Good Grief with Sim Yan Ying “YY”

We chat with director Sim Yan Ying “YY” about the challenges and rewards of confronting grief in Where Are You?, as well as what she’ll be taking away from her stint in Wild Rice’s Directing Residency Programme.

What inspired you to apply for Wild Rice’s Directors’ Residency Programme?

Directing residencies are generally hard to come by in Singapore, and I was keen to have an opportunity to develop an existing work of mine that I had first created in New York. When my application was accepted by Wild Rice, I was pleasantly surprised, as Where Are You? seemed to deviate from their existing body of work. I thoroughly appreciate the leap of faith that the company is taking in programming a devised physical theatre production, in addition to the trust that they have in me. I had also heard about Wild Rice’s professionalism and the robust support they provide for their artists, and my experience with them has been nothing short of delightful.

Tell us about the experiences you’ve had in making theatre.

I primarily identify as a theatre-maker – ­creating in any capacity that I feel best serves the work. Most recently, I wrote and performed in I LOVE WHITE MEN, a one-woman stand-up drama about my decolonisation journey; co-directed and performed in Who’s There?, an international digital theatre production wrestling with racial controversies in Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States; and am now directing a series of productions of Where Are You?, a movement-based theatrical work about experiences of grief across cultures and individuals.

What draws you to theatre-making as a storytelling medium?

To me, theatre is first and foremost about community and connection. I am particularly interested in intercultural works as I am driven by my desire to build bridges between communities – to find similarities in our experiences and honour our differences, while also challenging them. In addition, I value the collaborative process of devising a work from scratch as it requires active listening, constant negotiation, and space for respectful disagreements. To me, the dynamics of a rehearsal room can be extrapolated to how we might be able to engage with others in our daily lives.

“YY” in rehearsals with the cast of Where Are You?

What have been some of your key takeaways from working with Wild Rice and Ivan Heng under this initiative? How has the residency helped you as an artist?

I am deeply grateful for the amount of care that Ivan has shown over the past few months and his sincerity in mentoring young artists. Among many things, I have learnt the tools for effective storytelling and how to craft a scene with intentionality and specificity. His incisive questions have also helped me clarify my objectives and strengthen my choices, whether in terms of casting or creative approach.

In addition, I am thankful for the support that I have received from the Wild Rice team in the administrative, marketing, production aspects and more, as well as the astute insights that Alfian Sa’at (Wild Rice’s Resident Playwright) has provided on the script. I feel valued and supported as an artist and it has allowed me the time and space to focus on my creative work.

Tell us about Where Are You? (Singapore), the show you’ll be directing. Why did you want to direct it? What do you hope audiences will take away from watching it?

Where Are You? was born out of confusion and chaos during a time of immense personal grief. I realised that my way of grieving was to cling to every ritual and every superstition, all of which had previously made little sense to me. I later became curious to find out how people across cultures come to the grieving experience, which is both so universal and specific, and then what would happen if we put these stories which are often social taboos on stage to share with an audience.

I hope that audiences will be able to find some resonance with Where Are You?, whether it is feeling comforted in their grief, gaining a newfound courage to speak openly about death, or even taking with them some joy and lightness from the show.

In these pandemic times, it’s more important than ever to to uplift and highlight artists and the work they do. Who is one theatre-maker you admire?

Alvin Tan, who has been my friend and mentor over the last seven years. I admire his wisdom and openness, relentless pursuit of depth, and boldness in trying unconventional ideas. His pivot to digital theatre in 2020 was driven by deep curiosity about the potentials of this new artistic medium, despite having found his niche after more than thirty years of making live theatre. It was very inspiring to observe how he adapted to the present circumstances, his willingness to work with and learn from younger practitioners, and his sophistication in integrating his existing skillset with an entirely new method of artistic creation.

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