Archive for August, 2012

You know how we all have that list of things we are going to do one day – like sort those photos from that trip three years ago, chuck out those clothes that no longer fit, read those 50 books before you die and, last but not least, learn a foreign language?

Well, one day finally came.

I am now learning Italian.

Si, sono una studentessa di la lingua Italiano!

That’s what happens when you start planning your first trip to Italy.

Our travel agent, Eu Chai, a Singaporean who runs a travel agency specializing in Italy, had suggested we meet to discuss our itinerary.

We got along like a house on fire, so while he was folding up the map, he said: “I’m going to a function at the Hilton, why don’t you come along?”

I was not exactly dressed for a function at the Hilton, but Eu Chai pointed to his own t-shirt and jeans and shrugged, and soon we were on the top floor of the hotel, milling around the pool, drinking wine and eating prosciutto and cheese with other members of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

Have spent nine years in Italy as a student of architecture and town planning, Eu Chai spoke fluent Italian, as did almost everyone else at this function.

Once again, I found myself explaining how that while I had the nose and the name, I didn’t speak Italian because my mother was Australian and my father grew up in the era where immigrants were encouraged to assimilate.

Before I knew it I was being signed up for Italian classes twice a week and the following Monday I was sitting in class with Heidi* from Switzerland, Ingrid, from Sweden, and Pearl from Hong Kong and our teacher, Catherina.

Slender, with short straight hair pinned on one side like a child, and a serious expression, Catherina says “Non!” with a small, impatient shake of her head, when we make a mistake and “Ok!”  when we get it right.

Lezione uno goes well.  We learn to parliamo che chose e (say “What is this?”) and che cosa sono (“What are they?”) and that a calciatore (footballer) is not to be confused with chicken cachiatore (hunter), and that that the plural of pizza is pizze, but no one ever uses it, and that, well, pasta is just pasta and that none of us can pronounce aereo (plane).

But  in all the excitement, I forget that I am also doing a playwriting course that requires me to stay up until 2am to finish an assignment the day before Italiano Lezione Due.

This means that I am not the brightest student in  Catherina’s class the next day.

“Jane. Leggere!” she commands.

Merda! I did my revision in the taxi on the way to class and my eyeballs feel like someone has removed them and soaked them in caustic soda over night.

I put on my $20 (1.50) glasses and peer at the page.

“Cellulari” I say.

“No!” says Carmen. Cellullare! Bum. I was reading the plural that I had written underneath the word, while the picture is clearly singular.

I wonder if I have turned my cellulare off and whether I will be further embarrassed if it rings.

I get it right the second time and listen enviously as Ingrid reads effortlessly, her words rippling along like a fast-running stream.

But Ingrid is a bit of a pedant. She keeps asking for the third-person singular and the first-person plural of everything.

Catherina tolerates this to some degree, writing grammar on the board, but it is clear that we are getting head of ourselves.

Ingrid  wants to know all the forms of the verb “to be”, and the verb “I want”, and  whether “come ti chiami” means literally “I am” or “I  call myself” and whether…

Jezus!  Can we just get on with it? Sono going crazy!

“You cannot literally translate,” Catherina says for the umpteenth time.

We move on to how we feel, but I am already feeling molto male.

I start to think about lunch. Maybe coffee and a cake will make me more intelligent?

Suddenly Catherina is staring at me. “Jane, you ask Heidi, Heidi, you ask Ingrid, and so forth…”

“Come stai? Heidi,” I say, and Heidi dutifully replies, “Bene grazie, Jane. Come stai, Ingrid?”

But Ingrid wants to know all the forms of the verb stare (to stay), and whether the singular is sto?

Sto what?! I think as Catherina writes them all on the board and we all dutifully scriviamo.

I am glad when Catherina says there is no class next Monday as it’s a public holiday.

I am even more glad when Ingrid says that she has to switch to the night class as she is in a tennis tournament.

By the time Rob gets home I am lying on the bed exhausted,

“Sono molto stanca!” I tell him.

Rob looks alarmed. “You stink?”

“No!” I say, Catherina -style. “I am very tired!”

“Ok!” he responds.

I look forward to Lezione Tre, where I hope to learn, “Can you please cook dinner?”

*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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Singaporeans are good at following rules. They seldom walk across a road unless the green man tells them to, and they queue quietly and dutifully for taxis and at restaurants.

