14 Jul 2017:
Over the last few months, local theatre practitioner Peter Sau and his team have been using Centre 42’s Meeting Room as a safe space to get to know individuals with lived experience of disability. So far, they have met and interviewed 20 people from the Deaf and disabled communities and will be meeting and interviewing at least 20 more.
This is the research phase for a project entitled The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues – the stories gathered from the interviews will ultimately inspire a series of fictionalised monologues. The piece is a collaboration between several artists in both Singapore and the UK. The lead collaborators are Peter, who has taken on the roles of associate director, researcher, and performer; Wales-based playwright Kaite O’Reilly, who has worked extensively with Deaf and disabled actors; and Wales-based director and Kaite’s long-time collaborator Phillip Zarrilli.
“This would be the first time stories from the ground belonging to those of the Deaf and disabled community will be heard, collected, and archived,” says Peter. “And from them, a theatrical narrative of spoken, visual, captioned, recorded languages and mother tongues would be weaved together and presented with diverse physical representations on stage.”
As Kaite puts it on her blog, she hopes that “the performance will open up a much-needed discourse of disability in quality, accessible disability-led work”. It is commissioned by Unlimited – a UK project that supports work by disabled artists – and its development is supported by Centre 42’s Basement Workshop programme.
Peter, Kaite and Phillip have known each other since the mid-2000s, when they were all involved with Singapore’s Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) in different capacities. They stayed in touch over the years, and the trio came up with the idea that would eventually become The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues when Peter attended a Summer Intensive programme led by Kaite and Phillip in Wales in 2015.
By that time, Peter had already had a prolific career in the Singapore theatre scene as an actor, director, and educator. He was the recipient of the Young Artist Award in 2011, and his name had already cropped up several times at The Straits Times’ Life! Theatre Awards. But he decided to take a break in 2014, and spent a year in the UK to reflect on his practice.
“Basically, I was rather bored with the work that I have been doing, and perhaps even with Singapore theatre,” he explains.
He found his new direction on a cold spring day in London, when he caught a production of The Solid Life of Sugar Water by Graeae, a theatre company that champions Deaf and disabled actors. The play, written by Jack Thorne (who’s also behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), is about a couple trying to work through their grief after a stillbirth. The wife is Deaf, and the husband has a stump on his arm.
“That performance haunted me for weeks,” Peter remembers. “It was so authentic and heartfelt, I cannot remember seeing anything like that before. I guess it was the performance form which was unseen in Singapore that woke me from my slumber of conventional theatre-making.”
Through Kaite, Peter became more involved with the world of disability arts in the UK. And through a National Arts Council officer, he was introduced to a blind Singaporean called Lim Lee Lee.
“By spending time with someone I don’t feel conveniently similar to, I realise I was again experiencing myself and my relationship to this society and environment called ‘home’. Everything I thought I knew turned against me,” says Peter. “Through Lee Lee, [I learnt] to tell temperature through my skin; to investigate tactile markers (those protruding black or silver strips on the floor); to understand how foolish the ATM machines are – especially the amazing touch screens I used to love.”
Having this new world opened up to him has made him even more determined to do The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues justice.
“When Unlimited Festival called for international proposals, I leapt at the opportunity and expressed my keen interest to Kaite and Phillip,” says Peter. “They said yes, and I knew that whether or not we got the commission, I’ll just have to make it work with the belief that good luck, good hearts, and good things are meant to be.”
Lee Lee ended up joining the project as a researcher and performer, and most of the people who Peter interviewed are her friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. And the team take great care to emphasise that they are doing this not for the community, but with the community. Because really, The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues is a story about all of us. It’s about what it means to be human.
“At this moment in Singapore, disability equals to charity. Our governance seems to call for judgement when dealing with groups or societies different from the mainstream. Negotiation is short-lived and difference in viewpoints are mostly glossed over without depth,” says Peter.
It is his hope that by actively connecting with those who seem different from us, we can all collectively find common ground. He recalls that one of the most important philosophies his former mentor, theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, imparted to him was that “all cultures share the same roots even though the appearances look different”.
“People with visible and/or hidden disability are also trees like you and me. We share the same roots embedded in the soil of humanity where we begin and end our mortal journey,” says Peter. “Since we are all connected deep down, I am driven to make theatre work which begins to remove all labels, stigmas, baggage and assumptions that come with disability, oppression and marginalisation, and to celebrate diversity and embrace differences.”