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20 Nov 2009

Loretta Chen

Fridae speaks to Loretta Chen, Artistic Director of Zebra Crossing, and possibly Singapore's most  outspoken lesbian, about her latest production Victor/Victoria, a musical starring famed jazz singer Laura Fygi in the title role as a woman who impersonates a man to become a female impersonator.

Staged for the first time in Asia, the well known Broadway production which was based on a 1982 film Victor Victoria features gender identity, sexual orientation and cross-dressing as central themes. Despite its subject matter, it’s probably one of director Loretta Chen’s less controversial undertakings in recent years. Two years ago, she brought 251, based on the story of Singaporean porn-star Annabel Chong to stage, earning herself two Life! Theatre Awards nominations. The same year, then a member of Young PAP, the youth wing of the ruling People’s Action Party, Loretta quizzed Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew about homosexuality and censorship which led to a national discussion on the subject. And this year, Loretta was nominated as an Arts Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and in the process became Singapore's first openly gay NMP hopeful.

Not someone who accepts the status quo, Loretta is currently in the northern Thai province of Chiangmai as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity as she works towards her aim of building over 80 houses for the Thai villagers. Fridae caught her before her trip to find out more about her latest production, her thoughts on activism and if she will give it another shot at being an NMP.


æ: What about Victor/Victoria that speaks to you? Has it been something you have always wanted to do? How did you come to decide on and approach Laura Fygi to make her acting debut in the musical? 

Loretta: The idea to stage Victor/Victoria was first proposed by the Executive Producer, Felina Khong and the Company unanimously agreed that Victor/Victoria was apt as it has not been revived for over a decade. It has also never been staged in Asia. Once we decided to stage it, the quest for Victor/Victoria began. It is uncanny but it seemed as if the Universe wanted me to cast Laura. I was listening to her music one day (Yes, I am her fan!) and felt compelled to write her an email. She responded, we hit it off right away and the rest is history.

Victor/Victoria is special to Laura as it has always been her favourite musical and her dream role. It is special to Felina as it was the musical she has always wanted to stage since becoming a Producer and it is special to Zebra Crossing as it marks our one-year anniversary and our biggest outing thus far. It is a challenge to stage such a large scale musical during such difficult times – the worst since World War I. Yet, we strongly believe that art cannot stop in times of turmoil. In fact, art plays an even more crucial role in times of adversity. It makes us realise the importance of dreaming, the power of teamwork and the miracle of having faith and belief.  Victor/Victoria is essentially a musical about belief – the belief in one’s dreams and the passionate and relentless pursuit of our hearts’ desires. Most importantly, it reifies the belief that dreams can come true at any age.

æ: The 1982 film which (was based on a 1933 German film and) starred Julie Andrews as Victoria, has been described by afterelton.com as "one of the most unabashedly gay-positive movies ever made by a major studio (MGM, in this case) and even 25 years later "no other films match its balance of mainstream marketability and unflaggingly pro-gay positioning." How much do sexuality issues feature in your version and how would the audience be challenged?

Loretta: As you said, this is one of the most unabashedly gay-positive movies ever made by a major studio so it is hard to not feature the sexuality issues. The gender confusion is definitely foregrounded but it is also left up the audience how much they want to read into it. One may choose to see it as a simple “mistaken identities” comedy ala As You Like It or a masquerade comedy the likes of Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire, but a more informed audience may choose to see it as a destabilisation of gender binaries, stereotypes and enforced societal perceptions.

æ: Is there anything in particular that you hope for straight and gay audience members to ‘get’?

Loretta: The story was written in the 1980s where there was a lot of debate on AIDS and homosexuality. This is actually an iconic text that is studied in numerous liberal arts colleges worldwide. Blake Edwards (the writer, director and Julie Andrews’ husband) wanted to write a story that would unite differences in identity politics (such as sex, sexuality, race, religion, class). In fact, in the world of Victor/Victoria, all these different walks of life collide in the streets and night clubs of Paris. So if there is only ONE thing to “get”, regardless of one’s sexuality, it is the importance of acceptance, respect, love and loving who you are.

æ: What other themes are there in the musical aside from sexuality-related ones?

