Over the course of the pandemic, Sim Yan Ying “YY” (she/her) established herself as an early-career director unafraid to experiment with form and boldly tackle new, never-before performed scripts. To that end, she’s probably one of the most exciting young directors to look out for in Singapore, and makes a perfect candidate for the first batch of the Esplanade’s inaugural TRIP programme, which empowers early career directors and gives them a platform and resources to direct theatre projects.
Come April, YY will be directing Singaporean playwright Joel Tan’s No Particular Order, in its Singaporean premiere. Chosen from a pool of scripts provided by the Esplanade, YY will then be following this up with a second work of her choice come 2024. Before No Particular Order premieres, we spoke to YY on her experience with TRIP, and her position as an early career director in Singapore.
“I found out about TRIP from the open call, and friends told me I should sign up for it. There are very few directing residencies in Singapore, and it felt like a perfect opportunity for me to hone skills as early career director,” says YY. “I’ve done a few self-produced works in the past, and having the Esplanade backing me really helps to relive some of that producing pressure, from marketing to financing, and for me to fully focus on the directing aspect of the work. I got a callback for the second stage of applications around August last year, did an interview and propose a work for the second year, and finally was told I made it.”
For their first presentation, both YY and her other TRIP director, Renee Yeong, were given a pool of four scripts to choose from, with YY selecting No Particular Order, while Renee went with Michelle Tan’s I am trying to say something true. “I read all four scripts from start to end, and chose No Particular Order because I found it really well-written, and I have the utmost respect for Joel as a playwright,” says YY. “There were parts that moved me, and even made me laugh in spite of its dark themes. It’s this visceral reaction that made me decide on it, and the synopsis itself was interesting to me.”
Originally presented in May 2022 at London’s Theatre503, No Particular Order sees a despot come to power. The population is anxious, submissive and scared. But beneath every violation of civil liberty, there are real human beings; behind every act of resistance, there is an individual willing to risk everything. And these people aren’t heroic or remarkable – they’re just like us.
“It’s a play that’s presented in vignette form, with 18 scenes, and 43 characters played by 4 actors. It’s about the lives of everyday ordinary people who struggle in the face of oppression, some of which are brutal, some covert and more insidious,” says YY. “It was a full and textured and vivid world that Joel has written, and still hits hard with a lot of heart and truth and humanity and how we relate to each other in times of uncertainty and fear. To me, there was an urgency and relevance to it, as it reflected the truth of what was happening in many societies, whether it’s places undergoing civil war and unrest, or even places that somewhat seem to be in a peaceful period but some underlying tensions. Because these characters are fictional, you can imagine these situations and event they find themselves in and apply it to a real world context.”
In preparing for the work, YY even met up with playwright Joel Tan to get more information on his mindset when writing it, and used it to fuel her approach. “We met up for coffee, and I got to know his impetus for writing it. Joel wrote this in the UK, during the height of Brexit, and when Trump was coming to power in America, when so many right wing movements were gaining traction, almost like a backlash against more liberal movements,” explains YY. “One thing that struck me during our conversation was when he said how at no point during recorded history has there ever been a time the world has been completely at peace. There would always be some form of war or conflict somewhere, and it begs the question: is such violence and power lust intrinsic to human nature? Is it then possible to stand up against that, and counter it with empathy and care? “
Thereafter, Joel left YY to her own devices, trusting her process and allowing YY to interpret and reinterpret it with her own vision and style. “The characters are quite universal – they don’t have names, and the time and location are deliberately left ambiguous. But what is specific is the human to human interaction, and the conflicts,” says YY. “It’s been fun to take to that kind of challenge with the cast and creatives, to workshop and create this vivid world for ourselves. Thereafter, it was mostly experimenting with transitions, animal work and character work, before assigning roles to the cast members.”
No Particular Order calls for a young female, an older female, a younger male and an older male actor, and stars Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen, Karen Tan, Pavan J Singh and Shrey Bhargava. “The main challenges of the play have mostly been logistical, and you can see how across the vignettes, you encounter most of the characters just once, and the scene changes every time, from two soldiers at a wall of a border, to a fashion house. Characters jump so rapidly as do locations, and it’s a unique challenge to analyse the script and find places for the audience to latch on emotionally,” says YY. “It’s actually a cohesive play structurally, and jumps across three time periods – the present day, 30 years later as it rebuilds and deals with grief and loss, and finally, 300 years later in a nebulous future. So even if the audience doesn’t hold onto the characters, there is a clear forward movement with developing recurring ideas from start to end. We can’t expect everyone to connect with every single vignette, so it’s about just making sure each scene is given due time and attention, and just allow audience members to connect with whatever they end up connecting to, while we shape this world and craft nuance.”
