Gratitude and optimism: Lessons from battling depression that Adrian Pang wants to share with NDP 2022 audiences
The creative director for NDP 2022 also spoke about having to find the balance between retaining creative control and letting go, and how to inject the intimacy of theatre into a large-scale show.
SINGAPORE: At 56 years old, actor and theatre veteran Adrian Pang has realised that optimism is a choice.
But, he admits, it is one that he is “not normally predisposed to”.
“When the pandemic hit, I thought I was going to be okay. But very quickly, I took a turn for the worse and before I could even scramble around for my life vest, I found myself drowning. I was drowning really quickly,” he recounted to CNA.
“I was constantly being lifted up by family and friends, just trying to shove me up to the surface again. (I was) just gasping for air.”
Then just as he had learnt to tread water, Mr Pang, who is the artistic director of local theatre company Pangdemonium, was approached to be the creative director for the National Day Parade (NDP) 2022.
Having hosted the parade in 2008, it is his first time behind the scenes this year. Being creative director was never on his bucket list – in fact, he considers himself a “wild card” choice.
But Mr Pang, drawing parallels between Singapore’s battle with the coronavirus and his own fight against depression during the pandemic, found the parade theme "Stronger Together, Majulah!" resonating with his own struggles.
“I think if I had been approached in any previous year to do this, and if I had said yes, I would have struggled to know what I wanted to say. But they just happened to catch me at this time of my own journey where I felt maybe there was something worth sharing. … This is a new way of trying to look at my life to see where I am and where I’m going,” he said.
“And I think communally, this is a collective story. We have been going through a really, really difficult time together (as a nation).”
STRIKING A BALANCE, LETTING GO OF CREATIVE CONTROL
In conversation, Mr Pang often juxtaposes his natural irreverence and aversion to authority with the patriotic gig he has been tasked with that requires him to “deal with civil service sensibilities and bureaucracy”.
After all, he has had “artistic and creative control” over his work choices for almost 12 years since setting up Pangdemonium.
His theatre company is known for “telling stories that are not just for entertainment value”, he said. “We hope to make you think and feel and talk and debate and, you know, get angry. So I’ve been told not to make people angry.”
On the other hand, the work for NDP, which began about 11 months ago, required Mr Pang to “find a happy medium” while “retaining some sense of creative control”.
This balancing act has proven to take “a bit of guesswork, anticipation and a lot of hope”.
But Mr Pang remains mindful of the significance of his role, for NDP 2022 will mark the return of live performances on a grand scale after celebrations were pared back two years ago.
“As maverick as my own instincts might be, I’ve had to, to a large extent, kind of temper that for the greater good,” he told CNA.
“Nobody makes work that they hope is not liked. But you know, (Pangdemonium has) never been the kind of company that deliberately creates work or chooses specific pieces of work as crowd pleasers,” he added.
“So now, being in a position where I’m very aware that you’re creating an experience for the whole nation … it's having to approach that with a different mindset. You just have to be very cognisant and make sure as many people are taken care of as possible.”
There is a need to balance “the appetite, sensibilities and people’s needs” in this “very tricky time” when the country has been “tested in every way”, and figure out whether that means a more celebratory or conservative show, explained Mr Pang.
This often means reshaping his personal vision to accede to requests from various parties. For instance, when something in the show has to be altered, it affects every department from choreography to lighting and music.
But he has taken it in stride, aware that there are other creatives whose responsibilities are “beyond mine”.
“The point is just giving artistic freedom to these creatives as well as respecting their work and trying to align everybody's individual visions into one coherent beast. That's been a huge challenge.”
As such, the journey so far has been “a lesson in humility”.
“It’s been a lesson in listening, a lesson in trying not to swear so much. That one I’m still learning and failing. Especially not into the microphone at The Float to rally the troops,” he said, laughing.
“And it’s a lesson in … drawing the balance between ‘Listen, I need this, so can you find a way to do this?’ and ‘I don’t care what you think, I want this.’”
Reflecting on the past 11 months, Mr Pang admitted there is “quite a lot that’s really out of one’s control”, and the job required him to “let go and give in”.
