24-Hour Playwriting – What It Was Like (Part 1)

Over the last weekend at the Institute of Mental Health, TheatreWorks held their 18th edition of the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition from 6 to 7 June 2015. We have two of our ambassadors, Wei Qi and Iris Chia-Khanashat hopping onboard as participants for this year’s competition. This just goes to show how our ambassadors are also active audiences for our regular TheatreWorks’ programmes!

Following their 24-hour playwriting experience, these ambassadors will bring forth a two-part series – “24-Hour Playwriting – What It Was Like”, revealing anything and everything they have encountered during the competition. These articles are NOT reviews nor do they attempt to be be reviews, rather the personal reflections of our ambassadors who are keen on sharing their arts experience with us.


In this first part, Wei Qi share her experience during the 24 hours, as a regular participant at the competition! Read on to find out more!

It sounds pretty straightforward: You have 24 hours. You write a play in those 24 hours. You write a play using the five stimuli given during those 24 hours.

But what does it really feel like?

To say it was absolutely exhilarating sounds almost too optimistic, but to say it was torture is also a little too harsh. I guess this is one of those things where you’ve got to experience it to understand it, but who would willingly subject themselves to 24 hours of non-stop writing and writing and more writing, with no bed, no sleep, no shower?

*gasps in horror*

Me, apparently. As well as over eighty other participants who spent their weekend at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). As a third-year participant myself, here’s the competition from my eyes and ears.

On 6 June 2015, the competition officially kicked off with Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, Mayor of South East District, stripping off his shirt dramatically to reveal the words: “BOSS THE TIME HAS COME” – the first stimulus of the competition, to be used as the opening line of the play.

With only five words to work with, most participants (including myself) had difficulty generating much substance in those early hours, so TheatreWorks and IMH very kindly organized a sharing session by the IMH staff to educate us on what mental illness is and what it’s really like, beyond stereotypes. Ms Chan Li Shan, a mental health advocate, also shared her own personal experiences with schizophrenia. It isn’t everyday that you get to hear a first-person account of the battle with mental illness, and I commend Li Shan for her courage in sharing her experiences. Li Shan’s story was truly inspiring to hear and is one that will stay with me for a long time to come. Listening to her story made me realise that there really is so much more beneath the surface of “mental illness” that goes beyond common misconceptions of mental illness patients being aggressive or violent, or even the perception that you can get out of it simply by “trying hard enough”. (You can’t. A chemical imbalance in the brain isn’t something you can just mentally will away). Her book, A Philosopher’s Madness, details her journey to recovery, and is definitely a piece of literature worth checking out.

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Me at the entrance of the Woodbridge Museum!

In my attempt to educate myself more on mental illness, my buddy Wai and I headed up to the Woodbridge Museum several times throughout the competition (kept open after-hours specially for us playwrights). The museum displayed all sorts of intriguing artefacts, from patient files to an old straitjacket (“We don’t use them anymore”) to old office equipment and planting tools for the garden, and even personality tests used on patients in the past. I was particularly drawn to the Szondi Test, which involves 8 cards each showing different faces – a homosexual, an epileptic, a murderer, a hysteric, catatonic, a depressive, a maniac and a paranoiac. The pictures chosen by the patient is supposed to reveal certain subliminal tendencies they may have. Looking at the photographs and the creepy stares sent chills down my spine and I couldn’t help wonder what the photo I might have chosen would reveal about me. Not the best activity to be doing at 1am in the morning, for sure. Wai’s grandfather also used to be a staff of IMH, so during our walks to the museum I got to learn a little bit more about what the patients at IMH are really like (again, debunking the myth of mental illness patients being “violent”). Needless to say, these walks to the museum left me brimming at the seams with inspiration to write a story about mental illness, or at least include it as part of my story.

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Being a repeat participant, these added experiences made possible by this year’s venue was what made this year’s competition different from previous years. Aside from the usual rush of adrenaline from churning out words onto paper in twenty four hours, I have also gained so much from the twenty four hours I spent there, be it through Li Shan’s story, the IMH staff’s sharing, the artefacts in the Woodbridge Museum, or even just being there, present, at the premises of IMH for a weekend. Even before the competition I was already excited to spend the night at IMH, even if it may sound like a rather creepy place to spend the night to some people.

Of course, while I was being distracted by my newfound interest in mental illness, I couldn’t forget about the competition at hand. The second stimulus, given to us by popular drag queen Becca D’Bus and her incredible outfits: the smell of rainbows and sparkles.

What?

Yes, I hear you. Pretty much the entire room had that same reaction the moment Becca revealed the second stimulus. What do rainbows and sparkles even smell like? This sure was one stimulus open to interpretation and sent all our creative juices working, but it would only get stranger.

At midnight Becca emptied an entire trashbag filled with Mamee Monster snacks into a pile, followed by an early morning walk to an open field outside, where she proceeded to release trash bags filled with air into the crowd of playwrights, prompting us to keep the bags afloat by hitting them like a balloon. There are a million ways to interpret and incorporate those two stimuli and participants wasted no time in adding them into their play, even sacrificing sleep to do so. I myself only slept one hour throughout the entire competition, and in my waking hours I saw many other participants writing dead into the night alongside me. Nonetheless, that’s nothing to worry about, not when the final stimulus is still looming in the distant future.

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The fourth stimulus, trying to keep the trash bags afloat!

When the last stimulus came, I was a mix of exhaustion, excitement and fear. Mostly fear, because the last stimulus always makes-or-breaks. It could potentially send you back to page one to re-write your entire script (in less than four hours)! I remember two years ago, a fellow participant had written a play set in the French Revolution, and unfortunately for him, the fourth stimulus was a radio – non-existent those times.

This year’s last stimulus was a septic wound. Not just any wound, but a septic one. What would that mean in terms of the play? Did someone have to get injured? Or was it a metaphor for something bigger?

All I knew then was that my brain was a bleeding wound fighting the infection of lethargy and I absolutely could not wait to finish my play. When I finally did, I felt this familiar sense of pride, as I do every year, clutching my finished script and Certificate of Participation in my hands.

I guess this sense of accomplishment, telling myself “YOU SURVIVED IT, TWENTY FOUR HOURS AND A COMPLETED SCRIPT!”, is why I keep coming back.

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