Interview fragments

In a fit of nostalgia, I've been going through some of the interviews I did while at The Straits Times – I kept pretty meticulous transcripts. Here are some longer excerpts and responses that didn't make it to print.

October 30, 2012

I rang Lea Salonga just as she was getting home after grocery shopping. She was starring in Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage in Singapore; I asked her a question about her approach to musicals versus her approach to dramatic work where there's little to no singing.

LEA: It’s easier for me when there’s singing involved. Singing is easy for me – it isn’t something where I have to figure out a cadence or a rhythm or try to figure out which way my voice is going to go. When the notes are on paper it gives me a clue as to what I'm going to do, like this lyric goes with that line. When I have difficulties I take it up with the composer and lyricist – like maybe this would be a better vowel or consonant for me to sing. When it's spoken dialogue, there's so much I feel I have to navigate. I think I'm getting better at speaking? [laughs] I'm improving, not coming across as flat or lacking. But I worry, as easy as singing is for me – I have to be in peak physical condition for it. In a play, I can be hungover and I'll be fine! My voice doesn't have to be the best, but I know I'll ride. When I'm singing – I can't drink, I have to get 8 hours of sleep, get rest – I have to consider so many things in order to be at peak performance. The best thing about doing God of Carnage is that I'll be able to perform it even if I'm not at my best condition physically.

October 7, 2011

Michael Chabon, who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was coming for the Singapore Writers Festival. I called him just before his dinnertime. (Well, enough time such that when the call ended he was going to have dinner because his wife and kids had finished cooking.)

ME: You have four kids: what do you think is the best way to get children to love to read? Do you read your children bedtime stories?

MICHAEL: When my wife and I started reading to our first child when she was a baby, I think it was mostly because we love books and stories and we love reading ourselves so much that it just seems not only like sort of a duty or a necessary benefit that we were trying to convey to our children, but just that it would be fun and that it would be pleasurable and that it would be something that we and they would completely enjoy. For me it needs to start and end with pleasure. If it’s not fun, if it isn’t fun to read or write, then I lose interest.

So for me it was really that to begin with. But very quickly you learn as a parent, once you start reading to a child, it’s this wonderful – it’s not just the story or the pictures or the lines or whatever it is that’s pleasurable, it’s the experience of cuddling up with your child at night, and probably a lot of it has to do with if you haven’t had the chance to spend much time with them, or see that much of them – to be able to just get in bed and, you know, the light from the lamp, and just snuggle there and they’re just right up against you and they’re very still and quiet, but their minds are still totally engaged and open and they’re asking questions and they’re wondering about the things you’re reading to them. What you learn very quickly that it’s really something you’re doing very much for yourself as much as for them.

February 29, 2012

One of the most terrifying interviews: the fiendishly erudite Alan Hollinghurst, who wrote The Line of Beauty. He was in Hong Kong and had just been in Beijing for a literary festival. I interviewed him just after his book The Stranger's Child was published, and asked him about how he wrote and his writing habits.

ALAN: [I write] Mainly by hand, yes. I’m actually sort of in transition, I did write about a third of The Stranger’s Child on screen, but up till that point I’d written all my books fully in long hand. I like it, I like just the basic thing of making marks on paper I think. I used to be rather sort of puzzled by the expectant machine just sitting there waiting. I like the calm of the page. Anyway once I get a draft obviously I put it onto a word processor and do further stuff on it there. But generally I suppose my life is moving more and more, as all our lives are, onto the computer. It’s a mixed blessing, I think, the working on the same computer – writers like Ian McEwan have told me never to do this, you always must have a separate computer to write on from the one that you access the Internet on, in sticky moments it’s always all too tempting to slope off into doing something else online. I generally decided to get some nice well-bound notebooks that open flat and I have an old Parker fountain pen that I once won in a crossword competition. That’s what I’ve written my last two books with.

27 June, 2014

I spoke to Elizabeth LeCompte, founder of avant garde theatre company The Wooster Group, prior to their show, Cry, Trojans!, at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in 2014.

ME: How do you take criticism, whether from critics or audience members? Do you find it helpful or do you just ignore it?

ELIZABETH: It depends on how it comes. Sometimes I’ll take criticism like in poor theatre - I made a piece of poor theatre and we asked everyone just to give us what they thought of the piece and what we should do differently, and we would try to implement one of the things that the audience had given us every night. Sometimes we do that. Sometimes I just have to disregard it because I can’t work with that kind of pressure so I just don’t engage. Sometimes when a piece hasn’t been done for a while I go back like after 10 years or so, and I read reviews and and go, “Oh my God, how did we make it through that?” Our early work was, well, a lot of our work was, a lot of times, very negatively reviewed, so. A lot of times I just have to skip over it and come back to it later.

ME: Do you think part of it is due to the Group always being just ahead of the curve, ahead of what people expect?

