Playwright Zenda Tan’s Focus on Common Experiences, Shift Away from Artificial Norms in Eat Duck

It is the last weekend of Eat Duck presented by Checkpoint Theatre. Known for their circle of playwrights and writers, this is one theatre company that I particularly look out for to present new writing and local perspectives on a wide spectrum of issues. It is no surprise that they chose to stage Eat Duck by young playwright Zenda Tan, who is an actress in her own right.

Adding her voice to the theatre scene here and curious about why, Popspoken learns from Zenda the changing perspectives on “Asian Family Values” and why she writes.

Popspoken: In Singapore, it is common to discuss family within a very narrow framework. For example, the definition of family is still very nuclear and heteronormative. Do you think the arts has the power to change and expand this?

Zenda: I believe it does, but stretching the framework would require artists to cast a wider net in terms of the people we draw to our work. Even if we do produce works that challenge these stereotypes and provide visibility to peripheral narratives, they won’t be very productive if they remain within an echo chamber.

I think highlighting common experiences — common struggles and common joys, regardless of a family’s make-up — might help to shift the focus away from artificial norms.

Popspoken: What do “Asian Family Values” mean to you and how do you personally define this?

Zenda: It’s a set of ideals imposed on Asian families, probably intended to keep behaviour in check and affirm a sense of pride. Personally, I’ve never understood or resonated with the concept.

When people mention “Asian Values”, I think they refer to the way Asians are believed to exemplify principles like respect, loyalty, diligence, and filial piety, but I grew up in an Asian family and was regularly seeing and experiencing things that fell way outside of these expectations.

Regardless, why is it that it’s specifically Asians who should be striving for these things? I’m honestly not even sure what constitutes being “Asian” here. Do Asian-Americans count? What about families in Asian Russia?

Popspoken: Share with us your ideal environment for you to work on your writing.

Zenda: If the place is quiet and there’s hot tea, I’m pretty much set.

Popspoken: What is your personal definition of good writing?

Zenda: When I was studying Literature as a subject in school, a lot of emphasis was placed on our ability as students to “decode” texts such that, as an unintended outcome, I came to believe that good writing was synonymous with being dense and enigmatic.

Eventually, it became exhausting to read at all and, because I felt nothing I could come up with would be as ‘profound’ as what I studied, I stopped trying to write.

I’ve grown to value writing that welcomes readers or audience members into its meaning. This is not to dismiss ‘complex’ works as bad, or to say that readers don’t need to work at understanding texts; I just recognise now that there’s a difference between being insightful and being inaccessible.

Most of my favourite pieces of Literature are easy reads that don’t just express their understanding about something, but strive as well to be understood. 

Popspoken: Tips to get out of a writer’s block.

Zenda: It really depends on why you’re experiencing writer’s block. For myself, it’s usually one of two reasons. The first is that I have grown apathetic towards that particular piece of work and as a result am procrastinating.

In this case, I either scrap the idea completely if I have the liberty to do so or, if I have to complete it, I try to make my apathy productive; if you’re genuinely indifferent then, what do you have to lose from bashing a draft out? The second reason is the opposite where I care so much about the work that nothing I string together seems to sound right or do justice. It’s like I’m afraid of misplacing even a single word that I’m entirely immobilised.

When this happens, which is often, I open up a blank ‘scrap-paper’ document, and that’s where I allow all my coarse, bare-bone thoughts to flow out. After that, I ‘translate’ my ramblings onto the actual document that I am trying to keep clean, and this makes it a lot easier to get past the paralysis.

Writer’s block sounds like a trivial issue but it can be very frustrating and disheartening. If or when you experience it, try and be patient with yourself and your work.

Popspoken: Being an actor yourself, how [has] your experience being onstage informed your writing process when it comes to developing plays?

Zenda: My favourite scripts to read were always local ones because I loved bringing deeply familiar expressions and conversations to life. I felt most in-my-skin when I could slip into colloquialisms.

I intuited quite early on, though, how difficult it must be to write these things. I sometimes encountered lines that felt slightly ‘off’ or stilted, and soon realised that writing “local” isn’t as simple as punctuating a sentence with “lah” or chucking in the occasional grammatical error.

It’s really a whole language system in itself, and if you want to capture it as a playwright, your ear needs to be attuned to it too. This can be tricky in playwriting because it isn’t always natural to connect the written word with the spoken word.

When I was creating Eat Duck, I had to constantly remind myself that the words I was writing were not meant just to be read internally, but to be heard externally as well.

It was most effective for me to read out loud the lines I wrote and then tweak them, repeating this until they finally sounded okay. The several private readings of Eat Duck that Checkpoint Theatre organised were therefore extremely beneficial to this process, because it was during those times that I didn’t need to juggle roles anymore and could instead focus all of my energy towards editing.

I know from experience too that it makes such a difference when an actor is comfortable with their lines, so it’s been important for me to continuously be open to suggestions for line changes throughout the rehearsal process.

Popspoken: With theatre growing steadily over the years in terms of more professionals entering the scene, what other opportunities would you like to see locally?

Zenda: One of my favourite things about sitting in for the Eat Duck rehearsals is being able to see how artists of varying ages work together — not hierarchically, but as equals and professionals. It would be really interesting to see more intergenerational collaboration in the future.

Eat Duck   

Date: 29th August – 8th September 2019
Venue: SOTA Studio Theatre
Time: Thursday – Saturday, 8pm / Saturday & Sunday, 3pm
Admission: $45 (Concessions available. Get your tickets here.)

Photos courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photos: Crispian Chan.


Stay updated and social with Popspoken: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram


Explore latest trends in contemporary culture


Explore latest trends in contemporary culture