Konfrontation and Konversion
Stella Kon gets her groove back
By Richard Lord
Stella Kon is perhaps Singapore’s most famous playwright, one whose renown spreads far beyond these shores. Kon has written and published dozens of plays, poetry, short stories and novels, but her fame rests largely on one work – Emily of Emerald Hill. This play is frequently referred to as the Singapore theatre classic. A one-woman tour-de-force, Emily has seen over a score of productions and been performed in a number of countries - by both men and women performers. Richard Lord meets up with Stella Kon at her brother’s flat in Bukit Timah to discuss her work and her life.
RL: First of all, you were born in Edinburgh, but you’ve lived most of your life in Singapore. How did that come about?
SK: Well, I was born in Edinburgh because my parents were there during the war. My father was there studying, as a medical student. And then we came back in ’48. I was brought up and educated in Singapore, in that house of Emerald Hill. And then, let’s see, I got married in ’66, and I was living in Malaya, when suddenly it became a separate country from Singapore. So I sort of emigrated without moving my feet. And I was a foreigner in Malaysia. But I lived there till ’81, or thereabouts, and then I went to UK and lived there for about four, five years while my children were in school, in Edinburgh. And most of my major works were written in that period, between ’78 and ’85, when I was in Ipoh and Edinburgh. So since I came back to Singapore in ’86, I haven’t done anything very major.
RL: So most of your work has been written either in Edinburgh or Ipoh, not Singapore. Yet, you write mainly about Singapore. What do you see as the reason for that?
SK: Oh, umm... On the one hand, if I’m in Malaysia, I’m not going to write about Malaysia because I don’t have, as it were, the authority to be writing about Malaysia. I think when I write about Singapore, I have what you call this “exile’s view”. It’s like the great Irish writers who live abroad, but they write about Ireland. You see the essentials more clearly, and you also see the circumstances, the atmosphere, filtered through some kind of nostalgia, which sharpens it and makes you go for the essence. So, yes, it’s quite a useful filter.
Since I came back to Singapore, I haven’t written so much. And I don’t know whether it’s because of a lack of filter or because I’ve been too busy. I’ve generated an awful lot of stuff in the last 15 years, since I came back, but not all of it of it has been useful. Not such good stuff.
RL: When did you start your writing?
SK: Oh dear... as a teeny, weeny little girl. Before I could write actually. My mother encouraged me. I’d be reading these Enid Blyton stories, and I’d tell my mother these stories. I’ve told this story many times. And my dear mother would take it down and write it in a little notebook. And then she’d probably go around and show it to the aunties and the teachers, and say, “This is what my girl did.” So she was in a way the first publisher. And she gave me the idea at this very early age that what I have to say was worth saying, and that there will be an audience for it. Which is what probably gave me the push, got me feeling that it’s normal to be a writer.
RL: Were you involved in theatre as a young girl?
SK: Oh boy, oh boy, yes. Quite apart from the kindergarten where I was Old Mother Goose in the end-of-year play because I was the one with the spectacles. Quite apart from that, my mom was – again my mother’s influence – she was an actress in Singapore. She was one of the leading amateur actresses of the 1950s. In ’52, she was in England at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. So I was almost a backstage kid. And I was watching her rehearse, and helping her learn her lines, mainly Shakespeare. And I think she may have also done short readings of sections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with us children. So again, to me, theatre, plays, are something that one does.
RL: And since then? Have you done any acting in recent years?
SK: No, no acting in recent years. But I have done private readings of Emily with success.
RL: When did you start writing plays?
SK: There was always the childish self-imaginings at home. The first play was at school at the age of eight. The teacher wanted something for the end-of term class function, and she asked us who would like to write a play, and she gave us a plot. And I did, I scribbled a little play in my notebook. And it was acted. So again, there was this great affirmation – I write a play and it gets produced. Instant gratification, very encouraging.
RL: When did you take up writing for the, as it were, professional theatre?
SK: Good question. (Pause.) I’m just thinking of the year. ’71 or so. A Breeding Pair. And what happened is I read some collected plays of Emlyn Williams. He was very strong in the 1950s. And I was reading this book of plays, only reading the plays, but I had enough theatre background to read a play and know how it looks on stage. And I could see, as it were, the tricks he was using. It’s like I say, you can learn a lot from great bad writing. Not from the greats because, you see, I can never do that. But with great bad writers, you say, “Ah, I can see how he does that. And I think I can do that too.” So I went and wrote a couple of plays, called A Breeding Pair, and submitted them to my friend Chin San Sooi in Ipoh. And once more, that instant gratification, he actually produced them on the ACS stage. Yeah, yeah, that was it, that was the start.
