A published poet, Ruth Tang is making her playwriting debut with Building A Character at the 2018 Singapore Theatre Festival. Why does she write poetry? And what inspired her to start writing plays?
I write poetry because I was bored at recess and had run out of ideas for X-Files fanfiction. Now I write poetry because it’s a way of working things out for myself. Like laying out an argument without knowing what its premise, or conclusion, or starting point is – with only the vaguest sense of what the shape of it is. Poetry, to me, is a place where you break language and it comes back grateful to you for it. Or it slaps you in the face. Either way, it’s exciting.
Right now, I'm working on an MFA in Playwriting at the New School, which is my way of figuring out what I want to do. I mean, I know what I want to do, but I haven’t yet figured out the other half of the doing, which is about the practical and about money, and what people usually mean when they ask: ‘What do you do?’
I first met Alfian Sa'at when he became my mentor under the National Arts Council’s Mentor Access Project. We started working on Building A Character because he’d written An Actress Prepares – based on Konstantin Stanislavski’s first book in the series – for Siti Khalijah Zainal, and proposed that I write a sequel of sorts. Alfian wanted me to work through my tendency to shy away from autobiographical material by working on someone else’s biographical material.
Character-building with Alfian, Sangeetha and Ruth!
Building A Character was inspired by Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai’s life, and sense of self, and my suspicion of confessional narratives. There’s something that I keep coming back to – what Anne Boyer says about the confessional and the ostensibly “empowered telling”: our whole lives could be turned into “it happened to me” if we allowed it. But, also, it did happen to me. What are we supposed to do about that? The confessional narrative is often sold as something that provides emotional catharsis, and it often is – but it also seems to demand disclosing every terrible thing that has ever happened to you. And you have to do this to be authentic or to be taken seriously. With Building A Character, I wanted to resist that impulse to tell all, to pretend that everything begs to be told.
Working with Sangeetha is exhilarating – the temptation to turn the play into a showcase for her many impressive skills/accents/imitations nearly derailed the writing! A great deal of the script actually emerged from Sangeetha's improvisations and accent-play.
Writing for the theatre has taught me how to make art with other people.
Theatre is a living thing that knows it is artificial and constructed. Like a self-aware robot.
Building A Character plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 5 to 8 July 2018. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!