As a student, I hated group work. Like, truly hated it. I would have been willing to do entire projects on my own if it meant I didn’t have to “discuss” or “roleplay” or “get together after class” and “exchange numbers”. You know that saying, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”? Well, I would have been okay going fast alone, slow alone, anything alone. The only thing I ever took from that saying is that doing things together slows everybody down.
(Obviously this only applies to work. Friends, family, I love you.)
Anyway, obviously I also have a lot of territorial tendencies over work. I’d rather own a piece that’s terrible than co-own a piece that’s good. I can understand and defend the integrity of my own work – harder to support something I don’t 100% understand or agree with.
Of course, now I’m 35 and I sincerely understand the value of team work, and buy-in, and patience, and I have 10 years of experience being in a job which requires a lot of communication, cooperation, collaboration, all that jazz. I have even occasionally co-written academic articles! But still. But still. I am by nature a solitary creature and co-writing Salted Egg Theatre’s second original play was always going to be – an experience.
This is the year of women’s panels in Brunei. There are so many. There is so much good in them. But also. So. Very. Much. Cringe.
Z, J and I complain endlessly about these panels. Complaints lead to creativity. We will write a satire about women’s panels in Brunei. After all, it’s time for Salted Egg Theatre’s second play.
November and we start on the first scene. Over Z’s dining table, we create four women, and write their lines in character. We’ve got an opening scene. We agree to flesh it out individually on Googledrive.
Life happens, our play grows a little dusty. Our googledrive moulders. The moss of inertia is sly and insidious and relentless. A few texts here and there. We need to get going on this. Is what we keep texting each other.
Life continues to happen. We are supposed to have produced and performed the play by now!
March and we sit down, again, over Z’s dining table. The problem with the play is that we have voices and characters but no conflict. We create conflict. Several conflicts. Now the play is a conflict. Everything is conflict. Except with each other, we assure ourselves. We’re good. It’s just the play.
We’ll work on it individually, we say, getting up from Z’s table. Me first, then J, then Z. Googledrive? Sure.
The play lapses into slumber, untouched. International Woman’s Day comes and goes. More panels. More frustration. We watch other local plays. It is June and we drag ourselves back into our own. We will finish and perform it before the end of the year, we tell each other.
December and we take out the play again. It’s all conflict. We begin the work of paring it down, paring away the sensationalism to find the heart of the story. We disagree on the heart of the story. We add, we subtract. We all want different things from this play. We can’t decide, we can’t agree. We talk, talk talk talk talk but the words on the page move only reluctantly, and not into the right places.
The play resists us. It has settled into a rocky shape of its own, bulky and sulky and stubborn. We (I) hate it but it is ours. Z says she will Alpha us and firmly she fills in the blanks that remain in our play, and we dust our hands and say – it is what it is.
We need feedback, Z says. We agree. We are too close to the play, but we know it is still too far from where it’s meant to be. We will call a table read. Hearing the play in other mouths will help. It can’t hurt.
It is the end of the year, almost Christmas, almost New Year’s. We call some friends, not the actresses, to do a table read. My dining table this time. In the time since we started writing the play, I have moved house and sent a manuscript out to be published. Z and J have had their own triumphs, their own glories. Life happened to some effect, after all.
It is amazing, it is incredible. The characters come to life and the play reveals itself. Our friends laugh as they speak the lines. We are incandescent, we bubble on our own achievement, our own cleverness. We can see now, the parts where the play doesn’t work. Our opaque, misshapen creation has grudgingly unfolded some limbs for our inspection, and ruthlessly we wrench them into shape, we shear and pound and chisel. It still feels lumpy, still too-slippery in some places and crude in others. But still, it is done and it is recognizably a play, and we are ready.
It is January and our actress friends have come on board. We have a small window of time before blackout begins. We have fixed on National Day weekend. Our actresses are memorising lines.
At the end of January, a trusted, respected friend gives us feedback on our play. “If I didn’t know better,” Friend writes, “I’d think this had been written by misogynists. But it hasn’t. So I’m really trying to understand it.”
Friend’s generosity kills us. We are in despair. Do we have time to overhaul the play. No, we say. Not before National Day. Yes, we say, we must. It’s been two years! If we wait until after blackout, we will lose momentum, we don’t know if our actresses will be available…
But we can’t put it on as it is.
Do we want to put on a good play, or do we just want to put on a play?
Both, both. We’ll make it work, we say. National Day weekend, two weeks away, it is.
It’s on, we tell the actresses. We rewrite. We have rewritten, we tell them. But give us feedback. We are all only trying, we can only guess and experiment. Tell us if it doesn’t make sense. The play opens, it flowers, words are changed and broken apart. Some moss clings, but it’s picturesque.
We lose an actress, we gain another one. The actresses rehearse together, fully, only twice, three times, before opening night. Z, J and I keep our thoughts about the play, the play, the heart of the play and the words to ourselves. They’re good, we say, of the actresses. They’re so good. They’re bringing the characters to life.
We sell out.
A makeshift theatre filled with invited women, just as it was at our first production, The Tudong Monologues. Two nights, this time. Twinkling lights and the hush of theatre. “Ladies…“ Again, that pause, that no-gap where gentlemen normally fits.
On opening night, Z and J look out for Friend’s reactions to our play. Are we still misogynists? We are anxious. But then the laughs come. And they come and come. We’ve done it. We have done it.
The play is, by our judgement, a success – we receive feedback to that effect, generous and loving and supportive. Our actresses have burned brilliantly on stage, just like the candles women and teachers are always supposed to be. I hate that, I hate how much it takes from our actresses, from us. How tired they are on the second night, and then the day after when they have to get up early and march and corral students in the bright hard sunshine to celebrate our country, so different from the glare of the lights on our pretend-stage, our pretend-Brunei.
And yet how proud I am to have seen them shine. Flickering across the stage on the waves of laughter and applause.
Two years after we began writing together and we are still friends after all. Perhaps my wryest observation of adulthood, of professionalism and growing up, is that this part was never in question during the process.
We did not go fast, but we did go far, together. Have I finally learned to love groupwork? Love is a strong word. Certain groups, certain work. There is no moral to this story, only the reflection, trite and worn and still true, that if it had to be done in this time, in this way, I’m very glad it was with them. Salted Egg Theatre Production #3…here we come.