RL: In a number of your plays, you exhibit a good sense of theatre – the geography of the stage, the look of a set. When you write a play, do you actually “see” that play?
SK: Umm... yes, I do. The sad thing is that nowadays, the way I see it is not the way the directors are doing it. That’s the problem.
RL: We’ll get back to that topic a little later. But you do have a real sense of seeing a play as you write it?
SK: Yes, and I would say again I learned a lot from Chin San Sooi and the Malaysian theatre, because in the 60s, early 70s, there was a strong Malaysian tradition of theatre. And it was very modernised theatre. As I understand it, the Malaysians learned from Rendra, the great Indonesian, and he learned from Brecht. And Brecht learned from the Chinese. So it all goes round in a circle.
So there was this more modern style of theatre staging. Whereas in Singapore, they were still doing this four walls and a proscenium theatre. So what I wrote, the styles of theatre that I wrote in in those years, was somewhat more modern, and based on what I had been observing from Chin San Sooi and other Malaysians. Chin San Sooi, a great Malaysian director, is still a close friend. He’s done more than a hundred productions of Emily of Emerald Hill.
RL: And he’s still based in Ipoh?
SK: In Kuala Lumpur now.
RL: What would you say was your first big success? For instance, you won a number of times at the National Playwriting Contest, with works like “Trial”.
SK: Well, it was very much a paper success, because it didn’t get produced. The first prize winner was actually “The Bridge”; that didn’t get produced either. The next prize winner was “Trial”; it didn’t get produced. The next prize winner was Emily of Emerald Hill and it took the longest time before that got produced. So success was slow in coming.
RL: So we finally come to the redoubtable Emily. Emily was first produced in 1984. When did you write it and how long did it take to get a production?
SK: I wrote it when I was in England, and I think it was the winter of ’81, and I submitted it for the ’82 Singapore National Playwriting Competition. And when it won the award, we couldn’t get any Singapore director to produce it because, well, this one-woman-play format, it was very unseen in Singapore. You know that I didn’t invent the form, I’d seen one-person plays abroad, but it wasn’t known here. So the local directors, they asked how can one person maintain the attention of the audience for that length of time. It was again Chin San Sooi, in Kuala Lumpur, who believed in this play. Somebody gave him a copy, a good friend of mine gave him a copy, he took it and he did it in KL. When it was done in KL, I believe that Singaporeans started asking, “Why is KL doing a Singapore prize-winning play before we are?”. They then asked Max Le Blond to do it in Singapore, and his production ploughed some new ground in the way Singapore plays were produced. And from then on, I guess you can say that Emily never looked back.
RL: What prize did it win?
SK: This competition was called the Singapore Playwriting Competition. This competition was run three times by the then Ministry of Culture, now part of MITA. The first time it was run, I won with “The Bridge”. The second time, about three years later, I won with “Trial”. The third one, three years later, I won with Emily. Then they said we don’t want to run this competition anymore. It’s like “we’re not running for Stella’s soul-stoke”. (Laughs.) No, what they said was, there weren’t enough entries coming in.
RL: So is it true that the character of Emily is based very much on your grandmother?
SK: Yes, yes. Based in character and personality type but definitely, I must emphasise, not her life story. She was not a young child bride, she was not bullied as an orphan, she did not have a son who committed suicide. Not the details of her life.
RL: I’ve heard that you feel that you’ve lost Emily, that she’s no longer yours. Is that true?
SK: Well, the emphasis there has been shifted slightly, but, yes, I feel there is a danger that people are taking Emily away from me in that too often the papers print – this is really the newspapers’ fault as much as anybody else’s – print articles about Emily as if it belongs to the actor. For instance, they did a whole article about Ivan’s [Ivan Heng's] Emily and didn’t mention my name in the article. Or another time, they mentioned it in one line, “by Stella Kon”, and that was the end of it. And this is the press – they even called it “Ivan’s trademark piece”. It should not be his trademark piece. At most, I franchised it to him.
