Culture Vulture

Plumbing the psyche for playwriting

A course on playwriting is more therapy than theory

My classmate throws a chair across the room.

We flinch. Sit blinking in shock. "What do you want from me?" he demands. "What are you staring at?"

One moment he is hurling abuse at our instructor, unleashing his inner Hulk. And, the next, he has morphed into a woman named Jessica. Then, with a snap of the fingers, he's back as the sweet teacher he is in real life, smiling shyly at us.

It's a safe space. It really is. We're just learning how to write a play.

I signed up for the playwriting course because I felt I needed to learn to write better dialogue. All the characters in my fiction sounded like me - although my book editor was kind enough to disagree. I imagined writing exercises, craft tips, analysis of speech patterns. I thought we'd be sent out to eavesdrop on people talking in cafes, at bus stops; discuss the verisimilitude of staged Singlish.

Instead, over five evenings and one full-day session last month , we sit in a circle and are put through the paces of "emotional truth" exercises. There are refreshments - wonderfully juicy ondeh-ondeh one evening that I couldn't stop wolfing down.

The staff of TheatreWorks, putting in overtime at their loft office at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, try not to interrupt our secret-dishing and soul-baring after we troop into their converted warehouse space for our Writing From The Heart class, run by Filipino playwright-novelist-artist Tony Perez.

At times, it feels exactly like group therapy. At others, like a study group (if this were the comedy series Community, I'd be Shirley, the mild mother of two with repressed anger issues).

We draw cards at random and read them out, absorbing the messages being sent to us by the random universe, the werewolf, the unicorn. We channel our shadow selves and social selves, and write monologues in their voices.

We explore our different personae, surrender to Tony's hypnotism to excavate childhood trauma and learn to recognise psychological defence mechanisms - so as to dismantle or, at least, temporarily disarm our own.

"Theatre will kill you," says Tony, tattooed and enigmatic, like a shaman or LSD guru, but also comforting and warm as a grandfather. "But it will also love you back."

Playwriting is an intense mode of writing, more so, perhaps, than essay or fiction, because its drama demands that you, the playwright, live it.

You have to live the emotions of your characters, in order to determine what they will say, how they will act. And you go through those emotions each and every time you revise your script.

The idea, then, is for us budding playwrights to tap into our experiences, dig deep into our emotions and discover facets of our personalities that could feed into the psyche of the characters we produce.

How would Linda, the bullied Malay school girl, behave if she met her Chinese playground tormentor 20 years into the future and was asked to pose as his girlfriend? My Linda, I realise, would confront him head-on and unleash a torrent of old hurts because that is just the way I am built. And she would then finish triumphantly with a speech about learning not to allow anyone to dent her self-image or defeat her - because that is the way I wish I am.

I realise I am a rather bad judge of character. When Tony dishes out scenarios and we are asked to guess what a coursemate would do, I invariably pick the option that they eschew. It shakes me a little. Here I've been, making snap judgments and assumptions of those around me, thinking I know enough about what makes people tick, in order to put them in my stories. And, like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

At the fourth session of the workshop, I strike up a conversation with a fellow participant by the curry puffs at the refreshment table.

I'm not sure I'm agreeing with the methods, he says. Surely one could arrive at the same results without such violence and rupture? I nod, slowly, my mouth full. Maybe. Maybe not.

We make lists of our Eros and Thanatos sides. Light and dark.

We draw our proudest achievements and goals.

We hold hands in a circle of trust and each agree to take responsibility for one other member in the group. We know one another's deepest darkest secrets and probably should check on each other periodically to make sure we're still sane. I'm kidding. Check on me to see if I'm still sane.

On the last day of class, we play a game in which we pass one another slips of paper which serve as votes of sorts: Who would you take to a tropical island with you? Who would you trust your house keys with? Who would you ask to lend you money?

In the end, I find out that I'm the one that my workshop co-participants would come to for sex advice and gossip. Fair enough. I probably give off that vibe. I am briefly stung, then come to the conclusion that our time together has been brief.

In the end, I realise that I can never stop performing when I'm with others. That I cultivate a persona or personae, so people can easily hang labels on me. Anything so they wouldn't forget me.

In the end, I realise that my stories go nowhere because I am the kind who lets things remain the way they are. I see the patterns and I know why people act a certain way around me, but I remain paralysed as to changing these patterns and my way of reacting to these people.

If I am willing to deal with problems directly, there is a chance that something will be unblocked, a dam will give way and a true resolution will be found - in life, as well as in fiction. Life serves art. Vice-versa. Time to mend that relationship with that estranged relative.

In the end, I realise that every sort of writing, if it's honest, will require trust on the part of the writer in his audience. The playwright is lucky, or unlucky, in that this trust can be rewarded, in thoughtful and appreciative responses, or let down, by cut-throat criticism. Should you be hurt, return to the smallest and safest circle and re-evaluate. Find the strength to go on.

• Clara Chow is a writer and co-editor of WeAreAWebsite.com, a literary and art journal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'Plumbing the psyche for playwriting'. Print Edition | Subscribe