24-Hour Playwriting Competition - 2014

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Looking Back in Wonder
Dr KK Seet, erstwhile Chief Judge who has been with the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition from the very beginning, casts a retrospective glance and shares his reminiscence.

When TheatreWorks emailed me in August to enquire if I would consent to judge the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition yet again, I was absolutely in two minds. I had become habituated to a post-retirement daily schedule in which "my only plan is that I have no plan" (to cite Porter Moresby's memorable line in Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky) and which consisted in the main of eating, napping, surfing the net, watching TV, pottering around in my garden, taking long walks on Hampstead Heath, driving to remote villages in the West Country and hopping over to the European continent for the occasional vacation. Could I be coaxed out of this comfortable, hassle-free, stress-free, deadline-free, lotus-eating routine where I am no longer the indentured slave of work or time to peruse and critically appraise another cluster of competition entries, particularly after the rousing farewell I was given last year by Dr Maliki among others?

In the end, however, I acceded to TheatreWorks' request yet again, and for many good reasons. Having judged every creative writing contest in Singapore from the NAC Golden Point, the Singapore Literature Prize, Action Theatre's Theatre Idol, Hewlett Packard's Ten Minute Play Contest to the Singapore Young Dramatists Awards and the Singapore Screenplay Competition, I can say with unrivalled experience that the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition remains Singapore's longest sustaining and most challenging platform in uncovering new original Singapore plays and nascent talent. From its earlier association with TheatreWorks' Writers’ Laboratory, it has been conducted annually since 1997 and I had been privileged to be there from its inception, when the first batch of contestants was cocooned within the spartan confines of TheatreWorks' Black Box in her former premises on Fort Canning. Since then, the site has been diversified to encompass such interesting venues as the SPH News Centre with its high security, the Gardens by the Bay with its captivating flora, Clarke Quay and its inclusive river cruise, the National Library Pod with its panoramic view, Pulau Ubin in the lunar seventh month (!) and the recent choice of the Sun Yat Sen Villa, each locale provoking the creative afflatus with its iconic significance or its layers of historical and cultural memory. Apart from being sleep-deprived, contestants are saddled with the herculean task of incorporating a series of stimuli in an unforced, completely integral way into their dramatic narrative. But that's the real test of creative ingenuity: can you improvise fast as well as organically, without detriment to credibility/development of plot or to arcs of dialogue that propel the dramatic action forward, and without reducing the stimuli to inconsequential baggage or accessory, or turning them into unnecessary exposition or what in dramatic idiom amounts to a feather duster scene? At the turn of the millennium, I also judged the "Singapore 21" playwriting contest jointly organised by all the tertiary institutions. The template was modelled after the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition which to me remains the real McCoy.

Looking back, I can recount many amusing anecdotes. In the year at the Angsana Resort on Bintan Island where the focus was romance, who would have expected the last stimulus, dispatched barely four hours before the scripts were due, to be a coconut? And during the competition held on board the Superstar Virgo on a weekend cruise to nowhere, who would have expected a sudden thunderstorm to send the contestants working al fresco on the deck to scurry frantically for cover? Or the year at the Singapore Turf Club with its equestrian theme, when the game-master turned out to be... Abigail Chay? Or that occasion when IKEA superstore hosted the event and contestants could colonise different sections of the furnishings when the store officially closed, with some perched on kitchen counters and others sprawled on beds and over armchairs? The competition has had its share of familiar faces from the arts scene: Desmond Sim, Ovidia Yu, Ng Yi-Sheng (who won in consecutive years and had to be barred from entering for a spell), Christian Huber, Verena Tay, etc have all taken part in different periods. Even Inkpot theatre critics Kenneth Kwok and Matthew Lyon have been participants. We had an eight-year-old girl who wrote in long hand and whose entry proved more competent and ranked higher than her accompanying mother's. We had a bus driver in his late 60s who came without a laptop but who doggedly completed his script in good measure despite having to copy all his scribblings neatly, to whom we gave a special mention for his enterprising spirit. Another year, we had part-time playwright Bryan Tan submitting, with unprecedented bravado, a dramatic poem rather than a play as such but which so inspired the judges with its creativity it was conferred an honorary prize. As erstwhile Chief Judge, I have served, over the years, alongside Tan Tarn How, Ovidia Yu, Eleanor Wong, Desmond Sim, Natalie Hennedige, Chong Tze Chien, Koh Buck Song, Lena St George Sweet et al. However, two things have remained consistent: it has always been easy to spot the winning scripts. And it has always been exhilarating to discover new talent for the Singapore stage.

Before we can say Jack Robinson, the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition will soon be twenty. As I hand over my mantle to the next panel of adjudicators, I derive enormous solace and gratification from the fact that the competition has continued unabated over the years and this is all to the credit of TheatreWorks and her capable team, which sees fit to convene, for that one special weekend in a year, an unforgettable 24 hours when aspiring playwrights, in friendly competition as well as obvious camaraderie, sweat blood and tears in the struggle to produce the "next great Singapore play" for our ever expanding literary canon.

London, UK


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