There are other ways in which various theatre companies used Emily as a character in their plays without asking my permission. So that was not proper behaviour. (Pause.) Oh, I just heard that somebody did a performance in Malacca of Emily of Emerald Hill, and I only heard about it from a member of the audience. So again, this is not right, this should not be done, and I shall have to go after them. I’ll get my lawyers to write to them.
RL: I’m curious then from what you just said: did Jonathan Lim approach you to ask for permission to use Emily in writing his very funny piece, “Emerald Hole”?
SK: No, he didn’t. I found out about it later.
RL: Did you see “Emerald Hole”?
SK: I don’t think I did. I was out of Singapore at the time. I mean, I would have given permission if they had asked. But it’s just correct procedure to ask.
RL: That’s my question actually – don’t they have to ask?
SK: Yes, definitely, they should. And if they don’t ask, they are out of their rights, and I wish to enforce my rights if possible.
RL: Returning to the subject of Emily and “Ivan Heng’s Emily”. You know Krishin Jit, don’t you?
SK: Yes, a very nice man. I’m very happy with his interpretation of the play, although it is difficult to know which is Krishin and which is Ivan. But I think Krishin is a very sensitive reader of the text.
RL: And are you happy with Ivan Heng’s work in the play?
SK: I’m very happy with his work as Emily, but I find there’s also a lot of Ivan as Ivan. The parts where Ivan comes down and interacts with the audience are almost... Let me say, he makes it a point to say “this is not part of the play.” So it’s a way of doing the play, but it’s not a way I’m totally happy about. I can’t say you mustn’t do this. But I think it tends to throw the balance of the play off.
RL: What about his interacting with the audience during the interval - which many people find charming and just wonderful?
SK: Okay, let me make two points. During those interactions with the audience, he is using the words of the script, but he is... let me say, he is building upon them by sheer repetition and comic emphasis. Why doesn’t he just generate some new words instead of caricaturing the existing ones. Why not put in some new ones?
Secondly, that’s Ivan, not Emily. Because the Emily that you later see on stage is a different character from the woman that Ivan is portraying in the interactions. For instance, the woman he’s portraying in the interactions would not have handled her husband’s infidelities in the same way as Emily does. He’s portraying a different kind of woman, a woman who is very... garang is the local word... fierce, peppery, very fiery. Whereas the Emily that you later see on stage reacts to her husband’s infidelities in not such a fiery way. In a more passive sort of way, though she is manipulative. But she doesn’t explode. Whereas the one that you saw coming down and interacting with the audience would not have held still for that kind of behaviour.
RL: Jumping ahead a few years – “Human Heart Fruit” [produced in June 2002] is, I believe, the first monologue you’ve written since Emily. Is there a reason for that – the fact that you haven’t written any monologues between those two?
SK: Oh, I sure wouldn’t want to repeat myself. Definitely, some people would compare it to Emily. Unless I found something which I thought actually tops Emily, I wouldn’t do it. But then, Action Theatre more or less commissioned a piece from me, so I went ahead.
RL: What was the commission?
SK: Yes, they said that it should be a monologue for a woman, and they said twenty minutes.
RL: And, of course, about fruits.
RL: We’ll get back to “Human Heart Fruit” specifically in a few minutes, but I wanted to take up one other relevant matter first. You seem to have had a lot of trouble getting plays produced in a way that was faithful to the text. Would you like to comment on that?
SK: Okay, I have been terribly passive, I have never actually tried to get things produced, short of sending manuscripts in to the directors - which never had any effect. In effect, I’ve just sat in my house in Ipoh and Edinburgh and somebody rings up and says, “You know, we’re going to produce your play” and I say “That’s fine.”
The case with Dragon’s Teeth Gate was a big mess-up actually. [This commissioned work was ultimately done in a “workshopped” version which bore little resemblance to the original text.] I was in Edinburgh, and the Singapore Arts Festival commissioned the script and then allocated a director to do it. So most of the time I had no idea what the director was doing. And when I did find out, it was like I didn’t feel in a position to do anything about it. Which may have been a misjudgement at the time. I could perhaps have called up some people in Singapore and made a fuss, but I didn’t.
So there have been these problems, and I have not positioned myself where I want to argue with directors and say, “I want it done this way.” But in that way, I have in effect left them to do it however they wanted to do it, even though I didn’t feel very happy with what happened. Some of the productions, I have been very happy with.
