Mine For The Asking: An Interview with Thong Pei Qin

Meet director Thong Pei Qin, who shares what she’s learnt as a part of Wild Rice’s Directing Residency programme, and explains why she took this opportunity to direct Mine, a new play that sensitively examines the psychology of characters who live with hoarding.

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

This programme could not have come at a better time for me. Screen fatigue was starting to set in during Circuit Breaker. Frankly, I simply missed face-to-face human contact, and wanted to be in a rehearsal room again, one filled with bubbling creative energies and palpable connections. I also saw it as a chance for me to stretch my directing muscles again, because directing for the stage is a craft that needs to constantly be sharpened.

I was also curious about how Ivan Heng, Wild Rice’s Artistic Director, would help guide us younger generations of theatre-makers as the mentor of this residency programme. I definitely wanted to learn from his wealth of experience and bounce ideas off him.

So when I saw this open call, I thought I would submit a play by Tan Suet Lee, which we have long wanted to develop and expand. We had previously staged a 30-minute version of Mine (then known as The Weight of Emptiness) at Playground Entertainment’s Arts House showcase in 2016. I’d been hoping for the stars to align to enable us to keep working on the script. Wild Rice’s Directing Residency Programme felt like the right platform and time for this project.

Tell us about the experiences you’ve had in making theatre. How did you start out in this industry?

I started out as a student director in NUS’ Theatre Studies programme. Around the same time, a self-funded collective I was co-leading got our first professional break when our experimental work-in-progress at the Substation unexpectedly got picked up for a showcase opportunity at the 2010 Singapore Arts Festival. From then onwards, there was no looking back. I was on a mission to uncover and tell more stories in the theatre.

To gain more directing knowledge and experience, I saved up for a Masters course in Theatre Directing in the UK and Russia in 2012. After I came back to Singapore, I signed up for directing apprenticeships (with The Finger Players and Nine Years Theatre), dove into several devising residencies (with The Necessary Stage’s Orange Playground and The Theatre Practice’s Artist Farms), directed a few commissioned pieces, and also spearheaded my own theatre projects. I started teaching theatre at various tertiary institutions and directed plays devised with students as well.

What draws you to theatre, especially, as a storytelling medium?

I have been making theatre for about 10 years. But, although I’ve been at this for a while, I feel this creative journey I am on will last a lifetime. There’s just so much to continually absorb and learn! Every time I direct feels like the first time. With each new project comes a new script and premise, a new set of collaborators, and new audiences. And each time, that yields new anxieties, excitement and challenges.

I love the liveness of theatre, of audiences sharing the same space with the actors on stage, responding to what they’re experiencing in the moment. I find that co-presence incredibly spell-binding. The theatre fulfils me in a way no other medium can, and feeds my inner child. In the theatre, I am free to suspend my disbelief, to interpret and imagine, to be moved to ask questions and reflect. Every work I watch or create makes me grow as a human being, locating myself in this world and appreciating the art around me. I am also fond of and curious about people, and I love how working in the theatre requires teamwork – I am constantly meeting and working with so many different talents to push boundaries together. We often joke that we “suffer” together, but no regrets really!

What have been some of your key takeaways from participating in Wild Rice’s Directing Residency programme?

Being a part of this residency has been a timely reminder of why we persist on keeping creation and connections alive despite the uncertainties that lie ahead of us. At the core of it, it’s always about the people – those who create, and those who appreciate. I’ve learnt from Ivan Heng (Wild Rice’s Founding Artistic Director) and my collaborators about the love, care and respect that must be accorded to my fellow artists, cast and crew alike, who are all on board this project in good faith. Every role is so important to the process.

Being patient and generous is key. Art-making is already not an easy process – it involves a lot of agonising, butting of heads, persuading and overcoming of insecurities. All of these processes are taking place against the backdrop of not knowing whether our shows can actually go on or not, as the world is still battling a pandemic. It is a huge leap of faith on everyone’s part, so I have nothing but mad respect for every single cultural worker involved in this directing residency.

On my part, I am also learning how to articulate my artistic intentions with more clarity, to better facilitate communication within my creative team. That involves creating safe and supportive spaces in which work can be objectively discussed and thoughtfully critiqued, picking up on social cues when reading the room, as well as owning the audition and rehearsal spaces. These leadership skills take many years of experience and confidence to be honed.

What’s some good advice you’ve picked up from Ivan during this residency?

Ivan often advises us that we have every right to fail. And that is what I think this residency is all about. We take the plunge and pluck up the courage to test out choices in our experimentation and R&D process. It takes wisdom to not succumb to the pressures of putting up a “perfect” end product. It’s this kind of encouragement and support from a mentor that is important to our own learning and acceptance of the mistakes we make. As a result, I’ve learned to trust the process and my own instincts, take time to listen, and not rush creation.

Tell us about Mine, the show you’re directing. Why did you want to direct it?

At first glance, Mine seems to be a play about hoarding. But we tend to forget that each family who lives with hoarding is unique, that everyone involved has their own unique identities and stories to tell. My creative team wants to shed light on lesser-heard voices, especially when our general views on hoarders are usually limited to sensationalised newspaper reports about how filthy their houses are when the situation spins out of control, or when someone is found dead amongst their piles of possessions, unbeknownst to even their loved ones. This kind of rhetoric leads to hoarding being stigmatised, and the label of a ‘hoarder’ simply does not help with understanding who they are.

I would like to introduce to our audience the complexities of Molly’s hoarding behaviour and the nuances in her love-hate relationship with her daughter. These details could easily be dismissed or swept under the carpet because they are deemed difficult to deal with. Instead of ‘cleaning up’ or ignoring the story of a family like this, we have chosen to take a hard unflinching look at what they go through and share in a part of their lives.

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Mine?

For me, this play resonates with what is happening in Singapore currently – as family members rediscover their relationships with one another at a time when we all are mostly still working from home. Boundaries are blurred and spaces at home start to overlap, so stepping on one another’s toes is inevitable. Having lived with each other all their lives in cramped conditions, the mother-and-daughter duo in Mine constantly set boundaries with each other in order to protect their own possessions and stories, sometimes hiding from each other, sometimes colliding head-on. It isn’t hard for us to imagine what that might be like, in today’s climate.

Mine is really a play about the enduring bond shared between a single mother and her daughter, despite the challenging circumstances they live with every day. Ultimately, we wanted to create characters who are relatable, in the hopes that our audience members can identify with them in terms of their circumstances and familial relationship. So if the audience goes away after having witnessed their struggles and gained a different perspective on how they choose to live and love, we’d have achieved something worthy in sharing this story.

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?

We tend to look to someone older to admire or idolise.

This time round, I would like to give a shout-out to my fellow directors who are part of this residency programme too. Hazel, Victoria and Yanying – I am inspired by your confidence, curiosity and strength in taking on such huge responsibilities in steering the ships of your individual projects.

Seeing everyone strive relentlessly together in such uncertain times gives me hope and courage too, to work hard and pursue our dreams and stumble alongside one another. We are all at different stages of our directing careers, but we are all here to learn humbly, to open up, to experiment, and to fail. We often cheer one another on in embracing the messiness that’s all part of this process.

I also get a kick out of everyone in this programme being female – it really speaks to a new kind of leadership and new ways of creation in our local theatre scene. I am excited for what the future of our industry holds, and am proud to be in the company of these bold, young women, who I know will be making changes right here in Singapore.

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