ELIZABETH: Yes, I think we have a tendency to do that. Because naturally we’re working where it doesn’t have to be a success the first time round. So we are able to stretch things where other people in theatre are not. We are more like writers and even filmmakers, where the person can say, oh yes, this got a bad review, but 10 years later it’s the cult hit of the century. But in theatre, it’s very hard to do that, because you have to succeed right away. For us, we don’t have to, because I can bring it back, I have five or six pieces in repertory now that I could bring back at any time. And usually when they’re re-reviewed, they’re re-reviewed with a little more understanding of where we are coming from. But that’s a luxury again, by making a place, we don’t have to, we’re not dependent on the first review out after two weeks of rehearsal. [laughs]

22 July, 2013

I asked theatre director Simon McBurney a lot about puppetry and object work for Complicite's production of Shun-kin, which was staged at the Esplanade in 2013 as part of their Titans of Theatre series. He spoke with long, measured pauses, as if he were turning each question over carefully in his mind.

SIMON: In terms of objects, I think the use of objects or the things that you have in your hand – I want them to be as articulate as anything anybody says, and only to be used when they are essential. So if we don’t need an object on the stage, then there’s no point in having it, because it becomes a kind of decoration. In the 19th century, that would have been very different, because they started making theatre which became more and more realistic. And of course what happened is that all of that kind of theatre died the moment the cinema was born. In cinema, you could have real horses riding across real landscapes. Those images were so shocking to people that as the train came towards them, there were people running out of the cinema. That part of the theatre, that degree of realism, was then taken up and used by the cinema – in exactly the same way in painting when photography came. Painting was liberated to be itself, because the photograph could do things realistically. No one needed to do a portrait of someone in the same way, which saw the arrival of impressionism, symbolism, cubism and so on. Painting suddenly found itself extraordinarily liberated to capture the essence of something rather than being constricted by the idea of being realistic. So if you have a scene in which people are eating, you need those things which are absolutely essential to that scene – all you need to understand is where they are and what they're doing. The imagination does everything else. It focuses the imagination of the audience.

In terms of using puppets, sometimes you will have a character such as the cat in [Mikhail Bulgakov's] Master and Margarita, who is not a human being. Who is perhaps, let's say, larger than life or who has a kind of quality to them which you might find hard to accept in a human being. At that point we [Complicite] experimented with many different things. We had people playing the cat. Puppetry seemed to us the most successful – the cat could be the rudest and most aggressive and sexually explicit if it was a puppet. You probably wouldn't accept it in the same way if it was an actor, and it was an important idea that the cat should be a different form, that it should have a kind of magical quality, able to fly across the stage, able to move in other ways. [...] Puppets are very similar to the idea of a mask. And what a mask does is that it will essentialize qualities of a human character to a set of gestures, which are like a heightening of particular aspects. In the same way as you might see a cartoon as an essentialization of a character, it takes those aspects of humanity and, in a sense, highlights aspects which are essential, stripping away all the others, so that only the things that are absolutely necessary are left. Everything is left to the audience’s imagination.

May 9, 2012

I spoke with pioneering Malaysian contemporary dancer-choreographer about her work, Dream Country, for the Singapore Arts Festival 2012 – she wanted to work with non-performers for the piece as well. She was warm, wonderful, wickedly funny, and so, so generous.

MARION: I can make a dancer out of anyone! [laughs] How? You'll just have to come and see. There's no such thing as two left feet. I'm not saying you'll be Sylvie Guillem, but you will find the dance. Every human being has a dance that sits in their body and is just waiting to not just sit there any more. Before anything – we're moving. The minute a pregnant woman feels stillness, she knows there is something wrong. The minute there is no more movement – it's the most basic thing to a human being. The heartbeat is that rhythm that is the most basic of all things.

February 10, 2012

Pakistani-born novelist Mohsin Hamid was about to stop over in Singapore for a one-day event. The film adaptation of his novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (starring Riz Ahmed), was in production at that point. I asked him about the public's assumptions and misconceptions about his home country, and what it was like to return to live there after many years away.

MOHSIN: There was a time when bombs were going off in Lahore quite regularly, and people were dying – and you would feel the windows of the house shake. A friend of mine had their windows shattered and glass falling near sleeping children, so that does frighten you. On the other hand, you can get mugged walking down the streets of Brooklyn. So certainly I have been afraid at times. But that fear is balanced by other things. For example, it’s balanced by the fact that my baby girl, who’s two years old, wakes up every morning and plays with her grandfather for an hour and a half before he goes to work. And the two of them love that hour and a half together. What is that worth in terms of human experience? Is it worth maybe a little bit of fear of living in a place? I think probably so. And everybody makes their own choice on how to strike that balance. Just before we moved back to Lahore, I was in a cafe in London with my wife and baby daughter who was just a few months old at the time. The guy behind the counter asked where we lived, and he said, 'Well, you know what's going to happen to her moving back there.' And I said, 'What's going to happen if she doesn't move back?' Societies are organic things, and hopefully someone like my daughter will have an impact.

I always feel like moving around – I don't know where that comes from. Maybe because I moved to California when I was three – that wanderlust and nomadic instinct. But being a father is quite a change because kids are like an anchor. My daughter likes being in the place she loves, and I've become a little bit more grounded. Perhaps it's partly because I'm just in love with the world. I've always wanted to live in London and New York, and I have. But I also thought that given how frightening Pakistan is, or is portrayed as being, if I didn’t go back soon, maybe I would become frightened of the place. And maybe I would never go back. And so I thought I was running up against a kind of limit where I could lose my possibility of going back. If I’m going to write about this place, I’m going to have to live it for myself. I can’t live abroad and keep writing about it, because very soon I’m going to write stuff that is informed by other people’s views or stereotypes of Pakistan.