What follows in an excerpt from my rehearsal diary, commissioned by New Welsh Review, documenting part of my process working in Singapore this Autumn on ‘And Suddenly I Disappear… The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues’, my international r&d commission from Unlimited. I am immensely grateful to New Welsh Review for providing this feature free – see more on the journal at https://www.newwelshreview.com and here
Stephanie Fam performing in Kaite O’Reilly’s international r&d Unlimited commission ‘And Suddenly I Disappear… the Singapore ‘d’ Monologues’ before a still image of Sophie Stone using visual language, Photograph: Kaite O’Reilly
We arrive into Singapore at the end of the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. Flaming braziers sit on street corners and outside temples. Paper money from the Bank of Hell and small cardboard models of cars, smartphones, booze, cigarettes and all the trappings of the good life are set alight in the braziers as offerings to the dead ancestors. Zhong Yuan Jie is the period in the seventh month of the lunar calendar when the gates of the underworld are opened to allow the souls of the dead to roam the earth. Relatives burn offerings to appease their deceased family members, ensuring they don’t become ‘hungry ghosts’ up to mischief, jealous of the living and what they have.
Even in its Taoist and Buddhist rituals, Singapore is commercial, taking care of material needs into the afterlife.
We – performer Sara Beer, director Phillip Zarrilli and I – are here for the r&d of my collaboration between Wales and Singapore, ‘And Suddenly I Disappear… The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues’, an Unlimited International Commission and dialogue about disability, diversity and difference from opposite sides of the world.
Singapore is a young nation, a high-functioning capitalist culture valuing commerce and uniformity, where, my producer Grace Khoo tells me, she was raised ‘not to ask questions, to keep my chin down and not to stand out.’ It is recently embracing notions of diversity and inclusion, but its awareness of disability issues and culture are very much in its infancy. How challenging atypical embodiment, disability politics, the aesthetics of access and what I call ‘alternative dramaturges nformed by a d/Deaf and disability perspective’ may be here, I’m about to find out.
The UK has a long and proud history of disabled peoples’ activism, something Sara Beer and I have been engaged with for decades. Our background is punkish, proud and irreverent – ‘nothing about us without us’ is one of the Disabled Peoples Movement’s slogans – ‘Piss on Pity’ another, a badge I still wear. How this will fit with the ultra-conservative Singaporeans and a system that would not have tolerated our direct action of the 90s remains to be seen. A fascinating conversation is in the process of happening.
We rehearse at Centre 42, a heritage house in downtown Singapore, greeted by my main collaborator, Peter Sau, and herbal teas from the local Chinese medical hall to help counter the excessive humidity. Peter is an award-winning actor and theatre maker, and a friend since my first visit to Singapore in 2004. He and producer Grace came to the UK in 2016 in order to explore disability arts and culture, with the aim to professionalise it in Singapore .
Some of the ‘And Suddenly I Disappear…’ team, including Sara Beer and Ramesh Meyyappan, Lee Lee Lim, Danial Bawthan and Shai outside Centre 42, Singapore.
Together we made an application to Unlimited, building on the model I developed from my 2008/09 Creative Wales award. Then, advised by Eve Ensler and Ping Chong, I explored the form of the monologue, interviewing d/Deaf and disabled people across the UK, using their perspectives, experiences, and opinions as inspiration to write fictional monologues. These were later produced as ‘In Water I’m Weightless’, the National Theatre Wales/Unlimited production, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. It’s important that I write the texts rather than ‘steal’ from the source material, for what are we but our stories? I prefer to invent. This also ensures that the material cannot be individualised, reduced down to one person’s unfortunate experience rather than a synthesis of the collective experience of prejudice we are all complicit in.
In Singapore, Peter and his dedicated team of researchers, transcribers, and translators are partway through intensive interviews with disabled and d/Deaf Singaporeans. These are stories that have gone unremarked and unreported. Despite the new focus on inclusivity and diversity, ingrained beliefs linger, and in many ways difference and disability is shameful in Singapore, so several of our interviewees, although eager to contribute, request anonymity.
The recordings and transcripts of the interviews are remarkable, Peter and his colleagues have eked out conversations of candour and passion. As I write the drafts I’m reminded of my own ‘coming out’ as a disabled person and personal revolution after meeting the social model of disability, which turned everything I previously knew upside down. I’d been reared on the Medical Model, where the body is at fault, requiring medicalisation and normalisation. The social model sees disability, like gender, as a social construct, and it is society and its physical and attitudinal barriers which are disabling, not the body itself. Value is given where previously there was none.
It is no surprise then that many of the conversations ongoing in Singapore prompt tears and extraordinary openness from people so often denied respect. How daunting and exhilarating then is my task – to write fictional work responding to this stimulus, and begin work on embodying these voices.
Ideas from the interviews are reversed or reinvented, Peter, Grace and Lee Lee Lim advise me on the use of Mandarin, Hokkien and Singlish vocabulary, which help make the rhythms and cadences of the dialogue more Singaporean. The collaboration is shaping into a dialogue, resulting in a series of vibrant, multimedia monologues inspired by lived experience, layering theatrical languages and utilising captioning, integrated audio description and visual language in the aesthetics of access, a first for Singapore. We realise there are seven spoken and signed languages in use in the rehearsal room, reflecting the multicultural diversity and linguistic complexity of Singapore. I feel we’re exploring how stories change in different cultures, languages and contexts…. How do we ‘speak’ to each other?
I write a choral monologue to be explored in spoken, projected and visual language.
Be like water. Be like a river. You dip a bowl into the river and the river fills it and becomes the bowl. Pour into a pot, it becomes the pot. Treat with fire and it becomes steam…. This is how you will be. Unstoppable. Fluid. Powerful.
The day I need to submit this diary, just one week after meeting and four days before our in progress sharing, the inclusive company has come together with a startling cohesion. Peter’s team is filled with committed individuals keen to bring about change. Monologues that seemed too edgy and politically challenging on first reading now rise off the page, owned. The sense of pride and celebration is tangible. Sara asks Danial Bawthan, one of our emerging disabled performers, how he is finding the process. ‘Priceless,’ he says. ‘I want to be that water, the water that goes into that bowl.’