How to speak your mind and get away with it

Theatre director Glen Goei tells us how he explores hot button issues without riling the public.

Glen Goei

Glen Goei, 52. The film and Wild Rice theatre director has directed movies like Forever Fever and The Blue Mansion, as well as plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Cook a Pot of Curry. His most recent work is the SG50 celebratory play Public Enemy, an adaption of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s classic, An Enemy of the People. It explores a scientist’s controversial decision to expose his town’s contaminated spas, endangering everyone’s livelihoods.

Be interested in your community
“I think it’s our duty as artists to listen to people’s concerns and present them. We quickly find a place to mirror their concerns, either through writing a play or — in the case of Cook a Pot of Curry — interviewing the public and putting their speeches onstage. After watching Public Enemy, I think some people will take [the scientist]’s side and some will support the mayor [about the cover-up]. The play will generate conversation and debate among friends ’cos theatre is a shared experience. In a hall of 600 audience members, everyone is laughing at the same joke. You will feel, “Hey, other Singaporeans are thinking the same way as me.” You rarely get that in Singapore, especially in the Internet age.”

Champion the minorities
“As we celebrate SG50, we also seem to be celebrating how successful we are and how far we’ve come. We need to consider how we can make Singapore a better country to live in, and the needs of the minorities – whether racial, religious, economic or LGBT. This is so that SG100 can be a bigger and better celebration than SG50! My main concern is the income gap in Singapore. Nowadays we don’t have samsui women anymore, but we have aunties and uncles working in food courts. It’s very sad. I don’t want to see my grandmother or grandfather working well into their 70s and 80s when they should be retiring just ‘cos Singapore’s cost of living is too expensive. I’m thinking of making a documentary about it. I just need to find the right people to help me write the script.”

Don’t fight the system; work with it
“Whenever we do a production, we have to submit our script to the Media Development Authority. If they don’t like some parts, we’d have to change it. Sometimes the [process] is not clear-cut. There’ve been plays where they have asked for many changes, but we’d tell the authorities, “Can we sit down with you and explain why this word is important to the play?” Some bureaucrats can’t see the whole picture. They don’t like a word and say, “Take this out.” We need to explain to them why this particular scene or moment is important when they watch the whole play. Once you paint them the bigger picture, they’ll understand why [the word] is there. [This is why] we’ve not had to make drastic changes [to our plays] so far (laughs). It’s a constant dialogue. Wild Rice has been around for 15 years and growing, while the people in-charge [at MDA] change with time too.”

Provoke thought, not tempers
“We have an artistic responsibility not to put out anything that may offend people’s race, religion or political beliefs. If you’re offensive, people will stop coming to watch your play. We have to consider the audience’s feelings. We can’t be offensive just for the sake of it. As artists we are always questioning society and the status quo. I question [things like] why 18-year-olds are serving NS when they have to be 21 to vote. But we don’t provide answers and we never do. We put those hot button issues on stage so people can think.”

Accept the grey boundaries
“School didn’t teach me to think critically. Growing up in Singapore, I thought everything was black and white. Through moving overseas [to London] and doing theatre, I realised things are more often grey. I always want to see something more progressive, especially involving young Singaporeans. We’re maturing as a global city on Singapore’s 50th anniversary, and we should also be able to accommodate different voices.”  

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