Go with a smile!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Caped Crusaders

This is so cool. Guess who I saw the other day? The nice guy who wrote this letter to me. But I didn't say hi because he probably didn't know me, and even if he did, I don't want him to know that in spite of all the effort he took in writing that letter to me, I have just decided not to go ahead writing.

Since there is nothing much to write about I will indulge in another bout of nostalgia. The other day, I was in a bookshop and I saw this famous Singaporean playwright. He was a buddy of my old form teacher who was a director in a theatre group of which he was the playwright. That reminded me of my favourite play (among those I wrote) – “Caped Crusaders”.

This happened one day when I was half as old as I am right now. I was submitting an entry for a playwriting competition, and the winners would be staged as school plays. I thought that I was going to put an entry in, but for the longest time I couldn’t think about what to write. Suddenly, 2 weeks before the deadline, inspiration struck. I was a serial procrastinator, as you guys know. I only started writing the thing 2 days before hand and I had to plead for an extension of 1 day while I wrote the thing through the night even as I attended school during the day. After 2 hectic nights, I finished it. I knew what the punchline was going to be, and I wrote the easy parts (ie the climax of the story) first. The more difficult parts, which dealt with the set up and the character development, I just had to tikam it. Towards the end, it became more and more forced. I just had to will myself towards the finish line, like I did in my marathon 10+ years later.

I dashed to school on a Saturday morning, and dumped it into the teacher’s mailbox. (Anyway, you might know that I’m typing this at the same desk which used to house that computer that I typed the play on. So some things don’t change very much.)

I don’t think I will put the play online. Some people might recognize the title of the play and my identity will be outed. Unlikely but you never know. And there is no need to: there is precisely 1 aspect of the play that I was proud of, and that was the plot. And it was after writing this play that I told myself, fundamentally, the most important aspect will always be plot. If you have a good plot, everything will take care of itself. So here is the plot:

A few boys live in a kampong. One day, a developer comes and tells them that he will tear down their kampong and build a condo over it. They decide to stage a fightback. They conduct a series of childish pranks on the developer, but at the same time, they have a friend who’s a journalist, and the newspaper coverage turns their fight against the developer into a cause celebre, and a media sensation. They become known as superheroes. A Tiananmen style face-off develops, and many people rally to their cause. The kampong leader starts to let fame and fortune go to his head. They stage a faux hunger strike, but allows the kids to nibble a few titbits here and there. All in the name of more media coverage. Impatient to get the project going, the developers send in their bulldozers. Worried that the developers will uncover their stash of canned food, some of the kampong kids throw themselves in front of the bulldozer, and get run over and killed by accident. It is a sad ending and the main leaders of the kampong fall out over the incident.

It’s a good plot. In fact, I think that it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever told. I got the initial idea looking at a spiral staircase in my school. Then that spiral staircase became a treehouse, and it became a hangout place for a few kids. When I conceived this idea, it was very similar to the “Bridge to Terabithia”, which I watched a few years ago, and saw the similarity to what I was driving at in that play. Basically the first strand of the plot I had was: paradise lost.

For me, it was about innocence lost. I was growing into an adult, but still very unwilling to let go of my childhood. I probably was quite resentful about not having a gang to hang out with when I was a kid and wrote this to compensate for it. Yes, it was one of those classic deprived childhood stories.

But there are more dimensions to this dichotomy. It’s not only that adulthood encroaches and you’re willing against it, you’re yearning to fight back. It’s also a more innocent, rustic kampong existence that’s being lost to the more sophisticated, modern lifestyle represented by the condo development.

The second strand of the plot was similar to Ziggy Stardust, an invention of David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust was a character, and he started a band. Became very popular, and a darling of the media. Until the fame got to his head, and he imploded, the media rounded on him and destroyed him. He got destroyed by his excesses. This was the ultimate hubris-nemesis thing in Greek plays.

The third strand of the plot was the story of Tiananmen square, the heroism / martyrdom of the young people who were ultimately no match for the PLA. Obviously my first instinct is to be on the side of the students. This was a David vs Goliath struggle. The bulldozer running people down was – you know how this relates to Tiananmen, I don’t have to tell you.

The fourth strand of the plot was Chee Soon Juan. He staged a hunger strike in the early 90s, in case anybody remembers. I was thinking to myself, what’s this for? I don’t understand. It was martyrdom. It was dying for nothing. I remember a chance remark by my grandmother: “maybe he’s hiding all the food somewhere and cheating”. We wouldn’t know. But we didn’t have a good impression of Chee Soon Juan.

