An Interview with the team behind

“This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls” 

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Photo Credits: PANGDEMONIUM!

What happens when a moral line is crossed?

More importantly, what happens if your line is different from my line?

Is an apology ever enough? And what should we do moving forward?

These are some of the questions that struck me after watching Pangdemonium!’s This is What Happens to Pretty Girls.

In light of the seismic reverberation of the #MeToo movement across the globe, This is What Happens to Pretty Girls explores the ugly truths, complexities, and nuances of issues concerning consent, sexual misconduct at the workplace, victim-blaming, and toxic masculinity. Written by Ken Kwek and directed by Tracie Pang, the play is inspired by over a hundred testimonies of both survivors and perpetrators, and brings forth a myriad of challenging conversations that are much needed today.

Setting the tone by opening with Robin Thicke’s hit song Blurred Lines, the play follows the trajectory of eight characters: Amanda (Oon Shu An), a literature professor who finds herself in a flirtatious situation with an undergrad named Sean (Thomas Pang); Natasha (Tess Pang), a new employee at a promising tech firm who experiences an unexpected interaction with her superior Ray (Jamil Schulze); Lester (Adrian Pang), a machismo CEO whose encounter with his old schoolmate Charles (Paul Courtenay Hyu) opens up a traumatic past; Maureen (Pam Oei), a HR director as well as Becky (Serene Chen), an acclaimed feminist academic. As their lives intertwine through the play, I was particularly impressed by how the layers of each character were cleverly unpacked by the team. Each moment contributed not only to the emotional intensity of the play, but also served to highlight the difficulty of passing a definite judgment on the issues at hand.

While each “subplot” is provocative in its own right, I found Lester’s and Charles’s storyline to be the most thought-provoking. This is because the story debunks the stereotypes that sexual harassment and assault are exclusive to women, and at the same time addresses pertinent considerations in the era of #MeToo — what defines a masculine man? How backdated should allegations be to hold perpetrators accountable?

The set design also provided an interesting commentary on the state of our society. Made to look like the breast, buttocks and female genitalia, it was a subtle reminder that a woman’s body is subjected to objectification whether we like it or not. As a young woman myself, it was eye-opening to find myself being uncomfortable with the sight at first, only to realize later that I had become accustomed to the set as it fades into the background as the play unfolds.

Regardless of your concluding thoughts on #MeToo, the play leaves us with a gut wringing reality that the victims, perpetrators and their loved ones will continue to face the emotional toll of the assault. Entertaining yet provocative, the play will definitely leave you emotional, at the edge of your seat, and most importantly, thinking.

Here at ArtJam, we are excited to share what some of the creative team have to say about this project.

We understand that you have done many provocative topics in the past, and this time it revolves around the topic of sexual abuse inspired by the global widespread movement #MeToo. Could you share with us what are some of the specific problems or issues you were hoping to investigate through the play?

Ken Kwek (KK): MeToo covers a vast scope of issues. With this play I honed in on three specific problems: how companies and institutions fail or struggle to deal with sexual harassment; how toxic masculinity devastates both men and women; and the complications that arise between sexual partners when consent is not explicitly or sensitively discussed.

How did you come to decide on your casting process and who to cast for this play?
KK: I left casting to the artistic directors of Pangdemonium. I have great faith in the experience and judgment of Tracie and Adrian Pang, and they were in turn very consultative in the process.

We understand that you have interviewed over 100 victims who were sexually abused to put together this play. During this process, were they receptive to the interviews? Were there any experiences that stood out or affected you the most?
KK: There is a distinction between sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Not all the people I interviewed were survivors of sexual misconduct; a few had been accused of sexual misconduct. The scope of the stories I heard was huge. Interviewees recounted all kinds of experiences; of being flashed in public spaces, being harassed by colleagues and bosses, molested by strangers, assaulted by friends and family members, the list goes on and on. Every time I thought I’d heard it all, someone would tell yet another horrifying tale that was new. I’ll always be grateful for how candid the interviewees were. I took every story seriously, and initially, I was a little overwhelmed by how widespread and often violent survivors’ accounts were. But I also spoke to counsellors who deal with sexual trauma, and over time I learnt how to cope with the gravity of the problem without letting it cripple the creative process.

