As well known for his plays such as Autumn Tomyam (which won Play of the Year in the Life! Theatre Awards in 2002) as his colourful Perankan (Straits Chinese) paintings, award winning Singapore playwright Desmond Sim will stage his popular poolside drama The Swimming Instructor in Kuala Lumpur for the first time. If you thought his name to be familiar, the playwright-painter also wrote the screenplay for the award winning movie Beautiful Boxer - based on the true story of Thailand's famed transgender kickboxer Nong Toom - which was screened in more than 17 countries.
First staged in 1999 in Singapore, The Swimming Instructor has been described as a modern love triangle where a poor little rich girl and a workaholic professional young man fall in love with the same 'sexually-ambiguous' hunk – a swimming instructor.
Desmond tells more about the play and his tenth solo show OH, JOY! Happy Little Nyonyas to be shown Dec 1-13 in Singapore.
æ: The Swimming Instructor has been staged thrice very successfully in Singapore and will finally be making its way to KL audiences in December. How did it become staged in Malaysia?
Desmond: I met the artistic directors of KL Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham, in Singapore, and I was invited to send in some plays to their theatre. Fortunately for me, one of the directors at KLPAC, Chris Ling, liked the script of The Swimming Instructor a lot. Chris had missed seeing it twice in Singapore, and was happy to direct it.
æ: What motivated you to write this a decade ago? Has the play been revised over the years?
Desmond: I was swimming quite regularly then, and used to observe people at the swimming pool. I would imagine what kind of lives they had, and I was fascinated with how some of the people at the people reacted to a particularly hunky swimming instructor. It doesn’t take much to get my creative juices started. The play has had four major revisions in the last ten years.
æ: You wrote that they are doing the "darker" (more intense) version of the script which is closer to the original version. Elaborate please!
Desmond: Well, my original version of the play had a darker, sadder ending. I liked it, as it gave the play a nice spin and some weight. But some silly, incompetent critic looked at it from the shallowest angle and just saw a (potentially) gay man with a tragic life, and nothing else. Moreover, the audiences in Singapore also seemed to like a happy ending. And so, the theatre producing the play encouraged me to write one with a happy ending. The happier version was the one that has been done the most times. I am glad that Chris Ling from KLPAC has chosen to do the piece that’s closer to the original. I have re-written and added scenes specially for this version.
Stars (clockwise): Davina Goh (bottom left), Michael Chen and Niki Cheong
æ: What do you think makes this play so enduring?
Desmond: I think the fact that is it simple, naked (pardon the pun) and funny with honest human emotions - without being too arty farty. Some critics have complained that the play is too simple for their exquisite tastes in drama. Well, too bad! I write for the enjoyment and gratification of my theatregoers, not merely for posturing, artsy critics. And the audiences have not let me down all these years. To be honest, I am quite delighted that my simplest plays have actually withstood the test of time.
æ: Do you know of many gay men who have experienced falling in love (or being very attracted) to a straight male friend or a male friend whose sexuality is ‘unknown’?
Desmond: I think I could write a mini-series! I think all people, as a general rule, find forbidden fruit sweeter.
æ: Heard any stories that for one reason or another surprised you?
Desmond: Oh plenty... but you’ll have to buy a ticket to watch them at a theatre that does my next play. Ha ha. Seriously, very little surprises me these days. The human being is capable of being many things that are great and amazing... as well as downright awful. I choose to focus on the values I admire.
æ: Having been active in Singapore’s theatre and literary scene for the past 20 years, do you have any interesting observations about LGBT themed theatre or LGBT audiences, say in terms of their expectations and what kind of plays they want to see?
Desmond: I think we have seen the maturation of theatre attitudes to LGBT themes and topics. When I started seriously writing in the mid-80s, we were always worried about what could be written or what could not be staged. Today, we focus more on whether a play is well-written or not, before we worry about the sensitivity of LGBT issues in a play. That is not to say censorship is no longer an issue. It is less of an issue. My play AUTUMN TOMYUM winning Life! Theatre Awards’ Play of the Year was a watershed moment for me, as it showed that a gay themed play could merit a top award in my country.
Desmond studied Japanese art history at Sophia University in Tokyo and
American theatre and poetry Tisch School of the Arts in New York on a
Fulbright Professional Programme, and is a totally self-taught artist.
æ: Your next exhibition - your tenth solo show to be exact - OH, JOY! Happy Little Nyonyas - will be held Dec 1-13 at Utterly Art. Do you consider yourself to be more of a painter who writes plays or a playwright who paints?
Desmond: I have loved art since my secondary school days – as much as I loved writing then. They were and still are my twin passions. I am both writer and painter. Each uses a different side of the brain. I use one to escape from the other. That way, I never get exhausted from writing or painting.
æ: You seem to paint mostly women and seldom, if ever, men. Why is that?
Desmond: I paint from my Peranakan roots... and in Peranakan culture, the nyonya (female) is far more visually interesting than the men. All the beauty and wealth of the family are invested upon the woman when she is fully dressed for a formal occasion. A Baba man is amusing with his turn of tongue, but the nyonya woman is resplendent, at her best! I do paint men, lah... but not so many.
æ: What other projects are in the works?
Desmond: I have another new play, Fairy Godfather, to polish up for next year. Also am in talks to bring back this year’s popular play Manhood somewhere next year – with new and improved scenes. Also talking to KLPAC to work on a collaboration in KL next year. Plus have to start working on two anthologies of my plays – have more than 30 plays which are still not published. And I have a movie to write with a certain prolific director... the list goes on!
æ: What is your vision for the gay community?
Desmond: My vision is not just for the gay community. It is for everyone in this world - that there are no more labels or divisions in the future... straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered will all live under the same banner labelled – people.
æ: What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Desmond: Eating excellent chocolate. Oh wait. I never feel guilty about that. Hmm. Okay, buying good quality – and occasionally overpriced – cookware and kitchen stuff. Learning to cook better and loving it!
æ: Tell us one of your fantasies?
Desmond: I woke up one morning and I was George Clooney. I’d want his life. I’d make an excellent millionaire celebrity. I sure know how to spend the moolah.
æ: Who would your dream date be if you were straight for a day?
Desmond: Uhh... Ellen Degeneres.
The Swimming Instructor
Presented by klpac
Directed by Christopher Ling
Featuring Niki Cheong, Davina Goh & Michael Chen
Date: 3 - 13 December 2009
Venue : Pentas 2
Price : RM38, RM28 (Senior Citizens) & RM23 (Students & The Disabled)
OH, JOY! Happy Little Nyonyas
Date: Dec 1-13, 2009
Venue: Utterly Art Exhibition Space
229A South Bridge Road (2nd Level) Singapore