So it comes as a surprise to find that this seldom applies at the theatre or cinema.

It is not uncommon for locals to arrive 20 minutes or even half an hour late, and for ushers to let them in without admonishment.

When they do arrive, it is not uncommon for them to not only talk, giggle and play with their iphones all the way through the show, but also to munch their way through the equivalent of a three-course meal.

So it was with some relief that a friend and I recently found that we unexpectedly had the back row of the cinema to ourselves.

When we purchased our tickets the whole row was  booked, apart from two seats separated by another seat. We took these, thinking we could ask our fellow patrons if we could swap and sit next to each other, if it did not inconvenience them too much.

But when the movie finally started our row was still empty, so we sat together.

About 10 minutes later, the three seats at the end of the row were filled by two girls and a guy with the usual crate of food and who, as usual, laughed, talked and played with their phones throughout the movie

But there were nine seats in this row, so there were still four vacant seats between us.

We were engrossed in the movie when another 10 minutes later, a young couple came in and made their way to our row.

The young man looked indignant. “You are in our seats,” he said.

As there were still four vacant seats in this row and moving would be disruptive to the others this late into the program,  I asked if I could stay in my seat.

The young man reluctantly agreed, but clearly was annoyed.  This was his seat and he felt entitled to it – and entitled to come whenever he pleased to claim it.

I was annoyed, too. It  was damned rude to come in so late and stand on ceremony, especially when he was not being disadvantaged.

“It didn’t help that you were 20 minutes late,” I grumbled.

The young man stopped abruptly and, still standing, suddenly announced in a loud and injured tone, “I am now very upset. I would like to you to move from our seats.”

I moved and the young man and woman spent the next 15 minutes talking loudly throughout the movie.

“That’s the first rude Singaporean I’ve met,” I said to my friend  later.

It did make me wonder about cultural etiquette.

It’s all very well to spend millions of dollars on cultural centres and cinema houses, but cultural education is another thing.

What this young man lacked was theatre manners.

A theatre audience is a team, and you are required to respond and behave as a team.

Out of respect for the performers, or in this case, fellow cinema-goers, you do not come late and you do not play with your phone and giggle or talk as if you are sitting in your own lounge room.

This is the behaviour of children, not adults.

And if you do arrive late and other cinema goers have therefore reasonably assumed you are not coming and have taken your seat – only because there are plenty of vacant seats in the row – then it is the mature and courteous thing not to make a scene.

I still enjoyed the movie, although I doubt that this particular patron would have got much out of it, as the first 20 minutes were crucial to the plot.

Perhaps this explains why most of the movies that are shown here are blockbuster action movies, with goodies and baddies and predictable outcomes that even those who can’t or won’t pay attention can still understand.


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Question: What do you get when you type “musical theatre Singapore” into Google?

Answer: Lunch with Singapore’s best-loved playwright, Stella Kon

Yes, that’s right. A few months ago, desperate to find out if there was a music theatre scene in Singapore, I turned to Google and was astonished when up popped Kenneth Lyen, a pediatrician specializing in autism and musicals.

Yes, musicals.  Kenneth Lyen is not only a highly respected and awarded consulting pediatrician in Singapore, he has written and staged 22 local musicals.

Many of these, along with shows written by other locals, are listed on his website, together with critiques ranging from delightful to devastating.

I emailed Ken, who promptly put me in touch with Lee Yew Moon, the executive director of Music Theatre Live, a group set up especially to develop new musicals in Singapore.

I expected to go to a rehearsal or a meeting or a show, but instead, I was invited to lunch.

“I’ve invited Stella, our chairperson,” Moon said when I met him at a Japanese restaurant in Novena.

Stella arrived late and warmly shook my hand. “I am stars and he is moon – moon and stars,” she quipped, and explained that with MTL’s help, her play Emily of Emerald Hill was being turned into a musical.

As Moon explained, Music Theatre Live does not produce musicals, so there are no showgirls or fancy sets; it just helps get them off the ground. They call it “incubating”.

“I can’t believe you’ve met Stella Kon,” Sandra Shotlander, a friend and fellow playwright from Melbourne, said when I told her about the lunch.