Is the play a performance inspired by specific victims whom you have interviewed or is it an entirely individually devised performance?
KK: It is not a devised performance. I distilled and composited everything I’d gleaned from the interviews into eight fictional characters and three intersecting storylines.

Without giving too much of the play away, what is the most important message you would like for the play to impart to its audience?
KK: MeToo affects all of us and we should take the movement seriously. I suspect the play is going to unnerve and possibly anger some audiences. My hope is that, one way or another, it opens up a space for discussing a bunch of difficult issues, including how institutions can better protect people from sexual misconduct, and how men can change the behaviours they’ve been socialised to think are ‘not that serious’, or as ‘boys just being boys’.

Artjam also spoke to Cast Members, Thomas and Tess Pang!

We know sexual abuse is not an easy topic to approach. What were your initial thoughts in accepting your role in this production, and has that changed through the course of preparing for this role?
Thomas: The biggest challenge here was to separate the real world, from the world in the play. One of these is something I feel strongly about, and one of these is my job. It’s made me more conscious of my duty as An artist to keep conversations open.

Tess: When I first got the call, I was shocked and excited because it’s my first time performing in a full length play, and the people I’m working with are incredibly talented. There’s a huge learning curve for me, but I’ve learned that I’m not alone. There’s a huge learning curve for all of us as we delve into these uncomfortable conversations – which is why this play is so important. Ken’s play is complex, brutal, and very real. I went into the process intimidated by the responsibility I felt to the character, Natasha – to her story, which is not just her story, but one gathered from hundreds of interviews that Ken conducted with actual survivors. When I started this process I definitely believed in the “grey area”, but as I spend more time with Natasha and the world she lives in – which is not dissimilar to our world – for me, her story becomes pretty clear. However, we are presenting these private stories to an audience to reckon with, so that they can judge the “grey area” for themselves. It’s challenging not to want to shape their perception one way or another, but that is the reality we live in. To be honest, we’re a few weeks away from the opening, and I’m still nervous! I’m nervous for myself, and for my character, who will have her story judged every night, much like survivors do. I don’t know how the audience will react, part of me doesn’t want to know, but the braver part of me wants to believe in them.

2. We heard that cast members Thomas and Tess Pang are siblings in real-life and are sharing the Pangdemonium! stage for the first time. How have your experiences been as you worked on this production together? Was anything particularly difficult, or did you learn anything new about each other?
Thomas: My sister has always been a ferocious performer. Since she’s been here, I am learning she also makes a ferocious omelette.

Tess: Working with my brother has been phenomenal! I’ve looked up to him from basically the day I was born, so to be sharing a stage with him is pretty amazing. He is a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom, and he’s very generous about sharing his insights with me. Outside of rehearsals we also spend a lot of time unpacking the script and sharing our own life experiences, and that’s been invaluable to me as well. It’s really important to have people to talk to about stories like this.

We also spoke to another Cast Member, Jamil. 

We know sexual abuse is not an easy topic to approach. What were your initial thoughts in accepting your role in this production, and has that changed through the course of preparing for this role?

My biggest consideration in accepting the role of Ray in ‘This Is What Happens to Pretty Girls’ was in the portrayal and treatment of the circumstances surrounding the incident of harassment. Ray’s particular arc is potentially the ‘greyest’ of the play, the investigation being the point where one person’s line of harassment is another’s ‘bad date’. This presents a particular challenge in its presentation as it is often very easy to look upon a situation with some level of perspective and draw a clear line between black and white, perpetrator (not always, but very often a male) and abused (not always, but very often a female). In trying to approach the text with a sense of empathy for both sides of the coin, I was coming face to face with my own judgement of the character and my fear of judgement.

This has naturally had to change in preparation for the role – it is impossible to get any work done when your own judgements stand in the way of any research or exploration. I trust the play and the circumstances presented to speak for themselves. Discussions will be had and opinions might be challenged, and that is precisely the point. This play doesn’t necessarily seek to give any answers, but rather to ask the questions necessary to facilitate further dialogue – and it is perhaps in the communication and education of harassment, both sexual and non-sexual, that we might come closer to finding solutions to this very relevant and ongoing issue.

And that’s all for now! If these answers have intrigued you and you want to see more, be sure to check out This is What Happens to Pretty Girls, which runs from 10 to 26 May. Tickets can be purchased here.