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Doing the Write Thing: Stephanie Street
Stephanie Street is an actress and writer, born and raised in Singapore. She read English at Cambridge and then trained on a scholarship at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. And she has been going from strength to strength.
Her adaptation of Wuthering Heights premiered in 2015 at The Ambassadors as part of the NYT 2015 REP season. Her first play, Sisters, re-opened the Sheffield Crucible Studio — after the theatre's refurbishment — to critical acclaim. She has written numerous short pieces for theatre and radio as well as a number of short films. She has also appeared onstage and on TV.
But back here in Singapore, Stephanie has been noted as the playwright who crafted one of the most sublime plays in recent years. Dragonflies captures the mood of the moment with its themes of dispossession, xenophobia and climate change.
It focuses on Leslie, who is forced to leave the UK after Brexit and make his way back to Singapore. However, the Singapore he encounters is vastly different from the Singapore he left behind all those years ago; and he is made to question the meaning of what is home, truly.
Here, Stephanie shares all about the wonderful world of Dragonflies.
What is Dragonflies about?
In a nutshell, it's about home — what it means, how we construct it, what it might mean to lose it and a provocation to think about how we might need new definitions of home in the future.
What inspired this play? And why call it Dragonflies?
On some level, of course, all writers write what they know. That being said, there is a lot of autobiography in this play. I have led a pretty nomadic existence, I have loved ones and significant elements of my life located in the UK, Singapore and France and, at the moment, I'm lucky enough to have relative freedom of movement which allows me to cycle between these places.
But when global politics started shifting in 2015 I began wondering what the logical consequences might be of this move we see all around the world to close borders down and curb migration. What might happen to people like me, like Leslie, the protagonist of Dragonflies, if countries start kicking people out?
And then I got to thinking about our distant ancestors who were itinerant hunter-gatherers — before the agricultural revolution we were always on the move, from one season to the next, in search of greener pastures for our health and livelihood. Migration is in our DNA and yet global politics seems to be trying to stop it. I called the play Dragonflies because these tiny insects enact some of the most significant migrations of any species and so they provide a kind of wish fulfilment for me and the characters in the play.
What was the biggest lesson you learnt from writing Dragonflies?
I started writing the play as a cautionary tale of sorts but of course, I realise, as real-life has unfolded into the projected time frame of the play, that in fact, the fiction I created is not at all far from reality. I am by nature something of a catastrophiser and so projecting riots and climate crises was not a stretch for me. Optimism, however, is not my comfortable place.
This play taught me the valuable lesson that, more than ever before, we need hope in our art. We as artists need to do much more than hold a mirror up to nature — we need to create a glass that reflects possibility and options and choices.
Were there any challenges writing this play? What was the biggest one? And how did you get over such humps?
For me, the biggest challenge is finding time and headspace to write. I have two young children and my son was born between drafts one and two of this play. I listen with envy to writers who share insights into their writing rituals: retreating to a private space with a row of neatly sharpened pencils, etc ... All my writing happens over sleeping children in bed, between the hours of midnight and three am.
Also, the fact that so many people are involved in the making of a piece of theatre means that the drafts are not just for you the writer — deadlines are there for a whole team of creatives, so I couldn't sit about waiting for my muse to descend; I had to just get stuff down. There is something strangely galvanising about that!
Has your career in acting helped in your writing process? How?
I've learned pretty much all I know as a writer from acting. I have barely done any "classical" work. Instead, my work as an actress has been almost solely in new work and so I have had the enormous privilege of being part of the evolution of new plays by some of the UK's most celebrated playwrights: David Hare, James Graham, Steve Waters, Alia Bano.
To see how these writers shape and refine their work over the course of rehearsals and preview performances has taught me everything — that theatre is about collaboration (between all the creatives and then finally between us and the audience), that the text of a play is not a finite thing set in stone, that a play doesn't fully live on the page but only really exists in being said out loud.
The play references hot topics when you wrote it in 2016/17 — Trump, Brexit, racism, etc. Years later, Dragonflies seems almost prophetic. Do you think it's more relevant now?
I feel terribly sad when I see where the world is at the moment — we seem to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into isolationism and xenophobia. Yes, much of what I projected back in 2016 has come to pass — we don't appear to be taking many lessons on board. My biggest fear if for the future of the planet. The climate crisis is a threat to life as we know it much bigger than any political movement. The one note of hope that's been struck since I wrote the play is the global intervention of Greta Thunberg and her climate strikes. She has mobilised the young generation into taking action against climate change and I hope that leads us to somewhere more positive.
“Where do we go from here?” is the pertinent question posed by Dragonflies. What is your take on this?
Lots of factors will force humans to move, to migrate, in the years that come: economic, environmental, political. Wherever we go, we go not as solitary beings but as families, groups, communities. I don't know where we go, but I do know that we'll go there with others and so we need to get better at accepting difference.
Even as the world descends into chaos in your play, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. What is the message you wish to convey in the play?
For me, the hope lies in our bonds, our relationships, the ties that bind us to one another. I really believe we are collective animals — we need company and attachments as much as we need food and water- so that tells me that we can find it in ourselves to care for total strangers and accept the unknown.
The play won the Best Original Script at the Life! Theatre Awards. Did you expect the play to get the success and acclaim that it did?
It meant so much to me that this play resonated with audiences in Singapore. I really hoped it would but did I expect it to? Well, no, that would have been foolish! Because I come from a very British school of theatre-making, I did worry that I would struggle to capture the spirit and idiom of Singapore theatre. I set about to craft a well-made text in the only way I know how to, and, really, fortunately, it did strike chords with theatre-goers here.
It’s your first play about Singapore, and it’s all about home. Of course, you live in the UK, but would you even consider putting down roots back in Singapore?I absolutely would! Particularly as the Brexit reality looms ever more dark and close! So much of my family is still in Singapore, including my very precious mother, and it would be wonderful for my kids to have more time with her.
Plays live in the medium of theatre, but how do you feel about publishing play scripts? What would you say to people to pick up, ahem, your book?
I would say, read it out loud. Or get together with some friends and read it together. And then ask each other lots of questions about it. Make it a live and collective experience!
Get Dragonflies now.