Theatre director Loretta Chen tells all about suicide attempt and $1-million debt in memoir

Theatre director Loretta Chen writes about her suicide attempt and a $1-million debt in memoir

For Loretta Chen, it does not matter if many people hate her book, Woman On Top, as long as it can help others.
For Loretta Chen, it does not matter if many people hate her book, Woman On Top, as long as it can help others. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
For Loretta Chen, it does not matter if many people hate her book, Woman On Top, as long as it can help others. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Five years after the theatre company she founded failed over debts worth $1 million, theatre director Loretta Chen is releasing a memoir, Woman On Top, featuring her side of the story.

In the tell-all book published by Marshall Cavendish, Chen, who is openly lesbian, reveals that she attempted suicide at age 25 after her first love killed herself.

"Most of the time, everyone presents his life as perfect, especially in Asia. It takes a lot of courage to say I need help," says Chen, who turns 38 in December.

The recent suicide of another good friend - she declines to give more details - prompted her to write about her struggles and short stint in an American psychiatric institution. "Even if a million people hate it, if it helps one person, I'll be happy. When I was that person, I had nothing to read."

Woman On Top retails at $23 before GST and will be in stores tomorrow. It was written with the help of professional writer Pearlin Siow, but Chen says Siow only structured the narrative. The words are all her own.

"It's not going to be the best book, I'm more of a director than a writer," she says with a laugh.

Theatre is currently taking a backseat in her life though she has a doctorate in theatre studies from the University of California, Los Angeles - her master's degree is from Royal Holloway, University of London and she did her bachelor's degree in theatre studies and English at the National University of Singapore.

Her current day job is taking care of business development for The Activation Group, which does branding and design and is run by her second brother Eric. Her oldest brother is former MediaCorp heart-throb Edmund Chen. Her father was a clerk and her mother, a housewife.

She has put on a few productions in Singapore and Toronto in the past five years but her theatre career is no longer as prominent as it was in the noughties, when she was a firebrand director staging plays such as the 2007 Toy Factory-helmed 251, about Singaporean porn star Annabel Chong, or The Vagina Monologues (2008).

The Vagina Monologues was the debut of Zebra Crossing Productions, a for-profit theatre company she started with brother Eric, costume designer Goh Lai Chan and producer Felina Khong.

The company made headlines in 2009 when it put on a lavish production of the musical Victor/Victoria starring singer Laura Fygi. However, that production did not recoup its $2.2-million cost, leaving Zebra Crossing with $1 million worth of debts and dozens of cast and crew who had not been paid.

Chen and her brother resigned publicly from the company, as did Khong. Relations fractured among Chen, Khong and Goh, who no longer work together.

Chen says: "It's like any relationship, two people get together, things don't work out, there's collateral damage and things are worse than before."

Goh and Khong are referred to by pseudonyms in Woman On Top. Asked why she did this, Chen replies: "The point was not the people involved, it was the lessons I learnt. It's almost like a Brechtian alienation device." She is referring to a theatrical style which requires the viewers to be detached from the performance.

"If anything, it's about laying it to rest and saying: This is what we learnt from it."

She has no plans to actively work again in a theatre company, though in 2011, she did form creative consultancy 360 Productions with Britain-born Jennifer Phillips. They put on a play about human trafficking, The F Word, which was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"I never want to run the risk of ruining another friendship," she says.

Given the chance to turn back time, she adds, she would not have held a press conference announcing Zebra Crossing's debts - an action she says she took because she did not want further loans to be made on the company's name. "There were people willing to lend us money to tide us over but I didn't want to take that money. It just wasn't right.

"If there's one thing I could have changed, I wouldn't have gone to the press with it. We could have gathered everybody around and had a town hall, which is what a lot of us had done before. I wanted to do what was right in the business sense but what was right in the business sense was not what the artists thought was right."

Another traumatic episode she writes about in Woman On Top is her mid-20s suicide attempt, when a love triangle went awry as she was completing her doctorate in Los Angeles.

Her first love Grace - referred to in the book by the initial "G" on her editor's advice - was then living with another woman and the girlfriend hanged herself before Grace and Chen could begin their lives together. A few months later, Grace committed suicide in the same way.

Distraught, Chen attempted to kill herself several times before checking herself into the UCLA hospital.

Family support brought her back from the brink and remains central to her life, she says. Her parents never judged her and were always kind to her girlfriends, making them breakfast and sending them to work.

Chen has lived with them since 2012 as her mother has a brain tumour and needs constant care. Her parents' relationship with each other is rocky, according to the book, but she says in the interview that her family supports the publication of Woman On Top. She adds: "That's why I can honestly say that I am who I am because they support me regardless."

The final big revelation in Woman On Top comes at the start of chapter 2, in which Chen says she recently began dating men as well as women.

"At 36, I suddenly realised that I wanted to know what it's like to be a wife and mum," she says in the interview. "My parents used to fight a lot and I used to believe that it wasn't possible for two people to have a happy relationship."

She changed her mind on a trip to Bhutan where the simple life appealed, as did the "good-looking, tall, athletic men who spoke really good English".

"I was such a feminist, I still am but I have broadened my vocabulary and my world. I'm now more open to possibilities."

"I still might date a woman," she adds with a laugh. "I just want someone with whom I have a connection."

Woman On Top retails at $23 before GST at major bookstores.

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