In the last two months, through rehearsals and the performance run, I have attended one wedding (with one more next week) and welcomed my niece into the world.
Two highly theatrical events: one a public declaration to walk a future path together, the other a commitment to a future you can’t control. No matter how much I intellectualise, “deconstruct” or try to wrap my post-modern brain and urban shell around them, these two events stir something primal. I was very moved. My napkin at the wedding dinner was embarrassingly wet with tears. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and joy for my brother and his wife – it must have only been a sliver what they were going through.
These two events, rites of passage even, are at the very heart of 13.13.13. To want love is human, to create another is even more human.
What if I did not have this choice? What if I cannot choose to marry, or have kids? The question becomes even more interesting if it is flipped: what if I choose not to marry or have children? Am I less of a human? A lesser member of society? A traitor to my nation? And what if I cannot get married or have children?
My first encounter with 13.13.13 started with the dramatised readings of Theatreworks’ Writer’s Lab in 2017. I was directing the three scripts chosen and during the talkback with Shen, got a text from TT asking if I wanted to direct the full staging. This was the kind of offer you want to get as an emerging director in Singapore. I remember looking at him in the eye, from the stage, thankful, complimented, but unsure of my connection with the themes – marriage and kids? Marriage is not on the cards for me, kids…oh god. But one does not let such an opportunity go, and so I said yes, unsure of the larger meaning of the work but confident of my connection with Shen. And surely there must be something if Theatreworks wants to stage it.
I percolated 13.13.13 in three cities: Singapore, Bangkok and Tehran. It’s not as romantic as it sounds, Bangkok was to finish Open Waters, Tehran was to satiate my wanderlust. Singapore, well, I live here. But one of the images that kept coming into my mind through these three cities was one of a man and a woman looking, connecting with each other through a rushing crowd. It could have been Raffles MRT, Siam BTS, or the Bozorg. That with so many people in the world, that with so many past and future lovers, two people might choose to be with each other.
And that’s really where Sam(antha) and William and Lynn and Kate are.
We live in a time where there is choice in marriage. Urban social structures have encouraged and nurtured a process where partners are selected by individuals themselves, rather than through arranged marriages, matchmaking or profile checks by nosy family. So, we find our own partners, tick the boxes and settle down. Cohabitation is also easier – we save money if we share rent, share food, share the cost of living, we can even provide for each other physically and emotionally. And if the partnership proves to be difficult, it is as easy as a few moving boxes out. Relatively speaking of course.
But, in Singapore, the question of marriage often starts with a rather practical decision: shall we BTO? To apply for a flat together as a married couple. Singapore’s housing rules favour married couples – so it makes sense doesn’t it? This frame work favours the legal form of marriage, and the legal form is not available to segments of our society, starkly so the LGBTQ community.
The reality is that such couplings existed for centuries regardless of legal protection. I know of LGBTQ couples who have outlasted condemning parents, overseas postings, the advent of Internet hookup apps, affairs, job loss – you name it, all the usual trials and tribulations that a married couple would face, perhaps even more because all is done without social recognition, accountability or structures to help cope. Yet, like a married straight couple, they choose to stay together. That’s something epic innit?
As the world becomes more accepting of gay marriage, the call for universal rights inevitably questions the existing legal structure of marriage as existing only between one man and one woman. 13.13.13 uses the LGBTQ drive for affirmation and validation through the legal form as a counterpoint about the need for the legal form through the eyes of those who don’t need that kind of protection and validation.
It almost seems facetious that 13.13.13 plays out this choice through the lives of a straight couple: an upper middle class urban straight couple – the privileged. And only on the periphery do the lesbian couple exist, barely visible though extremely momentous in the drama of the play.
13.13.13 is not quite a lesbian play, because the dramatic events do not centre or grapple with themes that are LGBTQ; but yet, like a Chinese ink painting, it is in the negative space of the work where this question is asked: how different might it be if same-sex couples actually have a legal right to get married and have kids?
A bit about staging.
Filling out Lynn and Kate’s presence is the heaviest directorial treatment I have given the script. This was in response to Shen’s instinct to keep them invisible. I called them the “omnipresent lesbians” instead of her preferred moniker “invisible lesbians”.
I explained, in early discussions about staging with Shen, that instinctively their physical presence was important and dramaturgically they move the plot forward. So while Shen did not want to fill out their characters too much, their presence and story was an important foil for Sam and William’s pairing. That lead to my request for a set design that was malleable by the actors – that the world of Sam and William are shifted literally by Kate and Lynn. I wanted the characters to live in a world that is ever-evolving, affect-able, and psychological. Bodies in space shift images, text in body moves space, sound reverberates memories and emotions in the body. This to me is what theatre can offer: a visceral, awesome, and affecting experience.
I had four amazing actors (and an incredible stage manager) – I could not have achieved the kind of staging that we did without them. It was a lot to ask an actor to do AND hold onto the emotional journey that the script demands.
A lot of the staging came from their play. We used Viewpoints and kinesthetic responses to the text, space and body to generate stage images and moments that eventually became elements of the final work. This was only possible because we brought in the set in Week Three, which was two weeks before opening.
Week 0 (February 2018) – Table read of new script and workshopping with actors
Week One (June 2018) – Table Reads and workshopping
Week Two – Blocking and Scene work with basic furniture in place
Week Three – Working with the set and full costumes, and about 60% sound design in
Week Four – Bringing the full staging elements of projection, lights and sound (traditional Tech)
Week Five – four (!) full dress runs leading up to the opening on July 19; two open dress rehearsals with invited audiences
I could get use to this amount of breathing room, more specifically, this amount of time to collaborate, to propose and to respond to creative input, to test hypotheses and to follow new sparks.
Thank you Shen, Theatreworks and the company of 13.13.13. for your trust.
I am especially grateful to Tay Tong for this opportunity to create this work under Theatreworks.
Finally, to you the audience, thank you for coming to the theatre and for reading this note.
Our values shape the stories we tell of ourselves and the fights we draw blood for.