The good news is, Adrian Pang doesn’t need introduction. The bad? Short of a full thesis, there’s just no space to reproduce our entire conversation with him, which breezed by too quickly as we spoke about topics from his recent struggles with mental health to observations about hard work and luck’s role in the career of a jobbing actor.
To be honest, the man wasn’t quite who we expected. In front of the camera, he was focused yet attentive, and exuded an energy that waxed and waned depending on what was required. During our interview, however, he was equal parts thoughtful, candid, and insightful, with wry humour and self deprecation thrown in for good measure. On hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Here’s a man who’s dabbled in various gigs from host to TV actor, all while holding his passion (and calling) as a theatre actor close. To be outwardly expressive yet maintain deep introspection must surely be par for the course.
Pangdemonium’s latest production, Waiting For The Host, was created as an online experience. What’s that all about?
It’s been an experiment on our part, because producing a piece of work that’s specifically made to be performed and experienced online is something that goes against everything that live theatre stands for. But it’s a very strange time, so we just have to adapt, evolve, and make lemonade from lemons. Well, maybe lemonade with a bottle of vodka. (laughs)
What was the inspiration behind its concept?
Well, it was specifically done to address the lack of live performance, but ironically the piece itself is kind of meta on many levels. It’s about a group of people who are trying to put together a play online during this pandemic, so it’s a play within a play within a pandemic. So the characters are a group of amateur actors from a church, and I play their pastor who’s trying to rally his flock together, because there’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and anxiety among his congregation. He’s attempting to inspire them with a bit of hope, plus a bit of solidarity and community.
When I read the play, I thought that it’s exactly about us – the theatre community – right now. It reflects what we haven’t been able to do over the past six months because of the shutdown of theatres and live shows. And I identified with this pastor character, from his self-doubt to his self-blame of almost failing in his job.
Because you’ve been in a similar position as a showrunner of sorts…
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been running Pangdemonium with my wife, Tracie, and she’s my boss. She directs all our shows, so she’s really the brains, brawn and beauty behind the company. Over the last 10 years, it’s become my purpose, I suppose, so when this pandemic hit, it affected me a lot more than I was ready for. I thought I’d know how to handle it, you know, since we’re all in it together and just have to make the most of it. But after a few weeks, in little insidious ways, it started to affect me personally, and also myself as the co-artistic director of Pangdemonium. Tracie was handling it all a lot better, while I was slowly starting to drown in a swamp. It was like: what the hell is going on?
Does this have anything to do with the two plays that Pangdemonium was scheduled to run this year but had to postpone?
Well, yes, but having to postpone those two shows was inevitable as there was no other way that we could have salvaged the situation. And we weren’t the only company to have to do so. But the fact that theatre companies all over the world were going through it somehow offered me very little comfort. I felt lost, and went into genuine depression: I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and just felt heavy the entire day while working from home. It was a strange kind of purgatory.
I know what you mean. Working from home has felt like Groundhog Day, or just a very long week that still hasn’t ended after six months.
Absolutely. And this weight just felt heavier and heavier as the days went by. It got bad, to say the least, to a point where my family had to rally around me and persuade me to see a doctor. So I did, and I was put on antidepressants. I’m still on them to this day. So this was around June this year, and even after Circuit Breaker ended, the sense of despair only started to lift after a few weeks of being on medication and seeing a therapist. I’m speaking about it very, very candidly because it’s a very real experience for me, and I’m still going through it in many ways. If we were talking three, four months ago, I probably would have difficulty stringing a sentence together, because it was that bad.
Ironically, several past Pangdemonium productions have dealt with mental health issues.
Right. Whether it’s clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or something else. It was never a conscious effort to want to do so. I think it’s because the plays that tackle these subjects were just so compelling that I really wanted to tell their stories. It’s the idea of people going through such personal, private struggles that even their loved ones around them can’t quite understand what they’re experiencing.
The last play that we were able to do live was called The Son. And it had a line, “Sometimes love is not enough”, that really resonated with me, because mental illness is really like a physical illness. If someone has a broken arm, or pancreatic cancer, or something, all the love in the world wouldn’t make a difference: you can’t love the illness away. The most that a loved one can do is to get that person to seek professional help. And I can’t stress that enough, because it’s saved me. I mean, not to sound overdramatic about it, but theatre has kind of saved me from myself and helped me cope with real life. If not for it, I’d be even more… I guess the best word here is “lost”. That’s why when the pandemic hit, my one lifebuoy was snatched away from me, you know?