On being an early career director, YY isn’t entirely sure what defines the label, beyond the time spent calling themselves a director. “The application for TRIP stated that you had to have five or less years of professional directing experience, and to be 35 and under, which can be contentious in the theatre community,” says YY. “But for me, I think it really depends on the individual, and changes from person to person. I’m aware I’ve changed since I started – three years ago, I would have taken on any work I can find, but now, I’m more selective and varied with the styles and genres I explore.”
YY obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts at NYU Tisch, and has trained in programmes such as The Necessary Stage’s Devising Platform, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Directing Residency, and SITI Company’s Summer Intensive. But even with these qualifications, she recognises there is still plenty more for her to learn on her lifelong journey as a theatremaker. “I’ve always been inspired by artists and groups like Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Akram Khan, and Pina Bausch, and I do want to develop my skills in directing physical and dance theatre more, and considering doing a masters in choreography, movement or contemporary dance,” says YY. “Also, because dance theatre is so heavy on movement, I’m interested to see how I can integrate more text into it to aid in the storytelling process.”
Having worked across both the New York and Singapore theatre scenes, YY does not have a preference for either scene, and chooses to see the positives of both. “I just did Where Are You in New York in December a few months ago, and it reminded me of what the city had to offer. There’s a lot of cross-pollination happening there, and with so many different directors and styles, it becomes easier to pull people together and interweave all of them into my practice. The New York scene also isn’t representative of the greater American scene, and it’s so big, you can work there 30 years and not know everyone, because there’s already like 400 theatre companies in New York City alone, not even the entire state,” says YY. “In Singapore, the moment your show comes out, everyone in the arts scene hears about it. New York City is a lot more saturated, and it’s harder to get resources than in Singapore, with so many ladders to climb to eventually get to Broadway. But at the same time, you can also comfortably produce something at the Black Box for about $1,000 or less, and really explore your artistry and experiment with room to ‘fail’.”
As to what she considers her directing philosophy, YY sees herself as able to occupy to main spaces – the ability to devise work, and the ability to take on established scripts, giving her versatility and diversity. “It’s not so much mainstream versus experimental work so much as either ‘generative’ or ‘interpretive’,” she explains. “I think the interpretive works are very fun for me, because I get to tease out the nuances in pre-existing works and bring that to life. Doing close readings of scripts offers opportunities to make new discoveries, and it’s like solving a puzzle with my collaborators, and it’s very exciting to see how different directors interpret the same script, and own craft and sensibilities.”
“Meanwhile, the generative work refers to my devising practice with other artists, or writing scripts on my own. It’s fun because it really is using your own voice, and I get to insert semi-autobiographical elements and life experience into it, and it could either go mainstream or experimental,” she adds. “I remember I did a play called Who Are You at the Esplanade Concourse with Migrant Writers of Singapore, and it felt completely naturalistic. I guess in the long run I’d like to be known as a versatile director able to do multiple styles, and for people to trust me with various scripts, whether abstract or more naturalistic, and know that at the end of the day, I’ll do what’s best for the work, whether it needs an innovative multi-disciplinary style or clarity of storytelling.”
Looking ahead, YY feels hopeful for the theatre scene as a whole. “I do hope that in time to come, there will be more funding and resources available for independent artists in Singapore, and for people to just explore and experiment more, for example, more residency programmes for creation in general, rather than pigeonholding people into specific ‘directing’ or ‘playwriting’ residencies,” she says. “I think there’s something to be said about becoming a multi-disciplinary artist who can make work in any way shape or form, whether composing music or writing or exploring movement. And I also hope for more sharing of resources and support from established companies for younger artists and collectives – I’ve had the pleasure of having good working relationships with companies like Wild Rice and Singapore Repertory Theatre, where I could go to them and ask to borrow music stands or even rehearsal space if I really need it, and they’re willing to help me out, which I really appreciate.”
“Finally, I do hope there will be more diversity and inclusion in the field, with greater accessibility, not just catering to audiences with disabilities but also making them key collaborators and leaders of projects, and more varied perspectives, whether from racial minorities, different identities, or simply less heard voices,” she concludes. “I think there have been so many exciting newer, emerging artists coming out in Singapore, who highlight different voices and showcase their own artistry. Of course we all have a lot of growing to do still, but just to hear all these unique voices and variations in tastes, styles and concerns is so exciting for the next generation of artists.”
More information about YY available from 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
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