With the Singapore International Storytelling Festival 2014 just around the corner, we wanted to get behind the scenes and into the creative process behind telling compelling, memorable stories. What better way to do so than to get acquainted with a powerhouse storyteller, writer and theatre artist – Verena Tay? Co-founder of Moonshadow Stories, Verena has been pivotal in growing storytelling as an art from in Singapore. She has also authored a collection of short stories ‘Spectre: Stories from Dark to Light’, and three collections of plays. Here, Lily Khin Vivipem gets talking to Verena Tay about her inspirations, challenges and lifelong love of stories.
LKV: When and how did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in the arts? In many ways, the decision to tread the less-beaten path must have been daunting. Especially in Asia, there seems to be a certain skepticism towards artistic careers. Was this something you grappled with? How did you reconcile and negotiate with your decision? I imagine hearing your story would give aspiring young writers a sense of affirmation and motivation.
VT: From early on, I loved words and knew I would write. What I did not know was the how, where, when.
In secondary school, I was in the Science stream. I liked biology and chemistry, disliked physics, passed E Maths and A Maths with a lot of tuition. Back then for A Levels from my sister’s example, I knew one had to dissect animals for biology – and I couldn’t see myself doing that. Hence I went into the Arts stream at A Levels because I like literature and history (not that I was aiming to get into law school which was as alien to me as physics).
In the meantime, I got bitten by the theatre bug. I did as much theatre as I could in school, didn’t do brilliantly at A Levels, and just barely scraped into university. I laid low during most of university. Then the end of my undergraduate life coincided with the rise of contemporary theatre in Singapore during the mid/late 1980s. As part of this ‘new’ wave, I performed, directed and eventually went into playwriting. I first performed in ensembles, then went into solo performance, and from there into storytelling and into the teaching of voice and speech. From playwriting, I gradually wrote more and more fiction.
Except for perhaps two years, I have never earned my living solely from one particular art form. In the earlier years, I have always had to juggle all kinds of work to support my art. Nowadays, I depend on my different artistic skills (writing/editing, storytelling, teaching of voice/speech/presentation skills/storytelling/creative writing) for a highly variegated income stream. Although it has not been easy, I have tried my best to follow my heart, knowing that I would not be able to function effectively in ‘socially acceptable’ careers.
LKV: Your extensive work in theatre, writing and storytelling points to a passion and commitment to telling stories. How do you think the medium – writing, oral – informs and influences the story? Do you prefer one medium over the other? Why?
VT: Of course, how a story comes across will depend on whether the audience is reading it or listening to it. There are certain conventions to follow when one writes a story that will make it more palatable to one’s readers. However, a written story when read aloud does not necessarily equal to a story being told. The conventions that one follows when writing a story may not be the same conventions that one follows when telling that story to a live audience. Storytelling is a live performance art form. A skilled storyteller, while remaining true to the essence of the story, will adapt the language and way of telling to each new audience — a storyteller is not a solo actor who must abide by a script. Sticking to a fixed script for a storyteller can sometimes be a deadening experience for the teller and the audience. In order to keep the audience interested, the storyteller must make the story as immediate in experience as possible and have the license to play with the story on the spot.
LKV: What aspect of oral storytelling are you drawn to?
VT: The direct and immediate relationship that is formed between the teller and the audience. In what other context nowadays can you spend time actually listening to another person heart-to-heart and face-to-face?
LKV: What are the stories that you enjoy telling?
VT: It really depends. Something quirky, yet honest.
LKV: There is a tendency to mystify the profession of a writer, an artist; people are curious to know how much of the artist informs the art that they create. How much of your identity informs the kinds of stories you tell?
VT: The most honest writing comes straight from the heart of the writer for the text will be based on some aspect of his or her personal experience, even though there will inevitably be some layers of fictionalization when writing the story. So yes, there is some correlation between the identity of the writer and the text that he/she produces.
With regards to the storyteller, it is a different case. There are storytellers who tell personal stories and there are storytellers that tell stories that they did not personally generate (e.g. myths, legends, folk tales, found anecdotes). As a storyteller, you cannot tell every story in the world, not because this will be a logistically impossible task, but because you will be drawn only to certain types of stories due to your interests and experiences in life. If you tried to tell a story that you cannot relate to in anyway, your storytelling effort will just fall flat.
LKV: In many ways, you’ve been a bearer and teller of Southeast Asian stories across the world. The immediacy and reactive nature of performing art means that the audience plays a significant part in the story. How do your experiences storytelling overseas compare to Singapore? How differently are your stories received?
VT: When telling to children, there is really not much difference between overseas or Singaporean audiences — kids just want to have fun. Adult audiences can sometimes be more discerning. They are present because they may be more interested in learning about another culture (overseas audiences) or hearing stories about specific themes (Singaporean audiences).
LKV: You conduct several workshops on writing and storytelling. I’ve noticed that a lot of them invoke a return to the senses of sorts – opening our eyes to what is around us and letting it inspire us. Is this something you practice in your creative process as well? What inspires you?
VT: Anything and everything can inspire you to create, only if you let it. So yes, that is one of the key messages that I would like to share with others if they aspire to be creative.
LKV: How do you challenge yourself?
VT: To just be. It’s so easy to get got up with dreams and aspirations, whereas the present moment is just as vital.
LKV: What’s next for Verena Tay? What are you excited for in 2015?
VT: Working on my first novel.