I guess Waiting For The Host was a life jacket for you then?
That, it was. I mean, there are signs of a slow reopening, and some companies are announcing live performances, albeit with limited audience numbers. We’re hoping for everyone’s sake that it’ll go well, but meanwhile, we want to do this online streaming model – this whole idea, actually – as an experiment.
What’s interesting to me is how this is not a typical play that’s performed and recorded on stage. The medium is almost the message here.
Exactly, and there’s a very poignant message here too. Without giving away any spoilers, this is just what we have to deal with right now, and we have to carry on with work, with life, with our personal relationships, and everything else the best way that we can while we wait this out. There are several layers of meaning to it, and the play actually gave me goosebumps at certain points when I first read it. We just hope that it resonates with people.
Did it ever cross your mind to just stage a “regular” play, but have it filmed and broadcasted online?
We did consider it, and we wrote to the various rights holders of several plays to ask if they’d be open to the idea of having us use cameras to capture live performances that are streamed live every single night. But they would only allow us to perform the plays live on stage. I suppose there’s a fear that once it goes online, then people can download it, and if there are other productions of this play in the future, people will have already seen them. I have been reading a few plays, and if we come across any that we know we can stream online with a multi-camera set-up, then I think we will definitely be doing that.
But for you, the greatest joy must surely come from a bona fide live performance.
Absolutely. For me as an actor, there’s no bigger buzz than that. Nothing at all.
I think many Singaporeans have been looking inwards and focusing on local attractions and activities during this period of border closures and travel restrictions. Has this happened for the theatre scene in Singapore too?
I think it goes both ways. I say this because, when we streamed a bunch of our past productions early on in the Circuit Breaker, we had quite a number of viewers from all over the world. More recently, we also put together a short film called The Pitch in collaboration with Singapore Repertory Theatre and Wild Rice. It somehow travelled across the world, and we have had people from overseas writing to us to say that they’d watched it and really enjoyed it. Theatre is a live thing, you know. Every performance is only for the people who have gathered together at a venue, and there’s a fleeting sadness to it when it’s done. The digital world has weird, porous borders though, and our works have travelled beyond our shores.
Locally, we’ve had Singaporeans expressing their appreciation for and pride in the work that we’re creating here, and telling us that they miss it a lot. The old saying that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone really applies here, so if there’s any silver lining, it’s that people are looking forward to watching what they can’t enjoy live right now. But we shall see. I think it’ll be a long road to recovery.
Indeed, especially when there’s so much you’re responsible for.
You know, we want to do the work that means something to us, but at the same time, this is how we’re taking care of the family. We also have a team to take care of as well. When I became an actor 30 years ago, I never thought that I’d have to be responsible for feeding people’s families. I mean, the reason I became an actor was just because I wanted to escape real life adult responsibilities. But life – and Tracie – had other ideas.
(laughs) And here we are. Do you still consider yourself a jobbing actor after all these years? I get the impression you shy away from endorsements and such collaborations.
There have been a couple of such things in the past, but to be honest they are just gigs to me. If any brand sees it fit for me represent it as its face, hell, I’m not shy, I’ll take it. Admittedly, there have been a couple of such offers in the past that even I was surprised by, and I may kick up a fuss if it’s something that goes against my very loose principles, but other than that, if I’m comfortable with it, it’s all good. The brutal truth is, it’s some extra college funding for my kids – I don’t see them as things that enhance my so-called value. I’m a jobbing actor, and very few endorsements have anything to do with that, so they can almost feel like gigs that slightly diminish what I am. I’ve always believed that the less of me people can read, hear, or know about, the better it probably is.
Because you can’t just take on a role like a chameleon if people know too much about you?
And because I’m just a very deeply private introvert. Unless I have something to say that is going to be helpful to anybody else, I don’t see the point of talking about myself. So it’s always been something I’m a little uncomfortable with, but it is what it is.
Story: Jamie Tan; Photographer: Wee Khim; Styling: Felix Woei; Makeup: Wee Ming using Chanel; Hair: Sean Ang using Wella Eimi; Assistance: Ivan Teo (Photography); Jamie Lee (Styling). Special thanks to Fly Entertainment.