Singapore Redux

In the first place, I had no idea I would ever be in Singapore and in the second place, I had no idea I would ever return. Almost year ago, a young man from Singapore, Kamil Haque who had been a student of mine at AMDA here in LA, returned to Singapore to open an acting academy. “It’s been my dream,” he said.

He phoned last fall and asked if I would come there and teach. I am retired from forty years as an actress and now teach creative writing workshops. This made me unsure what might be a good fit for Kamil’s population of students. Should it be acting or writing? I eventually landed on story telling. Actors benefit by using their own stories as jumping off places for scene study, for creating monologues and developing their own performance material. I said yes to going. After all, who am I to say “no” to a section of the globe I had never visited: Southeast Asia? At 75, how many opportunities, with wings, would come headed my way?

I remember asking about Singapore when talking with Kamil about his plans. “Does Singapore have a lot of theater?”

His answer: “Well, not really. Everything has to be approved by the government.” Approved? I got a chill. This seemed from another time and for sure, something I had never bumped up against. What did it even mean? My next question which remained un-spoken was “Well then, why would you open a school for actors if there isn’t any acting.” But I wasn’t the Singapore expert and he was.

Once I agreed to go, I read up a little on this sub-tropical city-state established in the early 1960s. I packed a bag with my summer cottons even though it was January in LA and loaded my Kindle with books for the twenty hour flight, the thought of which made me want to stick pins in my eyes.

Kamil had said he was putting me up in Little India a section of town true to its name. I had a nice hotel room on a second floor opening onto the street where I could watch the foot traffic and smell the spicy fragrance of Indian cooking from the open café on the corner.

The streets were lined, shoulder to shoulder in small shops of all stripe: electronics, tea shops where you buy warm tea in an easy-to-carry plastic bag with a straw, Internet access, hawker stalls serving up chicken rice and hand sized pieces of Naan. (By the way, I tried conquering eating with my fingers and, predictably, I was an instant failure.) Men wearing western shirts and sarongs scuffed in sandals along the narrow streets, expertly navigating their way around the cars and vans threading through the narrow streets. Caramel skinned women in saris lifted their skirts with one finger to step onto the curb. Small altars holding an orange or plastic flowers hung from cement pillars or held their stand on street corners, humble reminders of how human the many gods are.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or what to offer in a program. To attempt a weekend seminar on creative writing principles seemed not quite right since I wasn’t positive who I might be working with. So I decided on story telling knowing that the basic impulse driving art is stories.

This turned out to be a better choice than I could have imagined. In the two weekends I worked with an amazing mix of twenty-five people. There were a few actors studying with Kamil, but also a businessman, an Indian woman who was an accountant, an ex-pat from South Carolina who facilitates corporate workshops, a photographer, a banker and so on. Actors turned out to be the least of it. As it turns out that is representative of what I came to love about Singapore: the variety, ethnically and culturally that make up this population of 5.5 million on an island created and designed specifically to make money. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Muslim blending all shades of skin, splashes of brightly colored fabrics, languages in the air like water coursing over stones.

Singapore gained independence and separated from Malaysia as the Republic of Singapore on 9 August 1965 led by Lee Kuan Yew who became Prime Minister for the next fifty years. His goal was to make this city the financial hub of Southeast Asia. The emphasis was on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, limitations on internal democracy, and close relationships with China. This established it 9th globally on the Human Development Index including education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Everyone and everything is provided for. It was this construct that, for me, made the city opaque. Still, there is no crime and drug traffickers are put to death, so there’s that.

It was the first time in my travels where I couldn’t identify with the character of a city. The city itself, lacked personality and definition. Thousands of thousands of residents live in towering apartment complexes outside the middle of the city. They reach on and on covering the skirts of the island. They are mostly identified by number and are indistinguishable one from another. I felt as if I was in a scene in INCEPTION and couldn’t get out. I lost my bearings.

In contrast, the downtown, though I can’t honestly name it that since there is not a feeling anywhere of “town.” More, it is simply the center of the city

Massive and dramatically modern architecture swoops and curves over the skyline reflecting the rays of the sub-tropical sun. They could be a set for a sci-fi city. These buildings, humped like giant animals are circled by high-end malls, 24 hour power plants of product: Cartier, Louis Viutton, Armani, Harry Winston, Boss, Dior, Tiffany. Celebrity chef restaurants and beauty spas dot the corridors. I couldn’t get outside soon enough.

Singapore treats its plant life like movie stars. Stunningly lush gardens are tourist destinations. They are magnificent, exotic but everything is planned and trimmed, cultivated and arranged. Almost color coded. And yes, though I thoroughly loved wandering through the heady fragrances of Plumeria, Jasmine, Sweet Mimosa still it struck me that there was no wildness, no random beauty. There simply isn’t room. The use of land is restricted and there is little that is undeveloped lending a kind of claustrophobic feeling to this island.

For the two weekends, I planned to talk about the elements that make up stories and show how they move toward resolution and transformation. I brought examples and we discussed what made them work. I coupled all this with straightforward writing exercises to put us on common ground. Everyone loosened up. Soon, ideas were flying around the studio. I suggested we would each tell a true story from our lives, spend the next day writing them down, then with help from me and with reading aloud we would refine them down to six to eight minutes in length. On Sunday night they could invite friends and studio members to hear their stories read out loud. At this, I could sense a frisson of fear. Over the years in my work I have found there is little that can fill the heart with more terror than reading aloud. But what I know and is completely true, at the same time, there is nothing more rewarding and empowering. Onward.

That’s how it went for two weekends with two different groups of people. They found a story that was true, wrote it, said it to a roomful of people and lo and behold, they had written. The stories ranged from hilarious to vulnerable and brave. The evenings were exactly what I had hoped I could offer. Everyone was thrilled and full of thanks to me, but what they didn’t know, was how they were the ones who should be thanked for taking the steps, for trusting the truth, for telling a story out loud. Out loud is where stories belong, not trapped inside our memories and our heads. They have been told that way since fire was discovered. It’s how we find we are not alone.

So. I was half a world away from Los Angeles in a place unknown to me, but the people and their stories obliterated the geographical distance, the ethnic and religious differences, the language, the customs, even the censorship—all gave way to this larger more intimate community we established through stories in such a short time.

I came back to LA cursing air travel and airports and cursing seats designed for a child of six. I spoke in fragments and ran into walls until my jet lag ran its course leaving me flattened. Thank goodness, sez I, I don’t have to make that trip ever again.

A group of around eight from those weekends asked if we could Skype every so often. “We want to keep writing,” they said. I burst into tears and said “Of course.” We did so for a few months until that same group said they wanted to give me something. “Not something like a vase. We love you and want it to be something you really want. So what would you really, really want?” Bursting into tears again, (something I do with happy regularity) and before I could stop myself I said “I want to come back to Singapore. And be with you. We should be writing.”

I just got back three days ago and it’s only 5:00 p.m. Ruby the dog is baffled by my odd behavior, but I have to go to bed.