An undergraduate who least expected his play to be awarded a prize at the 2017 24-Hour Playwriting Competition, let alone chosen to be developed into a full performance tour, Christopher Chee holds no airs as he talks to us about The Good Farmer. In this interview, Christopher shares with us about what inspired the plot of The Good Farmer, his personal experience as an older sibling (as is his protagonist, Jacob), as well as his time working with director Grace Kalaiselvi to develop The Good Farmer into its final form.
Tell us three interesting things about yourself.
- My favourite band is The Beatles.
- I write songs although I don’t play any musical instruments.
- During my university exchange programme, I acted as a pedophile at the Copenhagen Theatre Circle’s Fringe Festival.
What other roles have you done besides playwriting?
When I was 10 I joined Chinese Opera because there was no other drama related club in my primary school. After that I went to Holy Innocents’ High School and joined the English Drama Club. I acted in every production in secondary school and Millennia Institute (MI) and started writing plays for school events such as Teachers’ Day and National Day.
Why and how did you start writing?
For National Day in MI, the teacher wanted us to produce something on our own and I volunteered to write. The National Day theme for that year was dreams so I adapted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a play about chasing material dreams like fame and wealth while overlooking your own passions… It turned out to be a bit too deep for a National Day school play.
I’m currently in NUS Stage, an English Theatre group under NUS Centre For the Arts. NUS is where I took playwriting more seriously. We’ve had a few workshops, and it was the latest one, a 10-minute play workshop where I got to really commit myself to practicing. Sometimes you just need a reason like ‘I need to submit a play by today’ to commit ourselves to write.
How did it feel when you found out you were one of the winning plays from the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition?
I was quite surprised because it was my first time participating in the competition. It was really just to challenge myself more than anything, I didn’t have any expectations. I went alone. I didn’t even know that they would be performing an excerpt from my play until it was actually happening. It was really shocking.
What inspired you to write The Good Farmer?
The very first stimulus was to open with the line “All men are created equal, but the best are born in July.” and it made me think of scenarios in which men would be born equal… So identical twins. Aside from the stimulus, my experience having grown up as an older brother contributed to the play as well. Lastly, the venue of the farm reminded me of Cain and Abel, the story in which God chose the offerings from the younger sibling over the offerings from the older one, making Abel “The Good Farmer”. So, it all connected for me.
How many siblings do you have, and what was it like growing up with them?
I have one younger brother. Sibling rivalry wasn’t something I thought much of writing the play. But when it was put down on paper and people talked with me about it I realised I was not alone with the constant comparisons. What my brother and I face are not as exaggerated as in the play but the comparisons are definitely there … He went to JC, I went to MI, that kind of thing. I didn’t do that well for my ‘O’ Levels and he did really well for everything. It’s not just me and my brother. One of my closest friends – she’s the younger sibling – questions why her older sister can’t be more mature, which made me wonder, why is there this constant expectation to be more mature just because she’s older? Ultimately, the play was a product of the ‘have beens in my life and the ‘could have beens’.
The Good Farmer touches on some social issues as well.
I’m a Sociology major, so to begin with I was quite in tune with social issues. Writing in a farm, I was aware of the threat of the land being taken back by the state. In his speech, founder of the Ground-Up Initiative Tay Lai Hock talked about how at any point in time if the state felt that the farm was not generating enough social benefits they could just end the lease and take the land back. He was quite frank about how he doesn’t have very concrete plans on how to save the farm if that happens. Also, being surrounded by our nation’s own crops reminded me on how most of us in Singapore takes sustainability for granted. So the venue of the competition turned out to be quite fertile… Pun intended.
How was the process working together with Grace (the Director) to further develop and craft your play?
December 4th is when I heard that the play was selected for the performance tour, and a couple of days after we had our first meeting with Grace Kalaiselvi. I’ve learnt a lot about directing from Grace – she’s very friendly and open to bouncing ideas off each other. I took a lot of her inputs into consideration as the script was further developed. It was after our discussions that I started rewriting the script here and there to make it more focused on the family and favouritism. For example, she highlighted early on that the scenes between father and son were the most striking, which was interesting as I had initially intended for Terence (the father in the play) to be a side character. However as I started to write more for him, his voice came out naturally, as if he was just speaking through my hands.
Descibe The Good Farmer in one sentence.
The Good Farmer is about how an interrogation sheds light on the relationship between brothers, father and son, individual and state, man and religion.
The Good Farmer is touring the South East District from 8 March to 24 March 2018.