Finding Neverland with Ivan Heng

  • Shawne Wang
  • 20 December 2019
Go behind the magic of Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens with director Ivan Heng – who reveals how J.M. Barrie’s classic tale continues to inspire him, and why WILD RICE could not have created this show without having a home to call its own.
Rear-Admiral of the S.S. Peter Pan!

What does Peter Pan mean to you as a story?

“All children, except one, grow up.” That’s the very first sentence of J.M. Barrie’s original novel. Those six words are so evocative. As a younger person reading it, we all want to be like Peter Pan, that one child who wouldn’t grow up. We want to live a life of adventure – to fly out of the window, free of responsibilities.

But the true genius of Barrie’s iconic creation is the fact that everyone grows up, in the end. So what do we do when that happens? Do we give up on adventure and joy and discovery? It took Barrie himself years to figure out the epilogue to his story – the one in which Peter meets a grown-up Wendy, who has discovered that growing up can be its own awfully big adventure. This is a pivotal moment in the story: one in which we realise that adventures don’t have to end when childhood does. With WILD RICE and with everything I do, I’ve always tried to keep that spirit of adventure alive.

Making a musical with (L-R) Thomas Lim, Joel Tan and Julian Wong!

What did you have to do to bring Peter Pan from Kensington Gardens to Serangoon Gardens?

I was discussing the Peter Pan story with Thomas Lim, our playwright – trying to figure out what it would mean for Singapore today. Right away, it became clear to us that we needed to address the absurdly pressurised childhoods experienced by children here in Singapore. What would it mean for Singaporean children – who have to contend with 6am wake-up calls and tuition after school – to just take off for Neverland? Ultimately, over several readings, workshops and drafts, Thomas wrote a really thoughtful, touching script that kept very close to the spirit of Barrie’s original story, while adding in deft strokes that relocate it so cleverly to Singapore.

How did you then go about transforming Thomas’ play into a musical?

In a musical, the lyrics create meaning and the music conveys emotions. Songs are sung when characters wear their hearts on their sleeves – when they discover or declare what they want, when they learn something about themselves.

That’s why Thomas and I were thrilled to have Joel Tan and Julian Wong on board with us as collaborators and co-conspirators. I told them that I envisioned this musical as a timeless classic that we can bring back to the stage over and over again. And I think they really rose to the occasion.

Joel, who is himself an accomplished playwright, has crafted such wise and wonderful lyrics for this show. They’re so insightful about the Singaporean condition – about school buses taking children to school, about the joy of durian chendol and palm trees swaying in the breeze – while also getting right to the heart of this universal idea that growing up is not something to fear.

And there’s a real sense of arrival in this score for Julian as a composer. The music is the emotional core of the show. It’s tuneful, soulful and clever – a proper musical theatre score, with songs and reprises that help drive the narrative and characters forward.

The theatre – a place for us all to share our stories

What’s your favourite song in the show?

I can’t choose a favourite, but I will tell you a little story about how our opening song came to be. When we were first building our theatre, we asked ourselves: what is a theatre? And we concluded that it is a place for a community to gather to tell and listen to our stories. During an early workshop, I shared the inspiration behind WILD RICE @ Funan with my creative team. And that’s when we knew what the opening number for the final show of our Grand Opening Season should be – a moment that literally lets audiences know it’s Time For A Story. John Dinning, our set designer, suggested putting that idea right up in front, at the top of Act One. So now, it’s the first thing audiences see when they come into the theatre.

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Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens is so perfectly cast. How has it been working with this company of actors?

This is a very diverse, skilled and intelligent company of actors, each of whom have applied themselves to reimagining these characters anew. They have each made the roles their own.
It’s been so interesting to see Pam Oei play the joy and adventure, but also the pain and betrayal and disappointment, of Peter Pan. There will be no Peter Pan like this anywhere in the world. It’s been wonderful working with Siti Khalijah Zainal, whose camp, fey Captain Hook makes being Evil so delicious. Mae Elliessa is so compelling as Wendy, whose journey to Neverland and back underpins the raison d’etre of our story.

Andrew Marko, Benjamin Chow and Dwayne Lau are astonishing shape-shifters. Their marvellously detailed characterisations (Ting Tong Bell, Simi and Daiji, the Mermaids and the De Souzas) are sensational and create the world of the play. Audiences are always surprised at the curtain call to realise that there are only six actors in the show.

Working with the 33 children who round out our cast was a whole other challenge. It required so much clarity, persistence and discipline. But they are fearless, and it’s been so rewarding to work with them, because I know this experience will transform their lives forever.

Revising and refining the show during tech rehearsals!

This has been your first time directing a show in WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan. What have you taken away from that experience?

We had 12 days of tech time for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens – which is absolutely unheard of in Singapore. Tech is the critical time when a show moves out of the rehearsal space and into the theatre. It’s when all the elements come together. When we used to rent external venues for our shows, we would be lucky to have three or four days of tech.

Because we had this time and space, our tech rehearsals were a time of intense creativity. Even at that point, we were coming up with new ideas and design decisions that made the show better. Having that time to create is not a luxury – it’s a necessity.

When we built WILD RICE @ Funan, we wanted to create a space where artists can do their best work. And that’s exactly what having this space allowed us to do.

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