Arts Preview Theatre

TRIP 2023: An Interview with Renee Yeong, director of ‘I am trying to say something true’

Singaporean theatremaker Renee Yeong (she/they) spent her undergraduate years at NYU in America before returning in 2019, and had initially planned to return to the States on a freelance artist visa after spending some time with family and friends. That plan was put on indefinite hiatus once the pandemic struck, and she’s since been based in Singapore, working a corporate role by day to make ends meet.

But it wasn’t long before she realised how she couldn’t stay away from the theatre scene for long, and began applying to programmes and residencies once things started opening up again. Now, with several projects under her belt, Renee is set to be exposed to a wider audience as part of the Esplanade’s inaugural TRIP programme, which empowers early career directors and gives them a platform and resources to direct work.

Renee is set to direct a total of two works over the course of two years, starting with Michelle Tan’s I am trying to say something true this April, selected from a pool of scripts provided by the Esplanade, before presenting a second work of her choice in 2024. We spoke to Renee about her experience with TRIP, working on this project, and her position as an early career director.

“TRIP was pretty much what I was looking for, and platforms for emerging directors are still mostly rare,” says Renee. “It appealed to me because it was a two year programme that was also very structured, and provided a lot of support. I believed in it, and I was proven right, with how swiftly everything moved, from marketing to casting. I’m grateful for having this very supportive environment to try different things and challenge myself, and really have the privilege and luxury of just focusing on the storytelling and the craft, which is very rare to really get anywhere.”  

Fellow TRIP director Sim Yan Ying “YY” in I LOVE WHITE MEN (2019), which Renee directed. Photo from Ars Nova & Dixon Place productions

Both Renee and her fellow TRIP director Sim Yan Ying “YY” share some similarities – besides being about the same age, they were both educated at NYU and even worked together on YY’s one-woman show I LOVE WHITE MEN in 2019 (Caveat NYC, Ars Nova & Dixon Place), which Renee directed, and YY wrote and performed. But the two couldn’t be more different in their approaches towards theatremaking, which explains how they ended up gravitating towards two different scripts for TRIP.

“The two of us are good friends, and we talk a lot to each other, from the programme to challenges we’re facing. We were joking that we’d end up choosing the same show and give it very different treatments, but in the end, we still went with two completely different scripts,” says Renee. “While I am trying to say something true is a one-woman show, similar to what YY and I did in I LOVE WHITE MEN, this one is less speaking to the audience and more theatrical in nature, which presents a different set of challenges and potential to explore for me.”

Originally presented at the 2018 season of The Studios, I am trying to say something true follows the story of Risa, a woman who, after smashing her work computer in the office pantry in an uncharacteristic fit of rage, is now in therapy. Starring Sabrina Sng, the play goes deep into Risa’s past, and everything that led up to this moment, exploring the complexities of personal truth and emotional vulnerability.

“I picked this particular script for a few reasons – it was a queer script, and the language also really resonated with me. I love the way Michelle writes, which came across as honest, articulate, and nuanced,” says Renee. “There’s a loose structure, almost like a stream of consciousness, and also a lack of stage directions, so it’s quite free for all when it comes to directions, and both exciting and scary for me as we work through the world and vocabulary of the piece, and try different ways of approaching it. The challenge is deciding how to go from the realistic elements in the therapist office to the more ‘trippy’, abstract emotional space and expressionistic moments during the play.”

I am trying to say something true was first staged in 2018, starring Ellison Tan. Photo by Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

On whether she feels any pressure to live up to the version performed just 5 years earlier, Renee is confident that she’ll be delivering a completely different experience with her interpretation. “The Esplanade did ask if I wanted to watch archival footage of the first performance, but I decided not to, because I didn’t want to be influenced by it,” says Renee. “And because it’s a one-woman show, just by virtue of casting a different person in the role already ensures that she’ll be bringing something different to the character. I did speak to Michelle about the script though, and when we met, we got along pretty well, because we do share some similar life experiences. And I hope in the version I present, I can capture where she’s coming from in this semi-autobiographical work.”

For Renee, Sabrina Sng was a clear casting choice. “TRIP gives us agency and choice in how we want to run our process, and I was the one who picked Sabrina. We both went to NYU, though she’s a year older. We’ve never worked together before, but she had this huge fanbase at NYU and I love how she puts out such honest and raw work,” she says. “So thinking about the working relationship, I wanted to find an actor that I could have a really fulfilling experience with, one that was exploratory and filled with curiosity in the rehearsal process. When Sabrina auditioned, I felt that collaborative spirit and excitement to experiment, and that confirmed it.”

