A conversation with Faith Ng, playwright

11 January 2018 - interviews

When Faith Ng’s play, Normal, was staged for the first time in 2015, it was clear it had struck a deep chord in the hearts of Singaporeans. Rave reviews were aplenty, its week-long run quickly sold out and it became—and still is—one of the most talked-about plays in Singapore. It was restaged again last year, with its 3-week run selling out.

Poignantly affecting, the play is a wonderfully nuanced and vivid exploration of the pitfalls of the Singaporean education system and the larger society. At age 13, students in Singapore are segregated based on their grades into streams called Special, Express, Normal Academic and Normal Technical (in descending order of academic performance—and prestige).

Normal is based on Faith’s own experience as a student of the Normal stream. “[It’s] a stigma that doesn’t really leave you,” she said in a 2015 interview. The play intricately explores the difficult and vital issues: the stigma, exclusion and discrimination that stem from the streaming system; its repercussions beyond school; what it means to live in a society fixated with grades; what being ‘normal’ means in Singapore; the stripping of individuality. As one reviewer aptly pointed out, “Faith’s play will continue to resonate until the lessons are learnt.”

“Theatre is a necessary and vital mirror to reflect, question and talk about the world that we live in,” says Faith. Her 2017 play, Whale Fall, explored the topic of depression. As mental health becomes a more prominent topic in public discussion, Whale Fall reminds us of the redemptive power of friendship and art in the face of sorrow and struggle.

We speak to Faith about her take on normality and failure, and her advice for budding playwrights.

The Mindful Company (TMC): What did you want to be when you were a child?

Faith Ng (FN): A florist.

TMC: What gives you energy?

FN: Spending time with my dog.

TMC: What trait do you most value in others?

FN: The ability to be fair and yet kind.

TMC: What does success mean to you?

FN: When you are able to find joy and meaning in what you do and give back to society.

TMC: Name a fear that keeps you up at night.

FN: Deadlines!

TMC: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?

FN: I can't remember the last time. But on most days, I do feel that I've failed in some way or another. It's a good thing; the pain means I'm growing, and reminds me to keep my feet on the ground and always be open to learning.

TMC: What would you tell your 16-year-old self that you wish you knew then?

FN: It does get better.

TMC: At what point in your life did you learn about playwriting? What called you to it?

FN: I took an 'Introduction to Playwriting' class taught by Huzir Sulaiman in my first year at university and was immediately drawn to the live element of theatre. There is something absolutely magical and thrilling about watching your words come to life on stage.

TMC: What’s most important to you when writing a play?

FN: Being truthful. It's harder than one would expect... It's sometimes too easy to use words to exaggerate, beautify or deny.

TMC: What inspired you to write Whale Fall?

FN: I have friends who struggle with depression, and I wanted to capture the emotions and sensations that they often experienced.

TMC: What does friendship mean to you?

FN: Knowing that wherever you are, whatever you do, or however long goes by without the both of you talking to each other (because life happens), that person has got your back.

TMC: What’s one thing about depression that you’d like more people to know?

FN: It is courage, and not weakness, when people open up about what they're going through.

Faith is wearing Courage Handwritten Reminder Chain in gold vermeil.

TMC: Normal struck a chord with many Singaporeans. What’s your take on the idea of ‘normality’ and what advice do you have for those struggling with it?

FN: Who's normal anyway?

TMC: What’s the best advice you received when you started writing plays?

FN: "Write the play that only you can write.” Wise words from Huzir Sulaiman, which I've since stolen to pass on to my students.

TMC: What’s the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?

FN: Learning to balance the time spent working in order to put food on the table, and the time I need to spend writing and working on my craft.

TMC: What are 3 things someone should consider if they’re thinking of pursuing a similar path?

FN: If you want to become rich and famous, consider another career path. The hours can be long and erratic, and writing is hard, hard work, but if you truly believe in what you do--that theatre is a necessary and vital mirror to reflect, question and talk about the world that we live in--you will find it the most rewarding thing you could ever dedicate your life to.

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