Until then, I had been ignorant of the fact that Emily, a monologue which follows the life of Emily Gan from young bride to Peranakan matriarch, is perhaps Singapore’s best known play, performed locally and internationally since it was first written in 1982.

Fast forward three months later and there are Rob and I, me dressed in a black and purple kebaya, the traditional Peranakan nonya blouse, and him sweating in a suit, as Front of House host and hostess for the premiere of Emily the Musical.

As an MTL volunteer, my job was to hand out programs and gifts of birds nest syrup to hundreds of sparkling Singaporeans, the women dressed in kebaya and the men in batik shirts, at the exclusive Tanglin Club, while a skinny photographer with large ears crouched below, seemingly documenting my every move.

Meanwhile, Rob was doing a sterling job of checking registrations.

He had A –K while Jean, a pretty Singaporean woman whose gentle looks belied her organisational skills, had M-Z.

As there were more Lims than on a tree, both Jean and Rob had L.

This task was easy for Jean, but not so easy for Rob.

“What is your surname?” Rob asked each guest, enunciating clearly and beaming in welcome, as they approached the registration desk.

“Elizabeth,” the first guest answered.

“No, what is your last name?” Rob repeated, still smiling.

“Elizabeth,” she replied again.

Rob tried again. “What is your family name?”

“Cheong,” she replied.

“Is that Chong- C-H-O-N-G?

“No! Cheong!”

“Oh, is that C-H-I-O-N-G?” he said, searching the list in vain.

“No! Cheong! C-H-E-O-N-G”

And so it went on – for 14 tables of 10 people each.

We were only two of about six foreigners there, so I was not surprised when one Singaporean man, looked at me – fat, flustered and foreign – and asked, “What are you doing here?”

I felt like saying “I don’t know!”

One minute I was an anonymous foreigner, wondering how to connect with like-minded people in Singapore, and the next Singapore’s best-known playwright Stella Kon was referring to me as she gave her welcome speech at a gala fundraiser for Emily the Musical.

“And we have a writer…Jane? Where is Jane?” she asked from the podium, scanning the tables of attentive and polite people who had all paid $500 for the privilege of attending.

Having completed my FOH duties and discreetly taken my place at the front table, I gingerly put up my hand, surprised to be singled out, but thinking maybe she wanted to thank me for handing out the programs.

“Jane is going to incubate with us,” Stella informed the audience, who smiled politely and nodded.

I am? Gulp. I doubted that my fledgling project VCE-the Musical! would be worthy or comprehensible to this audience, which seemed to favor patriotic and historical works.

I thought of the kids in my show, a group of swearing, dysfunctional and often rebellious VCE students, striving to get the perfect score and then to get the fuck out and start their real fucking lives. Fuck! I could feel the heavy hand of self censorship already.

Over our lunch meeting, I had told Moon and Stella about my show, which is still being written, and Moon had seemed to think there would be some local relevance as at the age of 12 Singaporeans must sit a grueling academic exam that determines their futures.

However, I wasn’t so sure that 12-year-old Singaporeans would have much in common with the rabble at Strawberry Hills High School, where my show is set, where the common room is a pig sty and where sex education is a lost cause.

And the more I saw of Emily the Musical – a moving tale of a woman seeking identity through family and whose controlling nature almost destroys them all – the more I thought that VCE- The Musical had more chance of being extradited than incubated.

Most of the audience at this gala fundraiser seemed to be fans of Desmond Moey, the composer, and Stella, as author and lyricist, rather than fans of musical theatre, but they clapped politely and wrote nice things in the feedback form.

Me…I was trying not to bawl, as Emily, who like many women of their time who were disempowered, struggled to find her place in the world and lost the child she loved best because she wouldn’t let him go.

My mother, who died a year ago, was a woman like that, as were generations of mothers across cultures in times when women were not able to determine their own futures.

The singing wasn’t great, but the acting was commendable and the music was good – a mix of sweeping ballads and catchy tunes that captured the high moments, as they should.

“This is a historic moment, and you are all privileged to be here,” Stella told the audience afterwards.

And she was right.

Emily the Musical will make the iconic play fresh, new and relevant to a whole new audience and may indeed put Music Theatre Live on the map, too, as a vehicle for helping composers and writers bring their work to the concert stage.

As for VCE- The Musical! – stay tuned…maybe not for a Singapore audience, but I’m confident that Victorians will be fucking impressed.

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