Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023: An Interview with Deonn Yang, writer/director of ‘Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best?’

In Singapore, those of us brought up in strict households were brought up with the idea that anything less than number one is as good as failing, or that we we are simply never meant to be satisfied with what we have. But at the risk of our mental and physical health and so many more sacrifices, at what point should we stop ourselves from going all out to be the best?

With a title like Why Be Good When You Can Be the Best?, Deonn Yang’s new play is set to satirise the phenomenon in Singapore, as it premieres at the 2023 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Written and directed by Deonn, Why Be Good When You Can Be the Best? stars Chng Xin Xuan as Min, an average, every day, down-to-earth worker. Min works hard, but when she unexpectedly finds herself at a game show, she now competes to be The Best Employee Ever.

Joined by an ensemble cast comprising Mitchell Fang, Sindhura Kalidas, Suhaili Safari and Eve Voigtlander, Why Be Good When You Can Be the Best? is ready to question our societal obsession with productivity and success, something we delve into further as well in our interview with Deonn.

“The idea for the play actually started this year, when I had to come up with something for the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) for the students I coach,” says Deonn. “It was supposed to be an original work, and it would have been themed around empathy and compassion. But the true starting point came when I caught a glimpse of my own reflection in the mirror while on a Grab ride home one night, and I realised, while on my phone, how disengaged from this poor tired driver I was, two complete strangers in the same vehicle with no point of connection.”

“That image stuck with me for a while, and I began to notice that all around me on public transport, in restaurants, where people were just watching their phones. I thought, I wanted to do something to address that, but not be too serious about it, which is how the gameshow device came about,” she continues. “So we ended up doing a very truncated version of the show during SYF, and I decided to pitch the idea to Fringe. They accepted my proposal, and when I found out, it gave me room to expand and look at different characters within it and develop the story.”

Min does sound like the kind of person one loves to hate, considering how she seems to be altogether quite perfect. “I hope there’s something endearing about her that makes her someone to root for, and while she starts off very nice, the flaws start to come out eventually, and we do see her as fallible, especially when she starts to change herself and become someone she’s not,” says Deonn. “These are moments I hope the audience will relate to and choose to support her regardless. Through Min, we recognise that actually life is not that easy, there are so many challenges, and her journey is also about figuring out what we can do to combat or acclimatise to those challenges.”

While the main character of the show is no doubt Min, this new iteration expands beyond her as protagonist, and explores several new characters and gives them voices and encourages us to recognise and connect to their humanity. “Min herself is this character who’s the polar opposite of this bleak energy, and she’s this person who’s very connected, very in touch with her surroundings. She’s mostly fictional, and based in part on my own experiences or people I know, but really was intended as the polar opposite of how I felt at the back of the Grab that day,” says Deonn. “Which is where I come in to figure out how to give her a challenge and make life difficult for her. She finds herself in a situation which she should thrive in, but doesn’t, and that, for many people, is their villain origin story. So while we take joy away from her, and the play becomes her journey back to find joy in her life again.”

“I’ve been very lucky with all the people I have on board with me, because they’re all very accepting of anything I throw at them. Sometimes it can be hard to tap into the more surreal elements, so we do have to come up with character backstories and routines for her, especially for Min and how she’s caught in this cycle of action, to finding the physical language for her and when is she honest and truthful to herself,” says Deonn on her team. “Even down to talking about encounters with say community cats, and if they don’t respond to you, is that an opportunity to show vulnerability? It’s about being honest with each other, and even for me, sometimes I have to admit when I’m not sure about a certain scene, and ask the team to help ideate. My collaborators are open enough to have such discussions and we work so well together.”

Part of that strong team dynamic might boil down to Deonn as a leader, in creating a safe space where everyone feels valued and of worth. “These collaborators are professionals, and also my friends. I try to make sure that they can give feedback, and to have conversations if they want to, and to encourage more compassion towards each other,” she says. “Like even say something like falling sick, I do feel the fear because we’re on a time crunch, but in an office setting, an MC is an MC, and they should rest, rather than come in not at their 100%, and even risk infecting other people. It sounds like very small, simple things, and honestly, none of it is particularly revolutionary, but sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re all human.”

