“The play (Frozen) throws out questions about responsibility, accountability, crime, punishment, retribution and remorse. It throws out questions more than it offers answers,” says Adrian Pang, Artistic Director of Pangdemonium!, who also stars in Frozen, a drama currently staged at the Esplanade.
Frozen, which also stars actresses Janice Koh and Karen Tan, details the heart-wrenching 20-year journey of anger and turmoil of 3 individuals. Nancy (Karen Tan) remains in a withdrawn state for 2 decades after her daughter goes missing, and is left with no definite closure. Agnetha (Janice Koh), a psychiatrist, brings her prejudices toward serial killers to the table. Finally, Ralph (Adrian Pang), is a sinister recluse with a past as horrific as his actions.
UrbanWire chatted with Tracie Pang and Adrian Pang, the dynamic husband-and-wife duo behind Pangdemonium!, about Frozen, their previous productions, the challenges they faced, and their expectations for the theater industry.
UW (UrbanWire): 2013’s theme for Pangdemonium was survival. What about 2014?
Adrian Pang (AP): These themes actually don’t happen completely by strategy. We just find stories that we want to tell, and they all kind of fall within a season. This year’s season was very loosely called our “misfits” season. The first show of the year was Fat Pig. That was about self-image, about people’s perceptions and prejudices that would make someone a so-called misfit. Then with Rise and Fall of Little Voice, it was about this painfully shy, reclusive girl whose domestic situation made her a real oddball. And with Frozen, gosh I mean, the misfit we’re looking at is a serial killer.
UW: That’s your character, right?
AP: Yes, he’s as much of a misfit you could possibly imagine in any civilized society. So yes, we’re looking at 3 different kinds of misfits. With Frozen, it’s probably the most extreme and sensationalist form of misfit.
UW: What have you planned for the 2015 season?
Tracie Pang (TP): The 2015 season is about transformation, about people wanting to start anew, to reinvent themselves and have a new lease of life. It’s also about communication.
In our first show (Circle Mirror Transformation), we have a group of people from different backgrounds who join an acting workshop. They’re all hoping to rediscover themselves through this workshop. With the second show (Tribes), it’s about a family whose youngest son is deaf, and he comes back from college, having met somebody who is also deaf. This person has taught him sign language, whereas he spent his whole life learning just to lip-read. So learning sign language has created a huge transformation in him, opening him up to a whole new community that has thus far been kept away from him
AP: The final piece is Chinglish. It’s about an American businessman who has got a bit of a past, and in order to reinvent himself, he goes to China to try and create a business relationship with them. That’s his attempt to try to create an identity for himself as well. I think next year’s theme of reinvention is going to resonate with a lot of people. Regardless of our situations or age, we all need a renewal, we all need to just feel like we’ve turned a corner.
You’re already talking about 2015. How long does it take to plan the shows for each season?
TP: Well, if you’re talking about looking ahead at 2016, we’ll be planning that over the next 6 months. So by mid-2015, we’d have a concept and we’ll start putting everything in place in terms of preparing the season ticket, contacting sponsors and everything else that comes on board with that.
AP: Pangdemonium!’s the only company that has a season ticket, which was launched 2 years ago. We’re going into our third year. That being the case, there’s always the pressure for us to know what we’re going to do the next year, as Tracie was saying, by the middle of the preceding year.
You’ll be rounding off 2014 with Frozen. What drew you to the play?
TP: It’s a really tough script, it’s completely different from anything we’ve done in the past. As Pangdemonium, we have a mission – we don’t like to repeat ourselves. So we‘re constantly looking for something new that excites us, that makes us go the extra mile to bring the audience something new. And we found it in this piece. The story was very interesting, the way it takes you along a 20-year journey. I don’t think I’ve seen a journey like that in a play before.
AP: It’s kind of dark and disturbing in all the ways that appeal to us. The characters are really complex, and really fascinating. Frozen mines humor in the grimmest of circumstances, which is wonderful because you really need a few laughs in a play with a subject like this. Sometimes, the characters say things that just shock and surprise you. It’s pretty grim and disturbing, but it’s also really moving. I’m just surprised how it makes you moved at the most unexpected moments towards certain characters.
There are times when certain actors might find themselves lulled into a false sense of security by working with people they’re familiar with. Adrian, you’ve worked with Ms Janice Koh and Ms Karen Tan before. What was it like working on Frozen?
AP: I don’t have friends. (laughter) Tracie will testify to that.
But yes, that was quite a while ago. I’ve worked with Janice on television, and this is our third show with her. In Swimming with Sharks, we were antagonists. That was fun, because you know, we were being nasty – downright bitchy to each other. And then with Rabbit Hole, we were husband and wife, so we had to share that bond and intimacy. But in Frozen, I’m a desperately messed-up individual. And Janice is a clinical psychologist trying to figure me out so, you know, the permutations have been very different.
TP: I think it’s interesting working with Janice. She’s such a professional, and she does all of her research before she comes in. Even when she auditioned for this [role], I needed to know that she had that x-factor above anyone else in the auditions, and that she could give me something completely new. And she was able to do that.
AP: We auditioned a few others for the role, so it was never a sure thing that we were going to have Janice. But she came in, and did that one scene, and it was just mesmerising. Because she’s very in tune with the different parts of her personality, she can be very cold and brittle, and yet allows a glimpse into her psyche – it’s quite something.
What would be your biggest challenge in this play, as a director?
TP: There’s a challenge here in connecting with our audience, when the characters don’t really connect with each other. There are many scenes done in monologue format, and you feel like you’re being told everything all the time, instead of finding it out yourself. And so, I’ve to find a way to ensure that emotionally, the audience is on board with each character, and they’re completely immersed in this piece.
What are your hopes for the theater scene?
TP: Theatre makes you commune with other people. You leave a show and you want to discuss it with the people you went with. It makes us more vibrant individuals because you know, that way we don’t go home to our own little boxes and turn on the television and not talk to anyone. I think it’s an important part of our social growth, and helps us have empathy for people who are in different situations from us. And that’s something that theater can do, that not all art forms can. We do hope that the audiences grow, and they bring more friends and are able to commune with more people, and that it becomes a growing industry.
AP: I think what Tracie and I have discovered is that there is an audience out there hungry for theater that dares to explore subjects that we ordinarily don’t want to talk about. Theatre has to be entertaining, yes, but we’re aware that thankfully, there’s an audience out there and they’ve been very loyal to what we’ve been doing.
It’s really interesting, we’re noticing a lot of young people – you’re the ones who are hungry for this kind of an experience. You’re not afraid to engage in a play, and to just embrace it. I don’t know, maybe it’s the whole growing-up process of – you have to behave in a certain way, and not act out, and not express yourself too much and maybe as a symptom of that, there is a point when you say, “You know what, I need to feel something.” There are audiences who want music, laughter, lights and costumes, which is fine. But if we’re able to offer them something that makes them think or feel exhilaration, anger, outrage, or even sadness, it’s about getting in touch with – not to be pretentious – but your soul. Why should we be afraid of that, of feeling?
A friend of ours who’s followed our work closely puts it, “I just love it when I come and see your shows, and I come out and I feel like I’m soup.” She feels like it’s completely broken her into a mess, and she loves that!
What sort of mindset should we go in with?
AP: Just to be open. Not to expect. Not to judge. And there will be people who’ll come out and want to make judgements, but a play is open to judgement. It could be a very polarizing production, but I think it’s something that might leave people with quite conflicted feelings about it, and probably still questioning how could she do that? How could he do that? Why would he do that? Why would she do that?
I hope audiences talk about it, because it deals with things that we all have to deal with in some way or at some level. What the mother in Frozen has to go through is every parent’s most horrific nightmare and I can’t even imagine being in that situation and think about how I’d behave or what I’d do if I met the murderer of my child. So hopefully, people just feel slapped around the face a little bit after watching the play.
Frozen runs till November 9 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.