Interview with Alfian Sa’at: Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. I and The Optic Trilogy

Alfian tells us about what it’s like to be young and reckless as we stage revivals of his earliest works.

Tell us about the two plays that will be revived as part of the upcoming In The Spotlight season.

I’m very excited to see them again because it’s been more than ten years since both plays have been staged in Singapore. Optic Trilogy has travelled quite a bit – it’s been done in Zurich, Stockholm, Berlin… To see it in English again will be kind of a homecoming. It’ll be nice to see it again in Singapore with Ivan directing.

I’m very happy that Ivan is doing the two revivals. We’ve built up a playwright-director relationship over time. These were plays written before I knew him. For him as a director, this was the Alfian he didn’t know before. I’m making it sound like a marriage! He must have read those plays, but to have him work on them is a different thing altogether.

I also think they were plays written during a certain period of my life when I was experimenting quite a bit. Not to say I’ve become less experimental, but ever since I’ve been with W!LD RICE, I’ve done plays in a proscenium setting. It’ll be nice to do these black-box plays again.

Can you tell us more about Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. I?

I’ve completed the trilogy with Vol. III, so it’s nice to go back to Vol. I. It was written in 2000 and is very much one of my earliest ever queer plays. I think it’s one of the earlier queer plays in Singapore as well. Of course, you have Eleanor Wong’s Mergers and Accusations, and Chay Yew’s plays like Language Of Their Own, but by and large, I don’t think you had an out-and-out queer play.

For me, it was about negotiating this particular guideline NAC and MDA had regarding not promoting homosexuality onstage. When I wrote it, I asked myself: ‘What’s the antithesis of promoting homosexuality? Condemning it, right?’ So I had a figure who, for me, stood in for the state and some of those firebrand religious dogmatic kind of people – and I had this person coming down to Singapore as a messianic figure to save gay people. It’s ostensibly about a certain conservative agenda – rehabilitation, gay reparative therapy – but because this person is a goddess, you know that it’s so camp. This goddess is also completely clueless about homosexuality. She thinks that gay people are all unhappy; she doesn’t understand why they’re called gay – “‘gay’ means ‘happy’, why aren’t you happy?” It was definitely this very campy, almost burlesque kind of play.

That, for me, was the subversion that might not be evident in the text that we sent to the censors. But then, if they came on the first night, they would have realised that the goddess is completely ridiculous, because she’s wearing a Miss Universe sash. It’s all these campy, coded things that the queer community would get. That, for me, was a nice little game of hide-and-seek I played with the censors.

What do you think audiences today would get out of Dreamplay?

I think the audience would still get a certain pleasure out of the nudge and wink and naughty allusions and innuendos in the text. It’s about a language and aesthetic that the queer community has developed for itself and takes a certain pleasure in decoding. The play is about celebrating the kind of doubleness that exists in queer people’s lives – the idea of the closet, and passing off as straight.

What can we expect from The Optic Trilogy?

It basically looks at relationships between men and women, which I guess came out of my anxiety not to be pigeonholed as a queer writer – I can write about heterosexuals too! These are potentially romantic, erotic relationships, with a lot of buried secrets and memories and things to do with sight. That’s why it’s called ‘optic’ : it covers ideas such as voyeurism and visibility; basically, it examines how two people look at each other, and what are the limits to looking.

I know it sounds cerebral, but for me, it’s a very emotionally affecting play. The actors really have to be able to channel the vulnerability required of them in these particular characters. This is more of a character-driven piece – Asian Boys is like an aesthetic romp through queer history in Singapore. It’s got a sense of the carnivaleCurry is more a documentary about issues – current, urgent issues. Optic Trilogy, meanwhile, is more of a chamber piece, it’s more lyrical.

Alfian Sa’at

As a playwright, what is it like to revisit your own older works?