Expanding that to work culture in Singapore in general, Deonn feels that reducing toxicity ultimately comes down to listening to others, and ensuring that all voices are valued and heard. “What’s good for me may not be good for you, and if we want workspaces to feel safe, we have to acknowledge that people all have different working styles, and we need to understand that our own expectations may sometimes be imposed on others, when it doesn’t work for them,” she says. “I’ve never been in an office situation myself, but I do know that sometimes hierarchies make it difficult to find the courage to speak up. That can be dangerous, because people end up bottling it up till breaking point, and either they will get hurt, or they take it out on someone else, and it becomes this vicious cycle of hostility stemming from unsafe practices.”

“Sometimes, something as simple as asking for remote working conditions, especially after this pandemic, can and should be implemented, but certain companies refuse to do that,” she continues. “Considering we spend so much time at work, then work should be taking place in a pleasant and safe space. With this performance, I’m not here to change things, but to perhaps reveal certain unsafe practices or toxic environments that happen at work, and start a conversation about how we can change that.”

Speaking on her experience with youths, Deonn places plenty of trust and hope in them, in that they do have the right mindset and will grow up as capable, compassionate adults. “I’ve been teaching since I graduated, and while I do notice that students are very sensitive, I mean that in the sense that they’re much more aware of what’s happening around them,” she says. “I tend to work with students in the 16-18 year old range, and they really are just like us, going through their share of challenges, from the mental to the social. So working with them similarly isn’t just about instructing, but also providing that safe space where we can be open with each other. I’m not trained in this specifically, but we do spend 6 hours a week together, and I want them to feel comfortable enough to be themselves when they’re under my charge, like even using preferred pronouns.”

“All this helps shape their ideals and identity, and really leaves an impression on them, as they develop their personal voice. And in the realm of devising, it’s important to give them that space to explore and express themselves,” she continues. “Even if it’s exploratory or rough around the edges, that’s what I love about being a teacher, to see them make that discovery. Even though we do have deadlines to meet and competitions to prepare for, I try to ensure there is the space and time to create things, to get them to write their own things, and have their voices heard.”

From her humble beginnings as an actor, Deonn has been increasingly expanding her scope of work as an artist and theatremaker, not just with Why Be Good When You Can Be the Best?, but even honing her writing skills with programmes such as The Necessary Stage’s Playwrights’ Cove and other devising platforms. “Even though acting is my first love, I’m always excited to venture into new spaces and develop new skills, and I find joy in creating new work and being a part of whatever project I can in whatever capacity,” she says. “A lot of it comes down to me trying to find my own point of view, and I’m really thankful for all the opportunities I’ve received over the years.”

And in terms of balancing passion and work, Deonn understands that often the two become conflated, and offers some words of sagely wisdom. “There’s this trend on TikTok that gets people to show off the ‘5 to 9 before 9 to 5’ idea, and is all about prioritising productivity. But then the question really is, who are you once you’re done with work, and what actually brings you joy?” she says. “We need to find out how we can achieve small pockets of joy in our own lives that hopefully seep into our work as well. If all we have is our work, then that’s all we know, and it will be the thing that will consume all your energy. We all need balance, and sometimes we just have to do things that allow us some rest and escape from our day to day.”

“In the theatre industry, I do feel quite a lot of joy and hope about that. I often find myself surrounded by people who want to root for me, or at least people who will support and respect you and treat you kindly, and that gives me renewed faith in people,” she continues. “It never hurts to be nice, and it’s important to be reminded that there is meaning in what you’re doing.”

And that brings us back to the work itself, and what she ultimately wants to pass commentary on. “The show is deliberately meant to be a little silly, and to show us that there’s a lot more to life than just work. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best, but also, we can’t forget to do the things in life that make you happy, the things that bring you joy” she concludes. “If you have a cat, don’t forget to love your cat a bit, don’t forget all the things that are there for you before going on your pursuit. Ambition is good, but don’t forget who you are as a person, and hold on to the little joys in life and the people who support and love you.” 

Photo Credit: Yeo Tze Hern

Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best? plays from 12th to 15th January 2023 at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here

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