“It’s many cooks trying to cook a nine-course meal. And you hope it’s pleasing to 5.8 million people. You can’t win,” he said.
“We can only hope that most people enjoy most of the courses, if not all. Chances are there will be people who are not crazy about a certain course, or even a certain ingredient or a certain serving plate … but hopefully everyone comes out of the meal feeling that they’ve had a satisfying meal that is nourishment for the heart, soul and mind,” he further told CNA in a text message.
“So I'm just going to shut out all the noise and take it with a huge sack of salt, and just try and put together the best damn show that we can.”
BRINGING THE INTIMACY OF THEATRE TO A HUGE STAGE
To that end, Mr Pang hopes to inject the intimacy from theatre into the parade show, so both live and home audiences have “something they can experience viscerally”.
“But on a stage as humongous as that, I told myself early on that it’s going to be folly to try and tell any kind of narrative on the stage, tell a little story, have actors yell their intimate lines … there’s been none of that,” he said.
“And so, a lot of the live performances would be painting broad brushstrokes of images and putting across a feeling or an idea that hopefully is clear and resonant enough for people to go, ‘Ah I see, this particular performance is all about resilience’ that kind of thing.”
Without sacrificing an intimate narrative, Mr Pang will then use film to present “intimate scenes between individuals with different locations” and “an actual storyline that would be best achieved by film”.
The film, called Connections, is written and directed by award-winning Singaporean filmmaker Ken Kwek, and will be interwoven into the performance.
“So the structure of NDP this year really has been very cleanly and neatly spread across five live chapters, interspersed by four episodes of film. To tell a big, grand, in-your-face idea and then we go into an intimate story on film.
“And then just alternating that while having a coherent and cohesive arc from the first live chapter across all the films, across all the chapters, right to the final chapter,” added Mr Pang.
On occasion, he returns to the advice of “one very wise person” who spoke to him before he accepted the gig of creative director.
This person told him to “dream a big dream, but one day you must wake up”, he recalled.
“If you don’t start with a big dream, you’re just thinking small, thinking within your box. So just start off with as wild a dream as possible. And then as reality sets in, and as one becomes much more aware of the needs of a show like this, you adapt and you convince yourself that the word compromise is not a bad word,” he said.
“As long as I am not undermining the very heart and spirit of what I wanted to create, then at least I can look myself in the mirror and go, ‘You know, the final product was not this absurd fantasy that I had envisioned, but it still achieved what I wanted it to achieve in a different way.’”
TAKING STOCK, MOVING FORWARD
Unexpectedly, the past 11 months also produced a different outcome for Mr Pang.
Being NDP 2022’s creative director didn’t just stretch him professionally. It also provoked deeper reflection of his personal revelations from the pandemic – lessons he said he might not have learnt if he hadn’t gone through a dark time.
“You just coast along and things are okay. You don’t question things, you don’t appreciate things. You’re not provoked to take stock. This has forced me to take stock and to reevaluate,” he said.
“We, as a nation, have been through a very challenging time of our lives in the last two-and-a-half years. But you have to learn some lessons from it. You cannot pretend that this period hasn’t happened. If you want to just erase it and hope to go back to normal, we would have wasted three years of our lives," he added.
“That message of gratitude for what we still have that’s good in our lives, and also moving forward with a sense of hope, a sense of optimism, with a sense of ‘I’ve grown from this difficult time’ in order to go into the future … I hope that comes across in the show.”
And despite not having felt like he was the obvious choice for creative director, Mr Pang’s reflections ultimately led him to realise the journey was for himself.
Even after his role in NDP comes to a close next month, he will continue with the uniquely challenging role of being a “better version” of himself.
“Growing up as an angsty teen and youth, I didn’t know what outlet to express myself. Probably why I became an actor. And I grew into an angry old man. But as amusing an idea as that might be, it’s not good for myself. I don’t want to be angry. … I am trying to learn some valuable life lessons from the last few years to be better,” he said.
In the meantime, Mr Pang may impart these lessons to 5.8 million people – all while putting on the best show he can.