RL: Let’s return then to “Human Heart Fruit”. I read in The Straits Times that you were... what should we say?... rather upset with the production of “Human Heart Fruit”. I understand that in your script, the action is set in the kitchen and all the activities are centred around that kitchen. And then suddenly, in the Action Theatre production, we find ourselves in some strange soulscape with five toilet bowls standing about.
SK: (Laughs.) Yeah, a few things about “Human Heart Fruit”. First, it was meant to be a quickie. And because it was meant to be a quickie, one of six, it’s assumed that the audience doesn’t have that much processing power in their head. They’re being hit by so many plays, they’re not going to have very much critical ability left to them. So it was set as a kind of detective story. So it might actually not have been possible to do it the way I wanted to do it since they were making it a double bill.
The second thing is that it was crafted as a quickie detective story and one of the visual clues is the electric blanket, which is not available in the current production. So I believe [Low] Kee Hong’s idea was “never mind the detective story”, because it doesn’t suit the half-of-a-double-bill format. So he cut out all the visual clues which would make that work. So there’s a different emphasis, I would say.
Then, finally, Kee Hong is acting, he’s producing, in directors’ theatre. It’s a form of theatre in which the director has his vision, unlike the older form of theatre where the director’s role is to carry out the writer’s vision. So, all in all, I could say that I do not like what he did, but I don’t really have to like it. It’s okay with me that I don’t like it, in a sense. I would rather that it is not produced in directors’ theatre, but if it is, I’m not upset about it, because whether or not I like it, and how I saw it, are apparently not very relevant anyway. In the end, the script still exists, and perhaps in future, some school will put it on and we’ll see how it goes when it’s done as a detective story.
RL: Following up on that, what do you think of the diminishing importance of the playwright in a theatre scene such as Singapore’s?
SK: In this style of directors’ theatre, it is actually better if the director works with the playwright to see what they’re going to do with the script rather than just take the script as a piece of given material and proceed on from there. I haven’t had this experience of working with the director to produce the play according to the director’s vision. I don’t know whether I’d like such a thing, but I haven’t tried it. I understand that Haresh Sharma, who works with The Necessary Stage, does it all the time, and they do beautiful things.
With “Human Heart Fruit”, I was invited to a rehearsal just as a courtesy, just to say “so you don’t get a terrible surprise when you show up on opening night.” But I didn’t think he was going to change his course from anything I said.
RL: Do you think that playwrights should become a little more assertive? That they should say, “Look, this is our work, and you just can’t ignore certain stage directions; these are a part of the text.”?
SK: I don’t think saying that would have much effect. I think it depends on the first assumption from which the director proceeds. If a director comes in, takes a text, and says “I am a director, and let’s see what beautiful, strange and new creation I can make with this text”, then he will only select what input he wants. No, I don’t think putting the foot down at that stage is going to have any effect. Maybe the stage to put the foot down is to say who’s going to be the director, what kind of director you have.
And I do not know which are the directors working in Singapore who want to see eye-to-eye with the writer and say, “What were you trying to achieve? Let me help you achieve it.” I don’t know whether there are such directors in Singapore.
RL: So you think it would be better for playwrights to agree with the production company on a director?
SK: Yes, yes, why not? Why have fights later on? Why not choose a compatible person?
The director whose work I was most happy with on any of my productions was Lee Yu Mun. He did his production of “Trial” with Jurong Junior College. It doesn’t seem to be the most promising material, but you see, the play “Trial” was originally written to be spoken by people with Singapore speech rhythms, to be acted by people without great acting skills.
Lee had an English teacher, an Englishman actually, at Jurong Junior College who was sensitive to language. His great feat was to get the students of Jurong to speak the speeches with their natural speech rhythms without attempting a foreign speech rhythm. And it worked so well. And Lee Yu Mun saw that I wrote “Trial” with an awful lot of reliance on the audience’s imagination. And possibly because of his budget constraints, he gave it the kind of bare-bones studio production which I had wanted. So I was very happy with that junior college production of “Trial”.
RL: Have you done any directing yourself?
SK: In school, I directed a version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and it won the Interschool Drama Competition. But nothing since then!
RL: Following that early period of serial instant gratification, you have encountered problems getting some of your plays produced. In fact, they’re often not produced in professional theatres, but in schools and similar institutions. What do you think this says about the situation of the playwright in Singapore?
