In All Fairness

Playwright and director Thomas Lim takes us into the quirky ‘beforelife’ of Fair Play, a thought-provoking new piece about gender stereotypes and inequality. He opens up about the inspiration behind the play, why theatre matters to him, and how he deals with writer’s block.
Playtime! Having fun with the cast of Fair Play! (L-R) Jeramy Lim, Victoria Chen, Thomas Lim & Masturah Oli

Tell us about Fair Play.

Fair Play is a quirky look at gender stereotypes set in the ‘beforelife’ (rather than afterlife) of a Boy and a Girl. Moments before they are born, they are each assigned a script and instructed to say and do everything that has been written for them so as to keep the world in order.

What inspired you to write Fair Play?

The journey for Fair Play actually started a couple of years ago, when I was working with a secondary school’s drama club. At the time, we were generating scenes to explore the differential treatment of men and women in the workplace.

Following that, I did some reading and stumbled upon Judith Butler’s work. She is an American philosopher and gender theorist who proposed looking at gender as a performance. That got me thinking. If gender is a performance, is there a script? Who are the actors? Who is the audience? Who writes the script? Why does it have to be performed? To explore these questions, I wrote a 15-minute play to be performed by the drama club. Fair Play is a development of that work.

What was the most challenging thing for you in writing Fair Play?

In most plays, the characters tend to have a history and their circumstances in life inform their needs, wants and motivations. Before sitting down to actually write the play, I sometimes like to spend time ‘pre-writing’ – this involves writing about my characters and their histories, which helps me understand their patterns of thinking. Setting Fair Play in the ‘beforelife’ meant that two of my three main characters have no ‘history’. That made it difficult for me to predict how they would respond to the situation they were in.

Watching as the actors perform a scene with WILD RICE’s Founding Artistic Director, Ivan Heng

How many drafts did you write for Fair Play, and how did those drafts evolve?

I wrote a total of three drafts. Between each draft, I held workshops with the actors, in which we figured out things like how the ‘beforelife’ works, what kind of language the characters speak, and their motivations for what they say and do in the play.

What research did you do prior to writing Fair Play?

While gender stereotypes and inequality are issues that we are talking about globally today, they manifest differently in each country and community. I read up a lot on how gender stereotypes are sustained or even reinforced in Singapore – not just through our social policies, but also in the ways we relate to one another daily. Part of my research involved eavesdropping on conversations in public places! You can learn a lot about how people think about and organise their worlds through their conversations.

You’ll also be directing this play. What do you enjoy about directing, as opposed to writing, a play? What are the best and worst things about directing a play you have written yourself?

When I am writing, the world of the play exists only in my head. Directing gives me the opportunity to bring that world to life with the help of my collaborators. It’s really fascinating to see what happens when the script meets the actors, designers and stage management team. Everyone responds to the script from their own unique vantage points, which ultimately feeds the way we build the world of the play together. Of course, there are sometimes tensions between the roles of playwright and director. The director in me might want to cut or move certain things around, while my inner playwright might feel otherwise!

Tell us about your cast – how did you find them, and what do you think they bring to their roles that isn’t on the page?

I worked with Jeramy Lim on a show about stress management that toured to secondary schools and JCs a couple of years ago. Victoria Chen and Masturah Oli really impressed me during WILD RICE’s open auditions a year ago, and I decided that I wanted to work with them on Fair Play. They all bring so much colour to the play. They’re open-minded, young, energetic and full of ideas. They’ve been instrumental in the script development process, for which I am very grateful.

What do you hope students and young people will take away from watching Fair Play?

To me, the theatre is an arena where characters with different backgrounds, world views and values are confined in the world of the play and forced to confront their differences. It is a place where we sit together to listen to and learn about people – not just those who are like us, but also those who may have very different experiences of the world. It’s a place where we leave the comfort of our own insular bubbles and open our hearts and minds to those we label as ‘them’. I hope that Fair Play, specifically, gives our audiences an opportunity to think about how we negotiate differences in our ideas and expectations of gender, which may be different than that of our friends, parents, husbands and wives.

Thomas and Ivan with the entire Fair Play team!
(L-R) Jeramy, Thomas, Tan Qian Yan (Stage Manager), Victoria, Ivan, Nurarina Nasir (Assistant Stage Manager), Masturah & Ezzat Alkaff (Facilitation Consultant)

How did you discover the power of theatre for yourself?

Before I came into contact with the Singapore theatre and literary scene, I had the impression that the arts were solely for the educated and the westernised. I remember the first Singaporean play I encountered – Haresh Sharma’s Lanterns Never Go Out. I was 13, and it was the first time I’d heard a play performed in a Singaporean accent. Its very first line, ‘Kah Wei is a daughter’, got me. It was music to my ears. I thought that I could really possibly know a Kah Wei in my own life – that this could be my friend’s story, or my cousin’s or my neighbour’s. It made me feel that our stories mattered. That was life-changing.

Does this experience inform the work you do? Not just in terms of writing and directing plays, but in planning programmes as the head of WILD RICE’s Youth and Education department?

Definitely. At WILD RICE, we want everyone to feel like they have a stake in our theatre. We want to tell Singaporean stories, and we want people of all ages to feel at home with us. When it comes to students and young people, we’re constantly coming up with fun ways to engage them – we want to entertain as well as empower them through theatre. Fair Play is an example of how we’re doing that – bringing students out of the school hall so that they can have the incredible experience of watching a play at a professional arts venue. Several programmes are being planned for 2020 that will give young people from the ages of 5 to 30 more opportunities to watch shows, think and talk to artists, make theatre and share it with audiences.

Can you share with us your playwriting process? How do you deal with writer’s block?

The process usually begins with an image or an idea I have in my head. This idea usually comes to me when I notice something peculiar in my life. In a way, most of my plays begin with a curiosity I have for people and the situations they have been put in. Once I have the idea, I begin to collect material for the play. This can be in the form of articles and interviews, anecdotes from the people around me, even overheard conversations during my daily commute. After that, I sit down to look at all the material that I have collected, and then I begin to write my first draft.

When I feel blocked, it usually means that there’s something I’ve written that doesn’t sit right in the play. I embrace the blocks as part of the process, and leave my subconscious to work it out. I give my attention to another project for a while, before coming back to it. Usually, some distance from my writing helps me to see it more clearly.

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