Arts Interview Preview Theatre

When cloud catches colours: An Interview with writer/director Chng Yi Kai

The rainbow has become a globally recognised symbol of the LGBTQ+ community, representing not only the spectrum of identities and varied stories across the board, but in its simplest form, hope at the end of the storm. That’s a symbol that presents itself prominently in thetaremaker Chng Yi Kai’s new production When cloud catches colours.

Writer/director Chng Yi Kai

Produced by Drama Box, When cloud catches colours‘ title is all about the process of finding solace and light amidst the hardest of times. And which community needs that more than the often forgotten older generation of queer people in Singapore, who struggle with loneliness, caregiving, and other fears and responsibilities? The verbatim theatre piece based on true accounts from interviews conducted with older queer people, then highlights how the sense of safety changes for a queer person as they get older.

“In the research process of this play, I read a lot of guidebooks, and many of them explored ideas of safety and safe spaces. I realised that safety was a big theme I wanted to grapple with, and considered what would a utopia look like for queer people, which is how we came up with the title,” says Yi Kai. “In the set itself, there’ll be aesthetic resonance with that idea of rainbows as well, which also represents the spectrum of ideas and tensions between what is expected of us and what we want instead.”

Yi Kai is no stranger to verbatim work, with his directorial and playwriting debut With Time (2021) adopting a similar process. But where that work explored issues of mental health in younger people, the interviewees and focus for When cloud catches colours are quite different, and represents a new facet to his artistry he explores. “I believe that there are gaps in the larger discourse regarding queer people in Singapore – the older generation,” says Yi Kai. “Sometime back, I met someone who was telling me about an older gay man in his 70s who had lost his partner of about 50 years to cancer. While he had always known his partner’s time was limited, the grief still left him feeling lost and devastated. Particularly coming from a background where coming out wasn’t really an option, he ended up finding it very difficult to confide in or find support in this difficult period.”

“And his case isn’t an isolated one, and is fairly common among older queer people. These are things we don’t talk about or address, where there is so much depression and loneliness in the older generation, compared to say, focusing on younger queer people coming out,” he adds. “The aim of this piece was then to expand on the kinds of queer narratives that were available, specifically, Singaporean queer narratives, and what it means to be a queer person living in Singapore.”

It is with that in mind that Yi Kai embarked on this project, seeking out interview subjects to hear from and distil stories from. “There were quite a few challenges to even getting interview subjects, and I had to resort to open calls in Facebook groups, or approach NGOs to see if they had any contacts,” says Yi Kai. “Even after making contact with them, so many of them were very apprehensive about the process, and I had to assure them of their anonymity, and that I would show them the script drafts such that they would be ok with the content. And it’s true – there were times the interviews got so personal, I knew I would have to cut details to ensure it couldn’t be traced back to them.”

“There were other issues too – as a younger person, some of them were unsure if I would be able to connect or communicate with them properly, though of course, there were some who did have a lot of experience and connections to younger people and it was much easier to have those conversations,” he adds. “A lot of this comes back to fear and the feeling that they lack safety, but eventually, once they started feeling safe and opening up, information flowed more freely, and we became more comfortable with engaging each other.”

These interview subjects themselves were diverse and varied, and comprised of both queer individuals who would rather find safety in a world that accepted them for being out and proud, and others who were happy with staying on the down low, and to normalise queerness in a different way. “It’s interesting how we already had about two drafts of the script, and then all of a sudden in November, the government made the historic move to repeal Section 377A (the law that criminalises sex between men),” says Yi Kai. “I did follow up with some of my interviewees on how they felt about it, and while they all agreed it was a good thing, some people felt afraid that it might cause more anti-queer sentiment, especially from conservatives towards the queer community. And for people who were still in the closet, some people felt like there was a higher chance of being outed, or the fear of having to choose sides in an increasingly polarised world. It’s a big question of where do the community goes from here, now that 377A is gone.”

From all these compiled responses, Yi Kai managed to combine them into two distinct stories. When cloud catches colour stars Julius Foo and Judy Ngo as Qing and E, two queer-identifying individuals in their fifties. Qing is struggling to deal with the aftermath of a relationship that ended after 20 years, while E is negotiating the difficult position of sole-caregiving to a mother who does not fully accept her. Even in old age, Qing and E face yet another new set of challenges to overcome as queer individuals.

“I originally wanted to present a lot of stories, then it started to look and feel like a research report. I realised that there were some common struggles and threads underlying these stories – loss from either death or a break up, and the burden of responsibility and caregiving to parents, particularly for female queer individuals, which creates a lot of tension at home,” says Yi Kai. “Everyone goes through their own problems and individual struggles, and it manifests differently for everyone. So these threads became the two framing stories and monologues that shaped the piece, and to incorporate elements and details from other stories into them.”

On his casting choices, and the ongoing debate of whether actors need to play characters according to their sexual identity, Yi Kai has this to say: “It’s quite different in Singapore compared to say Hollywood. Checking sexual identities before casting would be a bit odd for me, and more importantly is how sensitive they are to the queer experience. They don’t have to have experienced it themselves, but to understand the language and politics and the larger conditions surrounding the issues, which then allows them to articulate it sensitively and thoughtfully. And both my actors, having been part of the theatre scene for so long and having so many queer friends themselves, are able to bring that out.”

Even with this being his second verbatim theatre piece, Yi Kai isn’t worried about being pigeonholed, and instead sees the medium as necessary for the effective delivery of his message. “What I’m exploring is less the verbatim or documentary aspect, and more about the idea of ‘realness’ and authenticity,” says Yi Kai. “I’m interested in all these small moments that you sometimes don’t realise reveal so much about you, or could actually be turning points in your life. But I was talking to my actors the other day, and we were saying how even the pauses and repetitions in transcribing an interview can tell us so much about a person. In a way, it’s the next step in my journey as I explore realism and how to present it onstage, and I take a lot of inspiration from hyperrealism in film, like Chloe Zhao with Nomadland, or Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.”

“I do want to continue producing and developing work, as a writer, director and actor. And in that sense, my goal as an artist is to continue exploring the aesthetics of realness, and to also present these marginalised voices we don’t often hear onstage,” concludes Yi Kai. “For now, what I hope audience members take away from this show is to understand the needs of the queer community in Singapore, and what they need to feel safe. This isn’t a show that’s just for the queer community, but also allies and even those who are against the community to watch, and to see what kind of change we need to enact on a larger scale in order to move forward together, and learn to co-exist and help each other.”

When cloud catches colours runs from 3rd to 5th March 2023 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets available from BookMyShow

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