Loretta: Aside from the obvious sexuality and feminist theme, the musical also exposes the pressures society places upon men to have to constantly prove their manhood. In the musical, the romantic lead, King Marchan faces the dilemma of pursuing his love and preserving his masculinity. In fact, more than anything else, we can also call this “the thinking man’s musical” as it really throws a spanner in the works to force men to question the societal stereotypes they encounter in life. There seems to be a lot of pressure placed on men to perform and out-perform. Men also face the added pressure of having to be “rough and tough” and are expected to be leaders both in the home and work sphere. Victor/Victoria questions all these stereotypes and makes us realise that there is more than meets the eye and that there is really no omni-transcendent way but simply, different strokes for different folks. i.e. whatever works for the individual and/or the couple. More than anything else, Victor/Victoria highlights the importance of respecting differences and having the confidence to break the norm. This is an important lesson for everyone to embrace.

Victor/Victoria is also very special to my company, Zebra Crossing as it marks our one-year anniversary and our biggest outing thus far. It is particularly special to me as I have sacrificed much to see this production happen and I have also managed to spearhead this entire project from page to stage. It is an amazing journey that demands equal parts passion and pragmatism. It makes us realise the importance of dreaming, the power of teamwork and the miracle of having faith and belief.  Victor/Victoria illustrates my belief that we can prevail even in difficult times. It is all too easy to lose faith and wax cynical but it takes greater determination to have hope. The fact that we have been able to come this far and amass such an exceptional team is sheer testimony that we can triumph if we stay focused on our visions. Like Victor/Victoria, we also learn that a little change is sometimes not a bad thing and victory can come indeed in unexpected packages.

æ: Many Fridae readers are probably not aware that you caused a bit of a stir when you asked Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at a closed-door Young PAP Forum in April 2007 for his thoughts on homosexuality and censorship.  (Click on the related article links below.) Was that planned?

Loretta: It was “planned” in that it is an issue I always think about. My PhD entitled “Contra-Indications: Iconicity, Corporeality and Representation in Singapore Lesbian Theatre” argues precisely that in spite of our seemingly staid persona as usually indicated, we are able to be creative in Singapore – albeit within certain confines – but that is what creativity thrives on – challenges! In fact, I argue that there is a very lively gay theatre scene in spite of our seemingly Draconian rules.

But it was impromptu in that I did not think I would be selected to ask a question as there were many people in line. But I clearly made my presence felt by asserting eye contact with and also sitting right in front of the MM! In my heart of hearts, I know that Singaporeans by and large are pragmatic lot and are happy to live and let live. I have personally spoken with the Minister Mentor, various Cabinet Ministers, political and religious leaders and academics and know for a fact that many of our nation’s leaders can be open to change. However, one cannot ignore the detractors that also form a part of our community. These detractors form a vocal minority and tend to astro-turf. However, dissenting voices too must be heard, even if I do not necessarily agree with them. We can agree to disagree. To expect a nation of homogeneous opinions would be naïve. To hope for a completely unprejudiced society is idealistic but to know how to handle dissension when it does happen is pragmatic.

I am both idealistic and pragmatic but definitely not naive. So in short, I think that as a nation, we tend to err on the side of caution and progress with baby steps as a single hasty move could easily threaten the peace that we have begun to take for granted. However, we as individuals are very open to changes that challenge the status quo as Singaporeans by and large are well educated and heeled.

æ: Do you see yourself as an activist and if it's a role separate from Loretta - the theatre director?

Loretta: Yes to both questions. But while it is a separate role, it is not mutually exclusive. My politics and beliefs will definitely seep into the works I do. I would not for example, do a work that promotes homophobia, sexism or racism. My personal motto is to always take my work seriously but myself lightly. I also always work with a clear conscience, knowing that I always have the best of intentions. People who know me and who have worked with me can attest to that. Even if my actions/politics are misinterpreted and/or repeatedly questioned, it is important that one stands firm in our beliefs, principles and intrinsic sense of propriety. After all, I know we as human beings are capable of so much more. We play so many different roles and are capable of diverse, complex, and nuanced perspectives. I also am not obsessed with the end results. Of course, I always strive for the best, but I am always more focussed on the process as it is the process that enlivens, enriches and enlightens us.

æ: You became Singapore's first openly gay Arts Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) hopeful in 2009 and in the process got a lot of flak from the anti-gay camp. Will you try again in two years?

