24-HOUR PLAYWRITING – WHAT IT WAS LIKE (PART 2)

Are you still experiencing withdrawal symptoms from our 24-HOUR PLAYWRITING COMPETITION 2015? Reeling in from the exciting weekend at the Institute of Mental Health, we have received many enthusiastic responses from our participants!

Following the latest post by Wei Qi, our ambassador Iris Chia-Khanashat stepped up to the plate to share her own perspective at the competition. Read on to find out her thoughts and observations!

“Keep calm and write”. With this slogan ubiquitously spread around the grounds of IMH, I was not sure what I was in for. For starters, what a strong sense of ironic humor! Placing us within a mental health institute to weave together a mirage of illusions in the form of a play?

The idea of “having voices in my head” is now more than being multi-layered. It has become a cause of irony and present to me mixed emotions. But I was unfazed, I did not come to win, I wanted to expose myself to a brand new experience that would challenge my tenacity in writing and my brain muscles in creativity.

Enroute to IMH I was greeted with a curious look from the taxi cab driver. I had to politely tell him that I am heading there on a Saturday to participate in a playwriting competition. Not quite sure of his reaction after my explanation, I thought to myself, “ah, the competition has begun”. Heading to the venue was a good juxtaposition of how, as creative people we are often look upon as misfits and “mad” individuals. Our tendenciesto weave the impossible into strange contraptions often labelled us as “crazy”. Our fearless “un-neutral” opinions often seem to be seen as “extreme”. How are we as artists different from patients with mental challenges? When it comes to being typecast into a stereotype, not much.

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The beginning of the Playwriting Competition

After getting my competition t-shirt and meeting unfamiliar people in the area we were allowed to write in, the competition started with the first stimulus “Boss, the time has come.” Everyone looked really professional. Being a first time participant, I experienced what many would call “writer’s block”. In the next few hours, I wandered quite aimlessly around the permitted areas and observed people, objects, and sensory triggers that could be included in my play. I carried my little red notebook around and noted random words and spurts of phrases. Still, nothing came knocking on writer’s door.

Thankfully, the organisers invited us to a talk in which a recovered patient shared with us her journey to recovery. That was sobering and yet painful for me to hear. The stigma and “gritty” experiences she felt as a mental patient really tugged my heartstrings. I grappled at the themes of my play and wrestled with the decision of making her story as a basis of my play. I decided otherwise, but her powerful words and experiences became a foundation to my play. The reason was that she was part of our society, and I did not think that she is any different from us to be isolated as a subject. Instead of writing about mental health, I decided to concentrate on writing about the external influences that have made us who we are. Thankfully, I was able to start writing after the talk. The next few hours was the best flow I had in the whole competition. Everyone around me seemed to be in the flow too, typing away on his or her laptops, some even had notes with them while others like me just wrote on a whim.

Night fell and the worst part of the competition beckoned. By then I had made some friends and had also met with technical difficulties of not having enough power in my laptop. I found the other participants extremely helpful and it was as though we were united by the writer’s camaraderie that transcended words. I felt very embarrassed that I have to squeeze into a charging corner and was thankful that I was accepted. While we were waiting for the third stimulus, we had begun to discuss about our plays. We all decided to hold our horses before the third stimulus. Having stimuli in the competition formed a love/hate relationship. On one hand, it provided a great boost to continue writing, on another it can render absolute absurdity in our plays.

After the dawn of the third stimulus, which was a pile of Mamee monster snacks, another pile of monsters appeared…. “the Zzzz monsters”. By midnight a lot of us were starting to set up our sleeping bags or a spot to catch a snooze. Despite the thunderous snores in one of the rooms I managed to catch a 3 hour nap. I reckoned it was better to sleep on it and perhaps dream about new plots than continuously force myself to open my eyes while writing rubbish.

Early morning proved to be even more arduous, I ended up walking around the vicinity again, signing out of the space in hope of getting a 20mins break to eat a hot bowl of cup noodles at the 7-eleven store outside. Alas it was not meant to be as the 7-eleven would not be open till 7 am. I was left stranded, found myself downing two cups of instant coffee while I continued to write more. Miraculously the instant coffee worked, and because of the extreme ingestation of caffeine I was writing pretty random things in my play that I could only reference to the “Theatre of the absurd”. But like I had mentioned, I had no intention to win, the motivation was merely to survive the competition. In the 13th hour into the competition I experienced what any runner would feel in a marathon; boredom.

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The aftermath of more than 12 hours into the playwriting competition

The real race about this playwriting competition was finding the nuggets of interest that would propel me to write further, which was when the fourth stimulus was provided; a physical and tactile bunch of plastic trash bags that could only be kept in the air with our hands. This was almost a metaphor of the competition, would we be kept afloat or would we be left broken?

Breakfast time, and I had lost my appetite. Two more cups of instant coffee and a couple of biscuits later I was well into the last 30% of my play. I had so much caffeine that I experienced an adrenalin rush, eager to take on the last stimulus at noon. Then the last stimulus came, “a septic wound”. I froze, because that determined the end of my story. I had to rake my brains for a way to weave this into my story. It was not easy because rather than casually mentioning the stimulus I wanted to make it significant.

Last stimulus revealed by game master Becca D’bus “A Septic Wound”

The period after lunch was treacherous, many times I dozed off while typing. In fact I had begun to think that my story may end so abruptly audiences may be stumped and throw their tickets in the air. But now it wasn’t so much about winning it at all, it was to finish writing the play and survive. I signed out for another 10 mins to grab myself an iced cold bottle of carbonated drink, returned to my seat and continued writing away.

By 2:30 pm a lot of my neighbors had completed writing their plays. I ended up proofreading my play and found countless nonsensical plot twists written in sleep deprivation stupor. 3:00 pm struck and I finally put an end to my play. We went on to submit our plays and felt very relieved and excited. The few friends that I made read each other’s plays and were amazed by the variety the 5 stimuli could provide. We exchanged numbers and congratulated each other on surviving this momentous 24 hours, where we shared our love for writing and weaving stories. Unknowingly we had stepped into a community of writers, and what a cathartic experience it has been. Not that we were any less “pure” to start with, rather, we were purged from our unbelief, self-doubt and lack of confidence. We all stood victorious holding a piece of script written in 24 hours and a certificate of participation. Indeed we kept calm and wrote on… and on. Parted but not separated, we will continue to do so in many years to come.

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