Q&A – Faizal Abdullah and “Hawa”
Faizal Abdullah is the artistic director of Hatch Theatrics, a collective of theatre practitioners in Singapore. Hatch Theatrics will be bringing their award winning show, Hawa, to the Brisbane Festival this year, and we sat down to talk to Faizal about theatre in Singapore, audience reactions to Hawa, and the ways in which it tackles issues regarding religion.
Tell me a little bit about Hatch Theatrics.
We’re a loose collective of five or six of us – we decided to come together twice, three or four times a year, to present pieces of our own. We all have very diverse backgrounds – some are actors, my wife, Khai, is more of an artistic and managing director, and others are writers and directors as well as actors.
We’ve had other members before, but they’ve left because they’ve wanted to do other things. I guess we just decided that “Okay, we want to do things on our own instead of just waiting for other companies to come and approach us”. We wanted to create our own opportunities and work, and go on from there.
And so have you seen the landscape and scope for theatre in Singapore change since you started out?
Definitely, I think the landscape is always changing, but I think what’s exciting is also comparing it to what it was like when I started out. I graduated from an arts school in 2005 and then spent two years in national service, so I started practising full time since 2008. If I compare what it’s like now to ten years ago, it was more of the established companies putting on shows. You didn’t see individuals doing their own shows or people coming together. But now we’re transitioning into a period where anyone and everyone can just put on a play. I have a script; no company wants to put it up – let’s just do it myself!
The infrastructure is there, you can apply for funding. In a way, it’s easier to have your voice heard, to get your work out there, but sometimes – the quality control sometimes is not really there. Back then you’d have to work much harder, you’d have to really climb the ranks, cleaning the theatre, doing the odd jobs, and hopefully one day being able to present your script to one of the senior writers. You’d feel like you’d deserve it.
But just like everything, there are pros and cons. Sometimes you discover gems, like, “where did this person come from!?”, but sometimes the work just needs more time, more development.
Do you think that this widening of scope for theatre makers means that aspiring writers and directors have more opportunities to learn from their mistakes than before?
For us, we definitely appreciated the opportunity to learn from people, but sometimes I feel like the danger is when you get into this – I kind of – I wouldn’t say I’m from the old school, but I think that for me, the old school methods are still prevalent. There’s still a little more conservatism in me. I’m still a bit more “how good is this work, really?” and I’d still like to pass work onto people I respect and have them look at it, rather than just my friends saying “oh it’s great!”
Your peers are great if you’re feeling down, but there are senior artists and directors who are very honest, and can give you valuable opinions. It’s hard to take negative criticism, sometimes you get hurt – but I think that to improve, you need that balance, you need that negative criticism to work towards making it better. We’re quite lucky because we’ve always had people who have been very generous with their opinions on what we do. If they really like it, they will tell us, and if they don’t, they’ll also tell us and they’ll tell us why.
How did you find this play? Did you connect with it because of personal experiences, or did you feel like it was a particular story that had to be told?
I think with Hawa, we first staged it in 2014 or 2015, and then we had another staging in 2016, and this (in Brisbane) will be the third staging. The first time I came across the script was about a year and a half before it come up. It’s so unconventional, and it’s such a brave thing for the playwright to tackle. And at the time, having just written it, the playwright wasn’t sure if he should put it out. He acknowledged that it was tackling a few controversial issues, so he was a bit concerned. He was like, “I’m going to wait until I’m ready”. And then one and a half years later he said, “I think it’s time”.
So for Hatch, when we get a script I’ll read it, and then I’ll get some of my mentors to read it, and we’ll ask them for advice. The two mentors were really for the script. They kept saying that we should do it!
But when we did it, there was this whole issue of the hijab becoming more prevalent in society and some people not being able to wear it in the workplace. It’s not the main thing, part of the magic of Hawa is that the whole premise is very simple. It’s about companionship, and it’s about loyalty to one another. It’s a taboo relationship in Islam, but I think that’s when it kind of messes with our mind a little bit. When do we stop seeing the Islam and when do we start acknowledging that these two people are in a relationship? The thing that struck me from the first time I read it is that we don’t gloss over that this relationship is taboo. We acknowledge it and we accept it – that Islam doesn’t accept a homosexual relationship. But who are we as humans to persecute and punish these humans that are sinning?