“As a director, because the script is so open, I have to make a lot of clear decisions to properly construct that world. My decisions have to align not just with my own vision, but the way Sabrina is playing Risa, and play to her strengths,” she adds. “Sabrina excels in physicality, while I’m much more text-focused, and my challenge then is integrating both of those into the final performance. And of course, because we’re both big picture people, we also need to account for all the details, and also consider how to make every moment of this 21 page script different and nuanced. The text itself isn’t boring, but we need to make it come alive, and make a choice that ultimately feels true and representative of this production.”

Lotus Root Support Group (2022)

Renee’s most recent directing credits in Singapore includeLotus Root Support Group (2022), while she has also directed work in America such asWhen We Were Young and Unafraid,Dry Land(Playwrights Horizons Downtown/NYU),  and Annie Aspen’s Musical Space Spectacular!(Ars Nova’s ANT Fest). “For me, I’m still an early career director, and I haven’t settled on any specific directing style yet. But I do think that in my process, I always try to remain curious, and try to follow my excitement at doing something new and challenging,” she says. “Even though I’ve done a few one-woman shows now, I don’t want to be pigeonholed into that, because I think I choose works that are honest, and direct, and one woman shows tend to be the kind of projects that allow for us to explore discovery and confrontation of trauma and identity.”

“And that’s my current take on the direction I want to go in – I still want to try doing different things and stretch myself as a director. That could mean stepping out of my comfort zone and doing work I don’t naturally gravitate to,” she adds. “Like how even though I’m trained in theatre, I do have a big interest in audio and sound design as well, and explored audio fiction during the pandemic. I’m currently working on an independent project with a writer friend, and we’re hoping to put out a short story audio fiction podcast thing towards the later half of the year.”

When We Were Young and Unafraid, Dry Land (Playwrights Horizons Downtown/NYU). Photo Credit: Jasmin Karibzhanova

Beyond sound design and direction, at the heart of her artistry, Renee wants to tell contemporary stories about women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups in America, Singapore and beyond, giving a platform for these voices to be heard. “The ideal state is that I can do different work in different places. It’s different working here, where I get to tell Singapore stories, which fulfils me in one way, while in America, I get to explore topics like fluidity of gender and their own culture, and as an artist, I relish the opportunity to access these different parts of me,” she says. “In Singapore, it can be quite hard to do the latter at times, because there are a lot of marginalised groups who still don’t feel it’s safe to speak up or write stories, and there can be a lack of opportunity.”

“We do want to get to a point where we can give a voice to these people, and in order to create a safe space, there needs to be financial support, institutional support, and public support,” she adds. “I think there are people in Singapore with fantastic stories to tell, so it’s a pity that there’s been an exodus of people leaving because they feel they cannot tell their story here. Which is why I’m so grateful to the brave people who do make the difficult decision to stay, to continue living their life here even with difficult circumstances, and speak up. Slowly but surely, there are more such stories coming out, and I do think it’s a trend in the right direction.”

Dry Land (Playwrights Horizons Downtown/NYU). Photo Credit: Jasmin Karibzhanova

On what’s next for her, Renee is quite happy moving and developing at her current pace, keeping her options open. “For me, working a corporate job, I think it helps build myself up financially towards my goals, and doing that while making art on the side helps me worry less about choosing specific projects that will help me pay rent, and I can just choose to invest my time however I want to,” she says. “At age 28, I really just want to amass as much life experience as possible because things can change in an instant. There is a lot of value you can get from immersing yourself in one genre and becoming the best at it, and that’s fantastic, but I’m the kind of person who keeps wanting to explore new things, like improv.”

“I do hope that even within our small industry, we can still find it in us to create different spaces for people to do what they want to do, whether in theatre or music or arts,” she concludes. “I think that the current generation of theatremakers have paved the way for my generation to push forward. Now we can try different things, and explore theatremaking in all its facets, because the ones that came before us have set the scene up. Theatre is not a zero sum game, and there needs to be space for everyone, and hopefully, resources and money and a paying audience along with the artistry.”

More information about Renee available on her website

No Particular Order plays from 1st to 2nd April 2023, while I am trying to say something true plays from 8th to 9th April 2023, both at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Find out more about TRIP here

0 comments on “TRIP 2023: An Interview with Renee Yeong, director of ‘I am trying to say something true’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: