To research her new play, Normal, playwright Faith Ng (inset below) dug into her own past, dredging up painful memories of feeling like a pariah for being in the Normal stream at school and getting excoriated by teachers for forgetting her homework.
She recalls the particularly "traumatic" experience of receiving her A-level result slip at her alma mater Nanyang Junior College.
"I did well enough to get into university, but there were people around me bawling," she says.
It is hard to imagine that the 27-year-old, who now has a Master of Arts with distinction in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and teaches playwriting at the National University of Singapore, struggled with school at a young age.
"The play came about because I was quarrelling with my husband, who carelessly asked why I was writing about 'something stupid'.
I even cried while revisiting the memories... Then I got existential and asked myself: 'What's the point? I've been through the education system. It's already over for me'," she tells Life! over a meal of beef rendang at the Goodman Arts Centre.
"But I thought of the Normal students now who might be lagging behind in the rat race and I wanted to let them know they're not alone."
On top of interviewing her old classmates and tutors, Ng, who attended a neighbourhood girls' school (she declines to disclose which one as it would make the story "too specific"), also mined Facebook, seeking out current Normal stream students and teachers.
"I wanted to know if they were treated differently... the play is about how at a young age, kids can be mislabelled and put into boxes and how it stays with them," she says.
The play's title is a wry nod to how students here with lower Primary School Leaving Examination scores are sent to the Normal stream in secondary schools and take an extra year to complete the O-level syllabus.
They are commonly seen as inferior to better-performing students who enter the Express stream.
The coming-of-age tale, which seems to mirror Ng's life, centres around two Secondary 5 schoolgirls, Ashley and Daphne (played by newcomers Claire Chung and Audrey Teong, both theatre students from School of the Arts), who grapple with the expectations of parents, teachers (played by actresses Oon Shu An and Zee Wong) and society.
Established actresses Noorlinah Mohamed and Karen Tan, who play the discipline mistress and principal respectively, round off the cast.
One thing Ng insisted upon for Normal was the use of Singlish by her two main leads, to properly depict the way students speak to their peers and seniors.
"This play is also about how people perform in public and the type of English we use when we speak and write. When we talk about something raw and personal, we instinctively switch to Singlish," notes the petite Ng, who speaks in simple, unaffected, Singaporean-inflected English.
Normal marks her third collaboration with Checkpoint Theatre's artistic director Claire Wong, who is directing the production.
The duo had paired up for Ng's plays, For Better Or For Worse (2013), about a failing marriage, and the inter-generational family drama, wo(men) (2010), that Ng wrote as an undergraduate. Both plays, which each took her about three months to write, won her critical acclaim and scored Best Original Script nominations at the Life! Theatre Awards.
Noting how Ng took two years to work on this script, revising it many times, Wong says: "Faith's writing is fresh and not formulaic as she starts from a personal place each time. Her characters are all three-dimensional and very different."
Oon, who takes on the part of a new teacher struggling to understand and educate her students, says: "The play is deceptively simple, but it shows a lot of us, a different world. It's precious to see it from the students' and teachers' points of view."
This article was first published on April 7, 2015.
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