Loretta: I have aged parents who require a lot of my time and my work as a theatre director requires me to be there 24/7. But I believe that we need representation – the reason why I ran was because I felt I can’t possibly ask for representation if I don’t myself want to be a part of the process. The Arts NMP process was for me, not a call to reap harvests today but a call to plough and I wanted to make people realise that you could make a difference even if you are different! I am hopeful that more vocal, passionate and ill-represented individuals will begin to speak up for their cause. This is the true essence of democracy – an agreement to disagree and a harmonious existence of cacophonous voices. But honestly, at this point, “no”, but one should never say never.

æ: What is your vision for the gay community?

Loretta: To be inclusive, tolerant and united. But it will be an on-going challenge as we are always hardest on ourselves and our own kind.

æ: What other projects are in the works?

Loretta: I am right now writing this on the eve of my departure to Chiangmai. I am a frequent volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. I am currently working on the Jimmy Carter Build which means I have to complete building over 80 houses for the Thai villagers with international volunteers and the ex-President himself! I am also working on getting myself to Nepal where I will work with the Little Sisters Fund to promote literacy to young girls. In the theatre arena, I am currently working on a play written by one of Singapore’s leading playwrights. Sorry, I have to be a bit coy here until all details are finalised :)

æ: What's your biggest guilty pleasure?

Loretta: Designer clothes, bags and shoes. Long, firm massages uninterrupted by sms-es and manic phone calls.

æ: Tell us one of your fantasies?

Loretta: None. I believe in pursuing my dreams and living my fantasies :P

æ: Who would your dream date be if you were straight for a day?

Loretta: As a straight man, it would be Aung San Suu Kyi and as a straight woman, Barack Obama. But Jodie Foster either way, any day :)


Cast: Laura Fygi, Jake Macapagal, Matt Grey, Claude Girardi, Nicole Stinton, Shane Mardjuki, Gene Sha Rudyn, Bernie Chan, Daniel Boey, Jasmine Koh, Andrew Lua, Julie Slack, Eugene He

Dates: 9 to 29 November 2009 (No performance on 14, 16 & 23 November)
Time: 8:00pm
Duration : 2 hours 30 minutes (excluding 20-minute intermission)
Venue: Esplanade Theatre

Tickets (excl. booking fee) via SISTIC :
Wed - Sat S$160(VIP Box), S$136, S$106, S$86, S$66, S$46
Mon(9 Nov), Tues & Sun S$160(VIP Box), S$126, S$96, S$76, S$56, S$36

Please add to above price $3 Booking Fee per ticket for tickets above $20 and $1 Booking Fee per ticket for tickets $20 and below. Charges include GST where applicable. 

Reader's Comments

1. 2009-11-21 02:25  
Hey guys.. I'm part of the show!!!!!!
2. 2009-11-21 02:26  
The music, dance, acting and sets are amazing!!
3. 2009-11-21 05:31  
Three cheers, Loretta! Wow, i'm speechless. A real person. All those words, but all with meaning, and from a beautiful place, too. Thank you, thank you, thank you - you are a blossom in the desert - which is what some have called Singapore culturally, right?

Way to go! God bless... :-)
4. 2009-11-21 10:01  
loretta i love u!!
5. 2009-11-21 10:39  
Loretta makes me proud to be a Singaporean..:)

and her dream date consist of a "variety'' of races.. Burmese, African-american and a caucasian..

I love Loretta even more.. so multi racial.. lol

can a gay man love a lesbian woman? hehe
6. 2009-11-21 12:06  
@andrew: all the best on the show :D
7. 2009-11-21 16:06  
Go see Victor Victoria!
Support Loretta with our pink dollar :)
8. 2009-11-21 16:07  
you go girl!
9. 2009-11-21 17:30  
Laura Fygi is horribly miscast. MGM made a much better gender bender movie just one year after Victor/Victoria, which was the Golden Globe winning best Picture, Yentl.
10. 2009-11-24 02:52  
its britney bitch!
11. 2009-11-24 15:52  
My elder brother who works in Singapore went for this. I should ask him for a review.
12. 2009-11-25 13:59  
am desperately planning how to get to Singapore to see this.... :)
13. 2009-11-26 18:03  
Loretta! Working with her on one production a few years back, I can definitely attest to her dedication to theatre and her passion to make her voice count.

I wanna catch Victor/Victoria :D

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