, the play shifts from the naturalistic elements, beginning to go down a self-reflexive route as it questions the lack of people addressing the big problems, like holding the greenwashers to task or dealing with the psychology of inaction. “It’s really hard to do a play about climate change – the more successful ones don’t address it head on, and instead leave it to things like the set design, like say Blade Runner: 2049 being set in a post-apocalyptic world,” says Edward. “It’s always necessary to approach it from a doomsday angle, because that is what the climate crisis is about. The question then is how can we create hope when it seems to be nowhere in sight, and how to talk to people who simply don’t care about it.”

In approaching the construction of the play, Edward came to realise that opinion on climate change went far further than a simple binary, and encompassed an entire spectrum. “The team realised we had quite a few different opinions towards the issues, and we thought about whether we can still do a play where we had different opinions on the outcome. That’s why we had to include the self-reflexivity elements,” says Edward. “At the end of the day, I am not the characters, and my own take is a bit more boring and utilitarian. But even if you yourself don’t agree with what’s being said, the point is to watch how we end up engaging in the disagreement and approach, and how we come out of that. The play really changed a lot since its beginnings, and I’m happy with how it entered the more abstract, discomforting form it now takes.”

What Edward wants to push with the play then, is hope through education, and understanding that in spite of all the conflicting views, there are viable, functional steps one can take towards combatting climate change. “People sometimes end up with blind faith and hope for a miracle rather than starting to take steps towards actual change,” says Edward. “If you remember the early 2000s, we would always hear about stark image of a hole burning through the ozone layer, and think about polar bears stranded on a floating iceberg. There came a point where even TIME magazine declared the person of the year as Earth. But the funny thing is, the hole did mend, and despite all the messiness of the world order, we somehow all decided that it was quite feasible to cut down on CFCs, and the hole began to heal. We’ve won before, but we no longer talk about it because we’re better at talking about disaster than hope.”

“The ozone layer is a great case study, because it shows that while individual action doesn’t make much difference, collective action does. The important thing is not to let sadness paralyse you but channel that into something positive, to turn it into passion instead,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s about seeing the big picture rather than get caught up in emotions. Take for example how one of the most effective things people can do is donate a few dollars every year to fund mosquito nets and deworming tablets for countries that need that. It sounds mundane, but it’s much more effective than say, pouring your money into finding a cure for cancer or rare diseases. Not to say these aren’t important, but people end up valuing things differently based on how they affect us emotionally, which then affects the way they are communicated or marketed.”

Should we then all become activists? “Not in the popular sense, because then no one will listen to each other – do we really want everyone throwing soup at paintings?” comments Edward. “I think we need to see things from a global scale, and recognise that there is inequality not just in society, but between countries as well. In Singapore, the average person earns quite a few times more than a person in a third world country. Activism is about putting forth the idea that we want to put someone else first, rather than participating and contributing to a dog-eat-dog world. Even if we’re paralysed as to what to do, the vast majority of people would still want to do something to help. Activism is about activating our innate altruism, and to direct that towards doing things that matter, as influenced by a community, and bridge the gap between where we are and where we should be.”

“Theatre is not prescriptive, but provides a framework of what to do, whether it’s writing to your MPs or telling the company you work for to support certain charities that can make a more significant difference instead. Through the play, I hope that there is beauty in the stagecraft, but also to recognise that the more traditional definitions of beauty can be seen as dangerous as well, because they can hide ugly truths,” Edward concludes. “I hope you leave this play with a stark but hopeful image, and knowing the things you can do, and feel obligated to do them. Gangguan wants to grapple with complicated issues, but show you that there is relevant, actionable things you can do beyond the theatre, in real life.”

The Change plays from 7th to 11th December 2022 at Cairnhill Arts Centre (Teater Kami). Tickets available from Eventbrite

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