The 29-year-old talks about her chosen career path and the highly-anticipated return of “Normal” to the Singapore stage.
No playwright in Singapore has touched upon the painful truths of the local education system quite like Faith Ng has. In 2015, her play Normal punched many of us in the guts, and now she’s back to restage the brilliant production.
Here, the Checkpoint Theatre Associate Artist and lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) opens up about the play’s social impact and her emotional journey towards becoming a playwright.
(Feature image credit: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures)
When did you first develop a love for language?
I started writing in primary school. For some reason, I struggled with language. Maybe it was a developmental issue, but I used to write my alphabets upside down. My dad used to make me write in front of relatives to make everybody laugh; he thought it was cute.
I have a twin sister with a very natural linguistic ability. She can pick up new languages like Japanese very quickly. In primary school, the teacher assigned her as my writing buddy.
She was my first contact with poetry. She’d ask me questions like what rhymes with cat, and if I got the answer right, she’d give me sweets. Because of these different experiences, I’ve always attached language to anxiety, but I also associate it with a lot of warmth and love.
“Normal” is loosely based on your personal experiences. Can you share what secondary school life was like for you?
In secondary school, it’s drummed into you that academic results are very important. You are told every morning during assembly that if you don’t do well, you won’t have a future.
It was a tough time for me. I was in the Normal stream and I was failing Maths miserably. My scores were always the lowest in class; I even scored seven out of 100 once.
I was also experiencing a lot of internal conflicts at the time. I attended an all-girls school, and I had a lot of anxiety about my body and who I was. I struggled with those issues very acutely, but all I really wanted was to fit in and be accepted.
You eventually went to a Junior College (JC) where you surpassed all academic expectations. How did you accomplish this feat?
I didn’t come from the best home. My family was very loving, but we faced many financial difficulties. There were a lot of late night arguments between my parents, but when push came to shove, my mother made sure I studied.
As the house wasn’t a conducive place to study, she would bring me to the airport and accompany me through the night as I revised for my exams. My family takes full credit for me getting into a JC.
I went to JC with a lot of shame. I feared that people would know I came from the Normal stream. I pushed myself extra hard because I didn’t want to fall behind and feel like I wasn’t good enough.
I gunned for every school prize and topped almost every subject, and even though I seemed happy on the outside, I was fearful that somebody would take everything I’d worked for. JC was fun, but it did feel like I led a double life. I was never truly myself, and putting up a front was exhausting.
You rejected an MOE teaching scholarship to pursue Literature and Theatre Studies. What led to that decision?
I wanted to be a teacher all my life. In secondary school, the turnover rate was really high, and teachers were changing every few months. I guess I wanted to be that teacher whom I never had, but the bond made me uncertain.
I was also taken aback during the interview. The first thing I heard was, “Oh, you’re from the Normal stream? Congrats!” I didn’t want to enter the system just so they can show me off as their pride and joy.
Of course my parents were upset when I rejected the scholarship. We were not doing well financially, and this was my chance to pay off my school fees; but, I didn’t want to restrict myself from doing what I loved, and that’s writing.
When I decided to major in Literature and Theatre Studies at NUS, my dad supported my decision and even settled my fees with his CPF; his only condition was that I pay him back.
How did you discover your love for playwriting?
Huzir Sulaiman – the Artistic Director at Checkpoint Theatre – was my mentor when I took up playwriting at NUS. That was when I truly felt at home, and it was the first time I had friends who were so caring and serious about writing.
Whether I liked it or not, I had to let my guard down when I was writing. Your words will reflect who you are inside; you can’t hide it. When I contrived something, they’ll catch me and say, “You’re lying here.”
I’d never experienced that kind of honesty before, and it just felt like a very safe, open and nurturing space. We really pushed each other to dig deeper.
“Normal” is your third play as an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre. What motivated you to write it?
After I graduated from NUS, I went to Norwich to do my Masters in Creative Writing. I was there with my fiancé – who’s now my husband – and there was an instance where he said, “Don’t be stupid.” He said it jokingly because I did something silly, but I totally lost it.
When I calmed down and reflected on why I reacted that way, I realised that “stupid” has been used on me so many times before; it kind of became my trigger word. It was only when I started talking to my friends that I realised how much the school system has affected all of us.
If you think about it, we’re in school from the time we’re seven, all the way till we’re about 20. School takes up so much of our lives, and I just felt that more people should be talking about it. That was why I wanted to write this play.
How did people respond to “Normal”?
When Normal was still a work in development, Checkpoint did a reading with an unbiased public audience. My friend, who wasn’t into theatre and attended just because it was a free event, texted me after.
He was having a smoke outside the venue and heard people discussing the play; they were apparently so affected that they needed a cigarette break.
After the opening night, I started receiving messages from friends, but as the run continued, I started getting lengthy emails and Facebook messages from people I’d never met before.
A lot of the letters really brought me to tears because their experiences were so painful. I was so thankful that they felt like somebody understood them.
How will the restaging be different from the 2015 production?
The actors from SOTA who played the roles of the students are older now. There’s an edginess and sensitivity to the way they speak, and they are quicker in catching on to nuances. Their performances will be more layered because they’ve had more time to know their characters.
The change also lies with me. When I look back at the text, there are many things I see now that I didn’t use to previously. There’s this line that Ashley the main character says to her best friend Daphne: “They have everything they want in this world; what right do they have to be sad? Sadness is ours.”
When I wrote it many years ago, I thought it was just an appropriate line that illustrates the anger the character felt. Now, I see that the character has an actual sense of pride in taking ownership of her pain.
Just like your mentor Huzir, you currently teach playwriting at NUS. What have you learnt about being a teacher?
I’ve been told by many that my life has come full circle now that I’m a teacher. It has, but not in the way that I thought it would. As a teacher, I thought I could change so much about the system or the way students see the world.
Now, I realise that it’s not just one person’s job. Some nights, I do worry that I’ve stopped a student from writing indefinitely. Maybe I unintentionally said something hurtful, or asked a question that’s misinterpreted.
That is why I always think before I speak. There isn’t a right way to write a story, so I never want to impose on my students. It’s really about being a facilitator or a kind of guiding light; nothing too prescriptive.
Tell us more about “Faith Ng: Plays Volume One”.
This anthology says more about the people in my life – especially Huzir and Claire who directed Normal – than it does about me. I’d definitely not be in theatre if I not for them, and I see so much of their influence in my writing.
When I look at the book, I recall interacting with actors and talking to directors in pockets of time in between rehearsals; I remember these special moments. This book stands on the shoulders of giants, and I hope to carry it forward.
Describe the legacy that you’d leave behind as a playwright.
When I was younger, the stories I read were always about white people and people older than I was. I wanted so much to read about someone like me, but there was no one, and it made me feel less of myself.
I don’t want to leave a legacy behind; but, I do hope that young people who are looking for representations of themselves, or something that affirms who they are, will find it when they read or watch one of my plays.
Any words of advice for aspiring playwrights out there?
Just be yourself. I think a lot of writers pretend to be someone else because they don’t feel confident in their own voices, so they try to sound smarter or more poetic. I think it’s really important to accept who you are and just let your work reflect your voice, as it is.
You also need to know why writing a play is so important to you. If you don’t have the impulse and urgency to tell a story, then you’re just wasting everyone’s time. It could even be a comedy or something frivolous, but it will only mean something to everyone else if it means something to you.
Interview by: Arman Shah