Unlikely Advice from a New Playwright

Arts journalist Helmi Yusof writes frankly about the lessons he’s learnt in getting My Mother Buys Condoms, his first play, from the page to the stage.

My name is Helmi Yusof and I am a first-time playwright. I’ve been an arts journalist for several years, and never thought I could or wanted to write plays – until TheatreWorks Managing Director Tay Tong asked me to join a playwriting course conducted by his company. Course instructor Tony Perez, a deeply spiritual playwright from the Philippines, read my scribbles and concluded I have a “flair for comic plays”. This was news to me – especially since I cried a lot during his course because he kept making us close our eyes and recall our traumas.

Thanks to his encouragement, I wrote a comedy called My Mother Buys Condoms about a retired teacher and her romance with her air-con repairman. It’s set to be staged at the upcoming Singapore Theatre Festival and will be directed by W!LD RICE Artistic Director Ivan Heng.

It’s billed as a “World Premiere”, which makes me wonder who outside of Singapore would appreciate it, since it has quite a bit of Singlish and its concerns (moral panic, social repression, restrictions on the freedom to love) seem so uniquely Singaporean right now.

I’ve been interviewed by a few publications and one of the questions often posed is: “What is it like to switch from arts journalism to theatre practice?” I never answer, “Oh, the disillusionment!” – but there were pangs of that at first. Now that W!LD TIMES has asked me to write about my experience, I thought I’d just tell the whole truth. This information might be useful to other first-time playwrights working with a professional theatre company.

1. Be prepared to rewrite… a lot!

Remember the wonderful days in school when you read or staged Shakespeare, and you had to stick religiously to the words? Even when Shakespeare’s plot didn’t seem to make sense, you couldn’t rewrite the words. Same goes for repetitive Ibsen, enigmatic Pinter, hard-to-stage Kane and anyone else in the canon.

But, when you work with a professional theatre company, everything you write will be scrutinised by the director, dramaturg and actors. You must put your ego aside, listen very carefully and rewrite very quickly. Like a reporter, I kept a voice recorder on during all the workshops so I didn’t miss anything anyone said – and even that didn’t prepare me for the half of it.

Halfway through the rehearsal process, Ivan and Festival Dramaturg Alfian Sa’at decided that the second half of the play just wasn’t working. I was given three days to rewrite half a play. I had to take leave from work, lock myself at home and subsist on instant noodles and fried eggs until I had arrived at a workable solution. The voice recorder and taped conversations were extremely useful.

2. Theatre is a collaborative art

The orchestra has only one conductor – who isn’t you. In the early versions of My Mother Buys Condoms, I had written the mother as an ordinary woman who is deeply hurt when people reject her romance with an air-con repairman.

But Ivan thought she was too self-pitying. He said she’d be “unwatchable” and that “the audience wouldn’t champion her”. He directed actress Lok Meng Chue to be more confident about what she wants. He cut out her more distraught moments. At first, it was me who was distraught about the changes. But Ivan’s a successful director and knows his audience. He’s also won the Cultural Medallion – which no one else in this production has done.

So I decided to trust him wholeheartedly. We reworked the lines to fit this new assured woman that was rapidly emerging from Meng Chue. And it’s all worked out very, very well, I think.

Incidentally, I recently watched a DVD of the 2014 staging of Medea by London’s National Theatre. It was so potent that I purchased online the script by Ben Power, National Theatre’s Associate Director. But I realised some of the speeches in his book had been changed for or omitted from the staged version. My guess is those lines just weren’t working for Carrie Cracknell’s direction. So Power – despite all his, um, power – acceded to the director’s vision.

Theatre is a collaborative art – don’t forget that.

3. Actually, everyone is fallible

I must say, one funny thing about being on the production side is that I’m finally learning the truth about some famous artists. As an arts reporter, I might interview someone and curiously ask: “So what is it like working with so-and-so?” And the reply is often: “Oh, so-and-so is amazing, so hardworking, always nails the moment.”

When we were casting actors for My Mother Buys Condoms, a different picture emerged in the discussions of those very same people: “Oh, so-and-so can’t remember lines. So-and-so has a limited range. So-and-so is a diva.” I kept saying: “Nooooo! What? Really?” Turns out famous artists are only human. It made me wonder how much of what some people tell me in interviews is true.

Well, I’ve tried to be completely honest in this piece. I hope you’ve found it useful. Good luck, and I hope to see your play on stage soon.

My Mother Buys Condoms, written by Helmi Yusof, plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 14 to 24 July 2016. Tickets are sold out. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!

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