On 19th November 2010, Jean Tay spoke to trainee teachers at the National Institute of Education about her motivations in writing the play, the writing process, how the play was developed and she answered questions on various aspects of her play.

Jean Tay’s background
l Is now a full time mother to two girls, but was originally an economist for 7 years following her double degree in Economics and Creative Writing from Brown University in the US. She states she did this “until I escaped my bond” and didn’t particularly enjoy it.
l Her experience of being an economist led directly into her 1997 play Plunge, about the Asian Economic Crisis – as they were the figures that she was dealing with and it was her way of processing what was happening. In Plunge, she wrote about the ‘little stories’; the stories which weren’t reported, but which were the everyday realities for Asian people at the time.
l Following this, she was attached to the SRT for a few years, during which Boom came about.

Inspiration for Boom
l Tay sees Boom very much as a sequel to Plunge – looking at how lives are destroyed by numbers and economics, but ten years on.
l She re-visited the play during a residency in London, where she was asked if she had thought about developing it. She says that she didn’t want to touch that particular play, but to consider some issues which were being raised at the time.
l En Block boom – “everything was going up in a scary, non-rational way”. There was lots of media coverage about it at the time and she feels that issues such as this can lead to small scale, individual tragedies, but which are not as obvious at the time as the big issues.
l She was inspired by two personal stories – some Straits Times coverage of the story of a lady who refused to move because she thought the spirit of her dead husband would not be able to find her if she moved and also a story in China, where some people refused to sell their house to developers, so the developers began developing around them. They were both images which stuck in her mind.
l She grew up in Farrer Park, which saw the biggest en bloc sale – and although she intended to take her daughters to see where she grew up, she never did it. She draws parallels with the currently mooted sale of Pine Grove.
l Tay’s husband is a civil servant, and he told her at the time about a real government policy whereby bodies would only be permitted 15 years in the ground before they would be dug up and moved (New Burial Policy). She says: “I thought it would be interesting to take this tack – to show its not just about the living, but also about the dead”
l Also the destruction of the National Library to become a tunnel. Many letters were written to the newspapers protesting about it. She feels that once you get rid of the physical, something is lost, even if people still have memories about it.

The writing process
l She didn’t consider the play thematically when writing it – she tends to write multi-narratives, which demonstrate different aspects of a problem.
l She feels that Boom covers both the physical/living (En Bloc sales) and the dead (Government Re-Burials) aspects of the economic boom – there are 2 or 3 layers running through the play.
l Once she had written the draft, Tay developed the play in consultation with Tracie Pang, the original director, and the SRT. They discussed what worked and what didn’t, which took a few rounds, then they brought in actors to read through it. Tay began writing it in Oct/Nov 2007, then it was eventually staged in Sept 2008.
l She comments that “theatre is a collaborative process” and that “revision is an important process” – she thinks that Boom had around 10 or 11 drafts.

Revisions to Boom
l She never intended to write a comedy, “but when the characters came to life it was”. She describes it now as “either a dark comedy or comedic tragedy”.
l She initially planned to start the play with Mother’s somber monologue with her in the spotlight, about how she was being forced to move, but this got dismissed early on. She felt it was too early to have such a scene, seeing as the audience would not yet know the character, and it would not grip them in the way she wanted to.
l As a play of multiple protagonists (Boon, Mother, Jeremiah) she had to decide who’s story she was principally trying to tell – she felt it was Boon’s story.
l Tay loves monologues – but can appreciate that on stage this doesn’t always work. Many were cut in the development process.

Why did she choose to use Singlish?
l Her decision to use Singlish was a decision she made as she “wanted to make it authentic”.
l She used a spattering of languages to authentically represent the many voices of Singapore and also how ordinary Singaporeans use language.
l Although Boom was already her most ‘Singlish’ play, it became more so because of the original actors.
l Would she translate it into Chinese? She feels something would be lost without the mixing of languages.
l Many of the actors altered things and fed back to her areas where the English (particularly Mother’s) was too good.
l When the play was staged in London, this aspect of the play was not so authentically captured, as although Asian actors were used, only two were from the Singapore/Malaysia area.
l As a result, audiences seemed to focus less on the language, and more on the relationships between the characters. They did not appreciate many of the jokes in the play.
l It showed that the play has very universal themes – such as dislocation, relationships – but not the strong Singaporean context. It is a very current play for Singapore.
l Tay says of the characters (particularly the property agents at the start of the play): “They are really the people you meet on the street – the people who annoy you”.
l “Singapore is very much about moving forward, but not looking back” – this play explores that process, and how the young often don’t think about history.

On the tree/Mother’s monologue
l Although there were stories in the press at the time about trees such as the one on Braddell road, she was not particularly inspired by this.
l She wanted to create an interesting visual message about our history and our roots – a physical thing that Mother clings to.
l Essentially Mother has to move on – there is a tragedy in the pragmatism of the ending where she is living in the new place – and it is realistic that she does so. In one version, Tay had Mother still in the house when the bulldozers came and she had been forgotten about, but she felt this was unrealistic.
l She retains the comedy in the fact that Mother takes the tree with her (her final monologue sees her perched on the tree) – she’s trying to hold onto the past, but there’s no use in it. Progress has moved everything on.
l Mother’s monologue is the heart of the play – she expresses everything she’s bottled up all the way through.

Is Act 2, Scene 20 supposed to be hopeful?
l For Mother it is very tragic – it emphasizes her loss.
l Jeremiah seems to have found some closure.
l Boon finally comes to terms with what has happened between him and his father.

What was the intention of the corpse?
l She tried to find a balance between reality and unreality, so she didn’t want him to say too much.
l He’s a voice narrating another strand of the story.
l Although on paper he seems very serious, the SRT production made him funnier and more quirky, to inject some humour into the character, by how he reacted to some situations.

Why is there so much death in Singaporean plays?
l Tay thinks playwrights have a morbid fascination with death, a kind of thinking about their own mortality.
l She also feels it reflects sadness about the value of a person’s memory.

How was the play staged?
l The Corpse – SRT had the corpse in a mound at the front of the stage throughout, which was lit up at certain times. It created a shock for the audience, but was very visually strong. The London performance had the corpse more fluid – he played other parts in the play (as Tay originally intended).
l She realized the short scenes (which she felt were essential to stop the play from dragging and interchanging between the multiple narratives) meant that there were lots of blackouts between scenes, which meant it didn’t always flow very smoothly.
l The SRT used a very realistic set – with the house to one side of the stage and the civil servants office to the other. London used a set which required more imagination for the audience.