SK: (A sly laugh.) I quote from Max Le Blond’s foreword to Emily way back then. He said it “reflects the pusillanimity of the local producers.” But now it doesn’t reflect any pusillanimity because the directors are very, very daring, very brave, and now they start finding my stuff too old hat.
RL: Do you think this is a problem, that many of the groundbreaking playwrights of the 70s and early 80s can’t get produced? That their plays are today seen as something to be discarded rather than as the classics of Singapore theatre? Do you see that kind of attitude yourself?
SK: After the fiasco with Dragon’s Teeth Gate in ’85, I was sending that original script around to the various companies, and I think the problem may have been that it was not the kind of thing they wanted to do, perhaps because my scripts are so dense that they don’t leave them the space to do their own thing. Yeah, they may have been looking for stuff with less freight attached to it. So it has been a problem getting my plays produced.
RL: I’ve noticed that your language is sometimes very poetic, as in Silent Song and other pieces. But rarely do we hear anything like Singlish in your work. Just a little here and there. And even then, it’s a sort of “High Singlish”. Have you ever tried writing a real Singlish play?
SK: No, I haven’t, though actually, Emily is probably written in a Peranakan speaker’s Singapore English, which is probably what Mister Lee Kuan Yew would have been brought up with.
RL: Did you yourself grow up speaking English as a mother tongue?
SK: Oh yes, indeed. In my family, it was English all along. My mother had grown up speaking English. I believe my father had grown up speaking Hokkien. But English was the common language of the household.
RL: In the introduction to Butterflies Don’t Cry, you say this might be a portrait of the deracinated Singaporean Chinese, and you said that that might be the group you yourself belong to. Could you elaborate on that just a little?
SK: Yes, indeed. In that play, the Chinese culture is a pastiche, something derived at second-hand, or even third-hand, in English translation. So Chinese culture is something I see through a glass darkly, at one remove. It’s not in my blood. And yet one feels one has a certain right to claim it. So one tries to build these bridges, and yet is aware, at least in my case, that it’s not a native thing. My personal feelings about China come up, to a certain extent, in my play Dragon’s Teeth Gate.
RL: Every play you write seems to be a new departure – you try new things stylistically, you explore different themes. Would you say that there is anything like a Stella Kon style of theatre, any Stella Kon themes?
SK: Oh yeah, definitely. The themes are, like, personal exploration, spiritual exploration. For me one of the most dramatic moments is a person’s confrontation with his destiny. And then he makes a decision to change or not to change. I think that’s one of the most crucial moments in life, that of conversion. And it makes for great theatre if you can capture it.
RL: You also write fiction. Why?
SK: Hah! Well, in fiction, you’ve got total control. I don’t have to rely on directors and actors. What you have is direct input into readers’ brains, and what you do is what they see. There’s a lot more control there.
RL: But you have editors.
SK: Ahh, hang editors. Yes, I had big problems with editors at one point. But apart from that, also, there are certain themes that just lend themselves to the narrative of fiction and wouldn’t work in a play.
RL: Do you feel there are certain aspects of yourself – your personality, your spirit – that are best expressed in theatre or conversely, are best expressed in fiction?
SK: Okay, I do feel that very deeply spiritual matters, I want to write about in poetry. But apart from that, the choice of medium seems to be dependent upon the subject. For example, I have long wanted to write about my ancestor, Dr Lim Boon Keng, who was a statesman in Singapore in the early part of the century. And I’ve tried different media. I’ve had him doing a guest cameo appearance in a novel which is called The Scholar and the Dragon. I’ve tried to write a whole novel about him; it didn’t work. I’ve tried to write one kind of musical about him; it didn’t work. Now I’ve got him as a minor character in another musical, and in the end, a musical seems to be the best format for a character who is quite heroic and yet not to be explored in great psychological depth, because we don’t have any factual information (about him).
RL: One last question. In 2000, you wrote in your introduction to “Trial”, “Looking back, it seems strange to remember how I struggled to find words for what it feels like to be a Singaporean.” Do you feel that it’s in any way easier these days to write about what it feels like to be Singaporean?
SK: I suppose it might be easier because so much has been written on those themes. There’s a great vocabulary of ideas and, you might say, clichés and images and songs that didn’t exist at the time I was writing.
It’s so easy now to find National Day songs that would inspire and say exactly what one wants to feel in patriotism. The struggle to be new, of course, is just as difficult as it ever was.