Two years ago, inspired by the success of W!ld Rice’s Hotel, I blithely suggested that Ong Keng Sen commission Pangdemonium to create a work at SIFA. Amazingly enough, he chose to do just that, and the resulting work looks pretty damn promising.
Artistic directors Adrian and Tracie Pang have responded by bringing in a UK-based Singaporean playwright Stephanie Street to create a whole new work. It’s called Dragonflies, and it’s set in the year 2021, when a man named Leslie Chen tries to move his family from the UK to his old home of Singapore amidst Brexit, climate change disasters and the second term of the Trump Presidency. (Choi choi choi.)
I did an interview with Stephanie. She’s a successful actress as well as a playwright, having appeared in David Hare’s Behind the Beautiful Foreversat the National Theatre, London, and recently in Nick Payne’s Constellations at the KC Arts Theatre—her Singapore debut!
Her plays include Sisters and stage adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. She also writes a column for The Stage—here’s her latest essay in praise of stage managers!
But if you wanna hear what she sounds like off the cuff, in a morning phone interview, here’s a transcript:
NYS: A bit of background first. You were born in Singapore, right? So how did you end up working in the UK?
SS: There’s a lot about this play that’s so personal. My father’s British: he was a Singaporean PR. My mum’s Singaporean and I’m a Singaporean. And if you had two British grandparents, foreign-born children had a specific right to live and work in the UK. This was until the 90s: the British government has stopped doing that.
I went to finish my A-Levels in the UK. I went to a boarding school, then I went to Cambridge. And it was at Cambridge that I decided to try for a career in theatre. And I left drama school with an agent and I set up roots in the UK. This was in the mid-90s. There was an arts scene in Singapore, but it wasn’t a quarter of what it is now.
NYS: But you’ve still kept ties with Singapore?
SS: My mum did the lion’s share of the upbringing and my mum’s family are all still in Singapore, so I’ve tried to come here at least twice a year. Since I’ve had children, I’ve also tried to bring them here develop their roots in Singapore.
NYS: I’m fascinated that you’re a Singaporean playwright whose work has never been staged in Singapore. But then you haven’t talked about Singapore in any plays before Dragonflies, right?
SS: No, never before. But if you look at most of the work I’ve done as an writer and actress, it’s all turned around the central theme of identity and where we belong, because that’s the very core of who I am: somebody who feels I can’t really lay claim to any one place for my heritage.
Everything I’m drawn to as a subject matter seems to reflect themes and issues of who we are, what it is that defines who we are, and how the human experience helps us to shape that exterior through basic definers like race or nationality or religion.
NYS: How did you get involved with SIFA?
SS: Pangdemonium is really committed to cultivating the theatremakers of tomorrow, and they really wanted to develop a playwriting vein. So I’ve been working with [artistic directors] Adrian and Tracie [Pang] for two and a half years as a writer-mentor, helping to develop a writers’ program. When we came together, it was clear we had similar ideologies and interests, so we were beginning to think about how we could formalise our relationship.
And then Keng Sen came along with this commission [for Pangdemonium], and they asked me what I was interested in writing. It was clear it would be on a bigger scale, that this would speak about a global experience, and this theme of enchantment was floating around.
We started the conversation a year and a half ago [in early 2016], just when it was starting to look like Britain was starting to leave Europe, and people were taking Trump seriously. The central theme of someone who had leave their home came to me, and I offered it up because I thought it was a subject matter that would be of interest to Adrian and Tracie, being parents of kids of dual heritage and being people interested in theatre that engages in politics with a small P.
NYS: You talk about frightening global phenomena in your play—terrorism, Trump, Brexit—that are linked to a rise in racism. Would you be OK with talking about how racism has influenced your own life?
SS: The simple answer is it hasn’t really. I’ve not just lived in the UK—my husband’s French, so I’ve spent five years living in France. And you know both France and the UK are kind of renowned for a less than favourable attitude towards foreigners.
I’ve never had any overt issues with aggressive racism. But if I’m honest, I feel like there’s a kind of unconscious bias against racial minorities in both countries I’ve been in, and to be completely honest, Singapore as well. Anywhere there’s a majority race, the power dynamic comes into play.