It’s not our place, it’s up to God. That sums up the play very nicely, and it’s something our team feels very strongly about. There’s this wave of – I don’t want to call it Islamisation, but that’s the best way to describe it – everyone gets very righteous and is so eager and so quick to pass judgement and punish people, but that’s not who we’re supposed to be. That’s not our role as Muslims on Earth – that’s far from our responsibility.
The characters are so complex. The funeral director – he’s an easy person to hate. He’s brash, and brutally honest – but the stands he takes – he’s actually the one who has the most compassion, and is actually the most normal. But everyone in the play – they’re just trying to find their way around. That kinda sums up why we love the play.
I know that in the blurb for the show, Siti is described as a “recent convert to Islam”, but it sounds like the play is relatable for anyone, regardless of religion.
I think so, I think because the issues that she’s facing as a recent convert is just one of many things that is explored in the play. There are a lot of other issues she’s facing. She’s handling the funeral alone. She doesn’t have a support system, there’s no family, there’s no friends – it’s just her. No matter what religion, it’s a big thing, especially if you’re grappling with something you think is such a big sin. If you’re gonna do something that makes this person who has just passed on sin even more, it’s a really big thing. With our audience members, we’ve had very different reactions from Muslims and non-Muslims. Some Muslims come with a set idea of what it should be like – they know certain rituals, and all that, but the non-Muslims come in with an open mind.
After a show, I had a Muslim audience member come up to me and say, “I think your play might be misleading.” I said, “In what way?” And he said, “The funeral director is written as such a way that might make non-Muslims think that all funeral directors are like that.”
But that’s the problem with Islam. We talk about the religion, we say that it’s perfect and we preach kindness to everyone, but Muslims don’t all behave like that. Muslims are human, and they’re still prone to behaving like assholes. You should be able to separate the religion and the person. Different religions preach different things, and even though there are Buddhists, Christians, Catholics who are bad, that doesn’t mean people think the whole religion is bad.
What other sorts of audience reactions have you had?
We’ve had audience members who’ve come up with me and said that they’ve been moved even though they didn’t expect to be! It makes sense, though, because of the play is about death. And for anyone, death is such a painful and solemn thing to go through – you’re dealing with your own emotions, you’re feeling sad. But you’re also having to compartmentalise your own emotions, you have to be rational when you’re sorting out arrangements. It’s the whole process of: when do I get time to grieve, when do I get time to send my loved ones away?
So for the main character, when she has to go through that – it gets a lot of people. That’s the most common kind of reaction we’ve gotten.
I know that Singapore is a rather multilingual society – do you think the combination of language adds another dimension to the play that theatre goers in Australia may not have experienced before?
I think it’s the whole Singaporean experience! Our accent is not easy to understand. The whole team, with the actors as well, we thought about it – we discussed and debated, and we decided we needed to stay true to the characters. The funeral director will speak mostly Malay and broken English. The other characters will speak a combo of English and Malay. It’s important for it to remain that way. But there’s just some jokes that might go better with local audiences.
But the language is so closely linked to the characters, I feel, and it maintains the authenticity of how the characters think. I’ll think it’ll be an interesting experience – they might have to do a bit of neck exercise looking at the subtitles. The split is between 70-30. To give the audience the full Singaporean experience, we have to keep the language.
Is there anything else you want to say to people who might be considering coming to see the play?
Come with an open mind. When we first had the staging in 2015, I think everyone was concerned. We decided to do it, and then reality set in – we were constantly thinking, “will people accept it?” Even when a couple of people, including me, just said, “we can do it!”, we still had a few sleepless nights.
But from the moment the first show started and ended, there was so much appreciation from everyone. And then it turned out to be the collective’s first sold out show and we felt so humble and touched. So I think we learned that we should just trust the audience. And I think if the audience in Australia comes with an open mind, they’ll be in for a treat!
Hawa will be playing from 27-30 September as part of the Brisbane Festival at the Theatre Republic. Get your tickets here!