Checkpoint Theatre kicked off their 2019 season with a tender and lyrical look at life and art-making through the eyes, words and works of artist-writer Dana Lam. Still Life, which was sold out during its run, was directed and dramaturged by Claire Wong, and performed by Dana Lam and Jean Ng.
Dana first brought Still Life to Checkpoint Theatre when she attended Huzir Sulaiman’s Playwriting Masterclass in 2016. She continued to develop the work with Checkpoint’s support and a version of the script received a dramatised reading at Works in Development 2017. In 2018, the development of the work moved into Dana’s visual art studio, for several months of devising, exploring and re-writing.
Set in the intimacy of an artist’s studio, Dana examines the way we view the world, the past, and ourselves through her twin first loves of writing and painting. Taking us from the 1950s to the present, she paints a deeply personal portrait of the human condition, of falling short, and of how intimacy in relationships can fade or drift — not for want of trying.
We caught up with Dana to talk about Still Life and the inspiration behind it.
What was your inspiration behind Still Life?
I really wanted to tell my mother’s story by way of a tribute. In spite of the less than rosy relationship I had with her, I have always (even as a nine year old child) had an instinctive understanding of the place she was coming from. My mother had an unconventional life – unconventional by public standards, and the specificity of time and place.
She was in her early teens during the Second World War; sent off to work in the cabaret as a taxi dancer to support her family. Her work put her brother through school, and later to a polytechnic, even as she herself was deprived of the opportunity. In her 20s, she became some man’s secondary wife, in a time before the Women’s Charter put an end to polygamy. Her pursuit of stability and legitimacy eventually led her to marry a divorcee with five children, with me in tow.
There is a generation of women, or more, whose lives followed a similar trajectory. They were the norm, rather than the exception. All the same, even among family, their lives and their sacrifices never got the kind of recognition they deserved. Many have quite sad endings. I wanted to make these lives visible by making her visible.
Personally, I wanted to memorialise her.
Getting Still Life to where it is today took about two years – what was that process like for you?
The process has been totally immersive. I love it. It gave me the opportunity to live in that imaginative/creative space, prioritising the painting, the writing, and the preparatory work for the performance. It was, in some sense, recovery work. Recovering the inspiration, the original impulse for the writing, the skill sets, muscle memory, the vocabulary of the body, the voice, and the breath.
It was very important for me to have that amount of sustained focus and commitment. I think every artist needs it — writing and painting are solitary pursuits; you’re battling with yourself most of the time, living with your own voice in your head.
By bringing Still Life to the stage, I have been supported by so many people with their investments of time and energy. It has been an incredibly affirming experience. I never expected nor knew so much kindness and generosity would be available to me. Besides Claire Wong and Jean Ng, I cannot thank Noorlinah Mohamed enough for enabling me with the preparatory work she did with me as part of the process of training my voice for performance.
As I said, it began with me wanting to tell my mother’s story and to make her life visible. As the writing progressed, I realised it wasn’t entirely fair for me to be exposing so much of her (especially when she’s not around to defend herself!), without writing myself into the equation. Claire Wong, my director and dramaturge also gently pushed me along. It was Claire’s idea for me to take a studio for a year and to begin drawing and painting again. That fed nicely into the process because it gave me a place to go to every day to be alone with my thoughts and, I guess, my breath. I have always moved between painting or drawing and writing. Whenever I feel stuck with one, I go to the other, just to keep the mind working on that level.
Claire would come into the studio and watch me sometimes, as part of the process of devising material for Still Life. She’s very perceptive. She would tell me to continue with whatever I was doing and throw me another task such as asking me to tell her a story, any story, new or from my existing text. I would usually panic! But a line would come and then another, and I’d grasp at it. How memory works is quite astonishing.
And because memory comes more in the form of direct speech, it helped me to draw out the immediacy of the story.
You mentioned that you find the tension between still images and lived life very interesting. Could you elaborate?
There is a photograph of Mother and I (a rare one) taken in a photo studio, with our shoulders touching. We looked closer and more intimate in the photo (even though it was overly retouched) than we really were. It was as though we tried to forge an intimacy we never had through that still image.
I also hope that when you come for Still Life, you will be entertained and comforted. That you will chill, that you will cut each other (and yourself) some slack. Life is like a canvas. While some decisions will leave a mark / a scar no matter what you do, the thing is to know that the picture is always evolving. It is not the still captured by your phone camera. A painting is built up in layers. Every layer adds to the finished work. So is the lived life.