And Suddenly I Disappear…. The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues

4 people and a dog pose in front of a camera. Behind them, a blue wall.
The Singapore team: left to right: Natalie Lim, Lim Lee Lee, Peter Sau, and Nur Shafiza Shafie, with Lee Lee’s guide dog, Nice, in the front. Photo by Gwen Pew

A blog on process in two parts: Witnessing by UK-based playwright Kaite O’Reilly and Coming Out of the Closet by Singaporean collaborator Peter Sau. Kaite O’Reilly and Peter Sau have been awarded an Unlimited International Commission for their piece “And Suddenly I Disappear…. The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues”.

Part one: “Witnessing”, by Kaite O’Reilly

“Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.” Margaret Millar, Canadian writer (1915-1994).

Dictionary Definition of “Witness”: Observer, spectator, onlooker, one who testifies. To prove or be evidence that something is true or that something happened.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a playwright I’m fascinated with people. My fellow human beings are source, inspiration, collaborators and (in the form of actors) vehicles of expression. I’m interested in commonality – the things that link us rather than those which set us apart – and of witnessing, especially previously unrecorded lived experience. What I call the ensemble or collective monologue is perhaps an oxymoron, but for me it is a great form to explore that which drives all drama: what it is to be human.

I first experimented with solo and ensemble / collective monologues in 2008, when I received a Creative Wales Award from Arts Council Wales. After exploring the form in myriad ways and informed by consultants Eve Ensler and Ping Chong, I embarked on a massive research period, interviewing over 70 individuals across the UK. I wanted to write work which challenged the notion of ‘normalcy’ and ‘being normal’, but which was rooted in lived experience. The conversations with volunteers, responding to my various call-outs for people to interview, enabled me to get a sense of the breadth of attitudes, identities, perspectives and experiences from disabled people in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. We talked about love, sex, hate crime, work, raising families, overcoming barriers, labels and preferred terminology – from ‘special’ to ‘crip’ and back again via ‘challenged’. I met people who proudly identified as disabled, and those who were insulted by the term because they were very able, thank you very much. These meetings fired my imagination and led to The ‘d’ Monologues: fictional monologues which became an Unlimited Commission, produced by National Theatre Wales as ‘In Water I’m Weightless’, part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012.

This model is being used for my current Unlimited International Commission, working with Peter Sau and his colleagues in Singapore. Peter and his remarkable research team are in the process of unearthing and archiving disabled experience in Singapore – previously unreported lives which will inspire my fictional monologues and, importantly, create an oral archive. They are powerful and often poignant conversations partly provoked by my list of tried and tested questions from my own research period in the UK, plus other prompts supplied by Peter and his team, appropriate to the context of Singapore. The interviews are being transcribed and translated into English if necessary, and sent to me to inspire my writing and go towards the archive. This project is ground-breaking in a small nation starting to explore notions of difference and diversity, but which works on a charity model, where some of the interviewees describe feeling dismissed, disregarded, or made invisible in mainstream Singaporean society – hence the title “And Suddenly I Disappear….The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues”.

I’m often asked why I prefer fictional monologues to verbatim theatre. I have a problem with some examples of verbatim, especially when there is a playwright’s name attached to the project as creator rather than editor or dramaturg. I see peoples’ stories as belonging to them and so taking these stories can be a form of “theft”. Of course this isn’t always the case and there are plenty of examples (like Ping Chong’s “Undesirable Elements” series) where the very best practice is in operation. I am simply not comfortable using someone’s personal narrative as an end in itself – I prefer to use opinions, reflections or anecdotes as springboards to the imagination.

I also prefer fiction, as sometimes that is the way to tell a better truth. If the stories reveal social injustice, a verbatim audience may try and let themselves “off the hook” by saying “oh well, that was just one person – bad luck”. When we’re working with fiction inspired by a whole series of interviews, a positive or negative aspect can’t be reduced to one individual. Rather, it might reflect collective experience and be applicable to a society as a whole and so we are all implicated.

I also want to work with fiction, as that gives me as a playwright a more interesting job – I can work across different theatre styles, form, and aesthetics rather than being restrained by the predominantly naturalism of verbatim. Also, verbatim doesn’t lend itself to the visual and physical theatre styles that my deaf collaborators on the project Ramesh Meyyappan and Sophie Stone utilise. When working with fiction, we can be more imaginative in our creation of characters, stories, events, and have more ways of telling these theatrically.

We are now approaching the Research and Development period in Singapore, where the UK and Singapore teams come together and in two short weeks experiment and present a selection of what we’ve got so far. I have only begun to scratch the surface in my writing of monologues – there is great wealth in what Peter, Lee Lee Lim and other members of the research team are gathering and as the interview process is far from being complete, I anticipate the writing period to go on well into 2018. I am also incorporating responses to a questionnaire I circulated earlier in the year (if you are a UK based disabled person who would like to be involved, please get in touch!). The work in progress sharings this autumn will indicate, I hope, the massive potential of the stories to be told in this international dialogue about diverse meanings, opinions, histories and associations of “difference” influenced by language and cultural heritage. We are working with a minimum of five spoken and visual languages, and initiating the aesthetics of access, a new phenomenon in Singapore. We hope to reject and subvert negative representations of disability and difference, and provoke a much-needed conversation in Singaporean society through this international dialogue – or, as Margaret Millar would have it, witnessed monologues.

Part two: “Coming Out of the Closet”, by Peter Sau

In Singapore, this project has seen four months of tremendous content-generation work. To be speaking to disabled people from all walks of life – buskers, masseuses, artists, athletes, engineers, financial advisors, social entrepreneurs, sales assistants, administrative workers, teachers, students, parents, caregivers, the unemployed and more – has been a deeply humbling experience. On both sides of the interview table, there is always a shared experience of “coming out” of the “closet” – to be complete, courageous and compassionate human beings despite being mainstreamed, numbed and made unaware of what difference and diversity can offer for so long.

Each interviewee in our intimate in-depth dialogue has shown us a different light of self-image, self-doubt, self-stigmatization, self-recognition, self-liberation and self-reflection. Personally, I felt changed in ways equivalent to living five lifetimes. What a privilege to be let into people’s innermost sanctum! Deeply listening and connecting with no assumptions, real fears and vulnerabilities are heard; true aspirations and desires are made known; and buried hearts and feelings are unearthed. Every interview devastates, rejuvenates and emboldens us – we realize we are still alive and want change. Through the performance and the consequential oral archive, we hope to finally see light and be visible with gusto.

Being the biggest recipient of this enormous gift of humanity, I thank Kaite O’Reilly and director Phillip Zarrilli for urging me to take on such a huge undertaking. Fueled by everyone’s authentic artistry and genuine ambitions, we are indeed forming ripples of real actions in our own rivers and navigating beyond our shores to sail towards a shared ocean of deep truth. Onwards we go.

Commissioned and supported by Unlimited, celebrating the work of disabled artists, with funding from Arts Council of Wales and British Council. 

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