That’s a really interesting question. There are points when I recognise that I have outgrown certain obsessions. I go: ‘Oh god, was I that fixated on certain things at that point in time?’ But at the same time, it’s interesting to hear that younger voice and realise that, although I maybe didn’t know so much about structure then, and there was a certain messiness in the things that I was writing, there was also a kind of freedom to it. A certain recklessness, even, in a good way, because that recklessness was about anarchy – a kind of ‘I don’t care, I’m going to break the rules’ sentiment. It’s interesting to look back and go ‘Wow, this was written by a young person lah, who was going for broke.’ Some things might not work but you do admire the courage and spirit that went into it.

It’s possible to look back now almost as if it were written by someone else. I’m glad that, looking back at the works that Ivan is interested in reviving, I’m not cringing and going, ‘This is juvenilia, how can you do this to me, Ivan Heng? Don’t embarrass me. You’re taking out my baby photos and showing the world!’ But it’s not like that.

Will you be re-writing any parts of these plays?

There won’t be an overhaul of the plays, but there are parts that I think I might revise. When we’re talking about rewriting certain pieces, it’s more about connecting to today’s audiences – more about the topicality of the play. There are things that I might want to tighten. We’re still in conversation about whether to update the plays, whether certain references might be lost to today’s audience. When we’re discussing revivals, we will always have this conversation. I’m of the opinion that, if this is a play set in 2001, then let it be reflective of that particular time. Ivan is more about the zeitgeist and the mood on the ground currently. Can we use this play to take that pulse? We’re going back and forth at the moment, we’re having very fruitful conversations.

There’s a scene in Optic, for instance, where one of the actors is looking out of the window of the Westin Stamford – which is now called the Swissotel. She sees that the Esplanade is being constructed, and she says they look like giant bug’s eyes – there’s something quite quaint about that because it’s been called the Durian for long, you don’t really think of bug’s eyes anymore. The bug-eye thing was quite a remote and maybe 2001 reference. Ivan felt it was an important scene because it was about built heritage – this mania of building monuments rather than preserving the ones that are not so showy. It’s about the heritage debates at the moment, like the Marina Bay Sands and Gardens By The Bay. These are the conversations we’re having. We haven’t really come to a decision just yet.

As a playwright, how much do you put into your writing in terms of stage directions?

I don’t like too many straight stage directions. Mostly because I’ve been working with directors whom I trust a lot to interpret my text, like Ivan and Jo Kukathas in Malaysia. Someone like Edward Albee, for instance, who wrote Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf – before every line, there are brackets indicating the way lines should be delivered… ‘calmly but sadly’, for instance. It’s very, very specific. I don’t like that so much; I prefer to allow for that margin of interpretation because I sometimes do get surprised by what the director and actors manage to unearth during the rehearsal process. They can excavate subtext. I might have intended the line to be a throwaway line, but suddenly I come for rehearsal, and they’ve loaded it somewhat – and something is shifting inside the play. I much prefer that. The stage directions for me are like music notations – you can really fix it down, but I like to give them the melody, and leave the arrangement completely up to them. Jazz it up a bit!

What happens when you turn up and there’s a bad surprise?

‘I didn’t ask for the erhu! Where did the erhu come from?’ [laughs] That’s why I say I always have to work with directors I trust. Ivan always brings me in for a first reading with the cast, so I’ll get a sense if we’re on the same page. If someone completely deviates, I’ll give certain notes. I’m included in the process all the time.

How did you come to work with W!LD RICE?

I started out with The Necessary Stage and did a few plays outside – Optic Trilogy was with Action Theatre as part of a festival. In 2004, I had this play called Asian Boys Vol. II, and I passed it to Ivan and asked if he’d be interested. He said he would love to do it, and before I knew it, I had joined the company as resident playwright.

Over the years, I’ve been given the opportunity to move out of the black box, and I have to say I did that with some trepidation as I never felt it was my natural habitat. So it’s great to work with a director who knows how to use that larger space and resolve problems of intimacy. Ivan was that director.

To do Cook A Pot Of Curry with Glen is quite special. I’ve seen a lot of Glen’s stuff over the years for W!LD RICE, and we’re colleagues and friends. But I’ve never had the opportunity to work with him at all. So this is going to be quite special.

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