I feel I’ve had a very academic relationship with race. I’ve got a very complex sense of identity, and I’m a bit of a chameleon: I adapt. I had to because I went to two very British institutions, a boarding school and Cambridge, and I was in such a tiny minority there.
But when I look back, I go, “Wow, 40 year-old me would not tolerate being talked to as a 16 year old in boarding school.”
NYS: I know you’re involved in some activism, though. Could you talk about that?
SS: Since 2014 I’ve been involved in Act for Change —I was a founding member. We run a campaign for representation and diversity in the arts, and we have been at the forefront of monitoring diversity in theatre and television. We’ve been central to some very necessary movements being put into place for better diversity.
Just before I came out here one of my co-trustees went into parliament to hear the recommendations for Ofcom, the regulatory board for TV. They fell far short of what we were expecting—we were hoping they would put in monitoring to make sure it reflected what the country looked like.
A lot of artists younger than me are speaking out about what they see as prejudice. But the generation above me in their 60s are like, “This is Groundhog Day; this shit never changes.”
However, four or five of the main producing theatres in London now have committed to 50-50 gender diversity on stage, which is huge, considering the classical repertoire. And that already is good—I’m not saying we take sole responsibility for that, but we have made the discussion mainstream.
NYS: Do you have any interesting stories to share about the production?
SS: Yeah, gosh, lots! I feel I’ve been writing this for a very good length of time, actually. We hammered all the nails into the agreement a year ago, so the actual practice of writing it started in August.
And then my son was born in November, and as was the case with my first child my daughter I was supremely productive when I was pregnant. And then you hit this period of time when you aren’t really capable of anything but having a shower and looking after your baby! Luckily I was blessed this time round with a baby who was a pretty good sleeper in his first two months—and the fact that Adrian and Tracie were in a different time zone.
After I wrote the first two acts, I felt very conflicted about how to end the play: what do we want to leave the audience with? Because for me good theatre isn’t about providing any good solutions or answers or closed ideas. The whole point is to ask questions that need to be asked.
And at the same time there’s the need hold a mirror up to nature. You don’t want to over-idealise. I felt very conflicted about what taste we wanted to leave in people’s mouths at the end of it. And we decided to offer hope rather than despair and to offer up the very best of what there is, rather than the doom that we see around us all the time.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when the news alert comes up on the phone, thinks, “What now?” It feels like every day, fifteen people are run over in Barcelona. or Trump has torn down a climate change agreement. It feels like there’s this endless slew of reality…
I’m sorry, what’s wrong Asha? [Brief conversation with daughter] That’s reality right there.
We need a conversation about what we can do, what is our power as a race of people, what can we do positively, rather than just be miserable. So I gave the case the lat slot of rewrites on Saturday. So it’s very present tense, this whole writing process.
NYS: It must be really difficult juggling all this with being a mother.
SS: My son’s nine months old and my daughter’s four and a half. But ironically working in Singapore is the easiest way to do it. We have my mum here and my family, so we have support we don’t have in the UK, and it’s the UK summer holidays. So it’s worked out really really nicely.
But we’re constantly asking the question where should we be living. As a family we have roots all over the place. Where do we set up our home? It’s like that 80s pop song: Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Home. For some people that question’s really easy. For other people, it’s not.
NYS: Could you tell us a little more about the structure of Dragonflies?
SS: I’ve taken as a model for the narrative the medieval Everyman play, and the person who’s essentially neither heroic nor villainous.
NYS: Oh, and because he’s a Singaporean Everyman, he has to be Chinese man…
SS: Only because Adrian Pang’s playing him! And he’s such a phenomenal actor. Also it helped me distance the story a little more from myself to make him a man.
I remember the first time I read an Everyman play, I thought, “Gosh this character is really uninteresting,” and I struggled with how unheroic he was. But he actually helped to reflect the life around him. And because Adrian’s such a soulful luminous character, I hope people can feel the horrendous things the character is put through towards the end of the play.
NYS: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
SS: The play is set in 2021, because we felt that we could take a little more liberties with dramatic tension if we didn’t make it now, present tense. But it is very much a story of our time.
It’s not a play about climate change: it’s about the human condition and what home means to us. And at this moment in the history of this planet it’s so important that we treat that with care and responsibility.