Flashback 1998, 1999, 2005: Zoo, UE Square, SPH Building (Winner, Winner and Loser’s Version)

Yup, that’s right.  I won the competition twice – technically co-won it the second time, with a lady named Rinkoo Bhowmik – and then when I went back a few years ago, I didn’t even place.

Why did that happen?  I think it’s mostly because the average standard of writing in Singapore got better, so my crazy ideas (I’d written the ‘05 play mostly in rhyme, and it involved angels and unicorns visiting a girl in an HDB flat with a dancing computer) weren’t worth anything without substance (nothing really happened in the show).

You have to remember, back when the 24-Hour Playwriting competition actually started in 1996 or ’97 or whatever it was – help me out here, Valerie – the theatre scene here really wasn’t as developed.  No Esplanade, no Arts House, no 72-13, no Tote Fund-sponsored school excursions to see Ian McKellen.  So when the competition was launched, it really was a big deal.  An SPH reporter actually camped out through the whole competition to report what it was like.  The cartoonist Cheah did a week-long “House of Lim” comic about a character attending the competition.

’98 was probably the second competition (Bryan’s got the date wrong there).  We were housed in one of those little pavilions in some odd corner of the Zoo (there was no Night Safari then, either).  No air-conditioning.  Very few laptops – most of us were writing with paper and pen.

I slept, after a fashion, on a grass mat.  I distinctly remember the ants, the catering tins, the excursion to visit the sloth bear, and the little coterie of established people-in-the-arts that formed itself around a certain table, chattering and joking, incredibly irritating for a 17 year-old kid who wanted, earnestly wanted to be a writer.  (Marc Chan was among them.  Not sure who else.  You, Bryan?)

And of course, I remember the day of the prize announcement – how I began to suspect the best when I saw they had a metal toilet bowl as a prop on the floor, how the blood rushed away from my fingers and toes when they announced that I was the winner (the way it does during weeping and intense orgasms).  They did a reading of the entire play for us, right there and then, and staged it later that year in the “got to go: play till dawn” festival.

Since I was under 18, they awarded me the combined prize money for both the youth and the adult categories.  Ong Keng Sen and Tay Tong and everyone else at TheatreWorks learned my name and began to monitor my artistic progress.  Quite a compliment for a 17 year-old.

And this was in spite of the fact that my play, “Hungry”, was basically about a bunch of super-emo suicidal ghosts screaming and swearing and doing obscene things in the school toilet.  I’m quite embarrassed today by the way so many people, especially young people, like it, because it really is fantastically immature.

I took part in my second competition in 1999: we were pampered in UE Square because there was air-conditioning in the mall and if you didn’t like the catered food you could buy something nicer anywhere else.  There was even a shower area upstairs.

I remember the riverboat cruise, the greater proliferation of laptops, Michelle Chong filming herself as part of the reality TV show “It’s My Life, me pelting the erasers at the video cameras when they tried to film me, my laptop monitor crashing and my sister coming I to help me retrieve my document, blind, in the final hours.  My piece, “UE Square: A Temporary Fantasy”, involved an earthquake and a little girl who lived under an escalator and has never been staged.

The third competition was in 2005.  I didn’t participate in ‘00 because I’d been jokingly banned by TheatreWorks after too many victories; then from ‘01 to ‘04 I was in university.  There were full luxuries now: 24-hour air-conditioning, breakfast in the SPH cafeteria, a goodie-bag containing the works of William Shakespeare and a bag of sunflower oil.

I introduced myself to the secondary school kid next to me, and he said, “You’re THE Yi-Sheng?  Die already.  No chance.”

But in fact, I’d turned up because I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t had a new play staged in Singapore over the last four years, and my friends had been saying, “Whatever happened to Ng Yi-Sheng?  Young people are like that. No commitment.  What a waste of talent.”

I didn’t even attend that year’s prizegiving.  I realized that if I won, it’d be super pai seh for me because people would think I spoiled the market; if I lost, it’d be super pai seh for me because, well, I lost.  But in 2006 I worked with an amateur theatre group on a small project and by ’07 I was back on track.

I suppose the thing I want to communicate is that my winning the competition in ’98 – not ’99, mind you – was a lucky break for me, because it got my name out there in a time when the arts scene was young and hungry.  Now that stuff’s been more institutionalized, it’s much harder for a young playwright to break through.

So to whichever of you lucky kids out there wins this year – in fact, anyone who feels they unlocked something in themselves through this competition – you really have to grab every opportunity you get to show your work and make friends in the theatre scene and just keep on writing.

All that you get after 24 hours is a script.  And the Singapore theatre scene doesn’t just need scripts: we need playwrights.  People who’ll keep on writing for years, because they believe in it.

Ng Yi-Sheng


4 responses to “Flashback 1998, 1999, 2005: Zoo, UE Square, SPH Building (Winner, Winner and Loser’s Version)

  1. Hmm, think you’re right. It was 1998 at the Zoo, and GTG was the same year right?

    But I don’t remember the ‘in’ table. I do recall meeting Michelle there for the first time though.

    Ah, the good old days…

  2. Awesome and inspiring. Thank you 🙂 Btw, I was at the SPH competition, and I too would have said “You’re THE Ng Yi-Sheng?! Die lah, no chance already.” Lol!

  3. Hey Bryan, was Michelle already there in 1998? It was the year of GTG, yes – that’s how “Hungry” got staged at all!

    Thanks too to Grace.

    Seriously – and I know I’m putting my neck out here – I think it’d be awesome if the best scripts of the 24-hour playwriting competition were able to be performed at the Singapore Theatre Festival. It may be a little complicated because of the inter-company politics involved, but it’d give young writers a lot more exposure.

  4. HAHAHAHAH YOU STILL REMEMBERED! IT WAS ME! I WAS THE ONE NEXT TO YOU DURING 24H IN 2005!! Hahaha you started telling us your sister was a teacher in my school.

    and i was in jc lahhhhhhh. hahahah

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