In the end, the killing of the kampong kids reflected my ambivalence about the whole thing. It was a bit like saying, “come on, who are we trying to kid? This is not a fairy tale, things that were going to happen were always going to happen.” And I didn’t want to seem overly critical of the government, and that’s why I made the kampong leader to be an anti-hero in the end.

The killing of an innocent child in the end was also a feature of “Bridge to Terabithia”. Was it justified? As a form of moral justice, you could say that the kampong leader was punished because he overreached himself. But that was in spite of his heroism in leading the kampong resistance?

As a form of poetic justice, you could say that the death of the child resonated with the death of the kampong. It compounded the tragedy and it was a clear message that the kampong could not be saved in any case. Going back to my equating the kampong with the innocence of childhood, having somebody die is something that irretrievably cuts you off from the past. And in a tragedy, if something is presented to you as being a thing of beauty, it will probably die soon. Some of the more perceptive viewers of the play would have seen it coming.

So when I thought of the plot, I was excited, because basically some of my favourite stories were in there. Some of my favourite themes were in there. Best of all was the surprise ending: at the beginning, I set the audience expectations that this was going to be a comedy, a kind of a farce. Then I put in the part about them being a David vs Goliath struggle, and made them succeed, improbably, against the odds. Before I punched them in the stomach with the tragedy at the end. Yes, you have to manipulate your audience’s emotions a little. I may have been young, but I was already cynical enough to realise that. But in another way that play reflects my approach to life: make everything look like a comedy at first, before you reveal your true intentions.

My play was selected to get performed as a school play. Victory was sweet for me, but I half expected to win. I thought, in any case I will attend this performance. Either my play will be performed I have to attend it, or there will be 3 plays that are better than that, in which case I definitely want to see what the fuss is all about.

Victory was sweet because my parents were complaining about why I was spending all this time on an ECA when I could have studied for my exams. I’ll tell you: I knew very well that I would rather have had this play written than to get 1 more A1 for my exams. I was very clear about that. Another bone I had to pick was with my English teacher who was a real prickly character, and who told me that I was a “Maths genius”. I wanted to show her that I was a genius, period.

One of the judges was one of the more prominent local playwrights, and he stayed on as a consultant for the drama production. (In fact what prompted this blog entry was that I saw him one day walking through a bookstore. Not that I would have said hi, he wouldn't have recognised me.) My cast and crew were, unfortunately, not happy with the play at all. They couldn’t see it from my point of view. I thought they sympathised more with the condo developers. But later on I felt that there was probably a more cynical reason: my play was a little anti-government. People were probably thinking that maybe their careers would be evaporating before their eyes. There was definitely a conflict with their values. I wrote to the consultant for help, and to my surprise he wrote me a long letter.

Now that I think about it, I can guess why he wrote that letter. I had attended the Creative Arts Program, which was an outreach program run by the arts community, you had some people who were interested in various forms of art, and they would attend talks, and be in some environment which immersed them in the performing arts. At the end, some of them would be assigned a mentor, and they would hopefully get a leg up to develop their talents. Well I attended that program didn’t get assigned a mentor and maybe they realised their mistake the second time around. I was a little sore about that but truthfully the stuff I submitted to them for consideration was really not very up to scratch. That must have been the reason, rather than that the play was something special, as I had initially assumed.

Writing that play was – let’s be a little corny – it was my defining moment. It typified a few things I wanted.
1. It was one of the rare occasions that I got something done through will and persistence. (But frankly, I wish that I had been a bit more persistent, because I never got around to polishing up that play to be much better than its original form.)
2. I defied my parents and I won. Well I didn’t exactly become a top student for my “O” levels but I ended up getting into the school of my choice, which is really what counts. So in a way their fears that it would affect my studies proved unfounded.
3. It was a nice “up yours” to my English teacher. Well writing a play is like talking, and being able to analyse a play with essays is like listening. I probably am a better talker than a listener.
4. It started my playwriting career, and probably achieved one of my life goals. I was sneaky about it to keep it quiet until it was my time to step onto the big stage. (But I was too sneaky about it. By the time the play was staged – and it was staged by my juniors – my cohort had already left the school. Therefore not many people knew about my play.)

I suppose a lot of it is a reflection of the person that I am.



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