What was it like working on One Metre Square: Voices from Sungei Road for over a year? Director Zelda Tatiana Ng chats with us about the process, and how it opened her eyes and changed her mind.
Zelda gets serious in rehearsals for One Metre Square
It isn’t often that directors are brought onto a project even before the play has been written. But Zelda Tatiana Ng has been a crucial part of the creative team for One Metre Square: Voices From Sungei Road for well over a year now.
“When I came on board this project, we didn’t actually have a script yet,” Zelda remembers. “It was just an idea – Alfian Sa’at [the Co-Artistic Director of the Singapore Theatre Festival] discussed it with me, and then we looked for a playwright we wanted to work with. That’s how Sanmu got involved.”
All of this took place just a few months before the Sungei Road Market was closed for good in July 2017.
“We decided to make this a verbatim play,” explains Zelda. “Which meant that Sanmu and his research assistant had to conduct a lot of interviews on the ground.”
Zelda herself had visited the Market perhaps once or twice prior to taking on One Metre Square.
“I wasn’t a regular patron of the Market,” she says. “Partly because I’m not much of a shopper – I always know exactly what I want to buy before I go into any store.”
Once the research process began in earnest, she visited the Sungei Road Market a few more times.
It surprised her to learn that the Sungei Road community was more complex and diverse than she realised.
“It’s just not what we expected,” she observes. “Not everybody in Sungei Road was poor and really having a hard time struggling to survive.”
Some of the vendors, for instance, didn’t need to work – they wanted to. “They have children who can support them,” Zelda notes. “They don’t have to do the work. But their friends are there, and the Market is part of their daily lives.”
She had to set aside some pre-conceived notions, too, about the people who populated the Market.
“You think they’re not educated or literate? Wrong!” laughs Zelda. “Some of these older folks are degree-holders, scholars even.”
The cast of Sungei Road share a lighter moment during rehearsals
(L-R) Michael Tan, Yong Ser Pin, Tan Beng Tian
Furthermore, not all the vendors and volunteers involved in saving Sungei Road were automatically on the same side.
“Not everybody was kawan [friends] with everybody!” Zelda points out. “We could not assume that, just because the Market was going through an existential crisis, everybody would stand on the same side.”
The reality was “quite messy” – there were many groups of activists, all with different reasons for and ideas about preserving the Market.
Learning about the many different stories and viewpoints surrounding Sungei Road only served to heighten her own ambivalence towards the issue.
“I can see both sides of the debate,” Zelda explains. “On the one hand, the Market was over 80 years old – it’s part of Singapore’s history and heritage. That makes it worthy of preservation. And, of course, I feel for the vendors who lost their livelihoods because of the Market closure.”
“And yet, what value was there in preserving the Market exactly the way it was?” she continues. “Would that actually have made the lives of the vendors better? Could we have made the Market more relevant to contemporary society?”
Since rehearsals have begun, Zelda has inched closer to choosing a side in the debate.
But she’s not keen on forcing her opinion onto audiences who will be coming to watch One Metre Square.
“Theatre does not provide answers,” she says firmly. “When done well, theatre hopefully helps people to think harder and deeper. I want to show audiences all the different perspectives on this issue, so that they can go home and think about it for themselves.”
One Metre Square: Voices from Sungei Road plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 19 to 22 July 2018. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!