What did you do after graduating?
I remember this phone call I received when I was in a hotel room in San Francisco. I answered the phone, and it was my friend who was a year my junior in college. She was like, “Hi, I was just wondering, what’re you doing on this day?” And I was like, I'm flying into Boston that morning. And she goes, “We’re wondering - I'm interning at The Theater Offensive now” - and I go, great – and she goes, “Do you wanna come march with us at Pride?” I said, Sure, why not? You sound like there’s a big idea behind this. And she says, “Yeah, we want you to be the bride of the Statue of Liberty”; and I was like, Ok, that sounds like cool image making, yeah, let’s do it. So I marched at Pride that day, and this other quite young woman was dressed as the Statue of Liberty. That's also when I started to really understand the power of image making. That image caught fire in a way I didn’t expect. People really wanted that photo of the Statue of Liberty with a bride who was a drag queen. Whoever dreamt that image up was hella smart.
What kind of bride were you?
I wore this rando white dress that I had pieced together. I had a veil and a pair of bizarrely pink, velvet gloves – this will make sense in a bit. So I marched through Pride, posed for a lot of photos, felt real fierce. Halfway through, Abe Rybeck, the Artistic Director of the company said to me, “What’re you doing this summer?” I said, I don’t know yet, I have a year to hang out and figure it out. And he was like, “Why don’t you come in on Monday, there’s something I might want you to work on.” Of course I said yes, and when I went in to meet with him, he said, “Would you wanna work on this thing named A Street Theater Named Desire?” Which, during my internship, I had sort of read about in the archives, but wasn’t really sure what it was.
A Street Theater Named Desire was an AIDS activist guerrilla street theatre project. Essentially, it did performances in cruising areas: late night, midnight, ‘til three in the morning. Found a stalker in that process who was, from what we could tell, enamoured with fat crossdressers and – here’s the part about the gloves – he came up to me one day on the street like, “You’re the guy with the gloves,” and I was like what? And he was like, “You’re the guy with the gloves at Pride, you were really beautiful”. I just thought, whatever. People say weird shit in the street and you don’t think about it too much. But when we were doing A Street Theater Named Desire, he kept showing up and at a point I started feeling a little unsafe about it. I guess I looked really stressed out and Abe was like, “Let me go talk to him”. And Abe came back and he was like, “Well, he lives in the park, he’s homeless. He says he’ll leave you alone” – so that was great. But y’know, when you live in a city like Boston, you’re aware that there’s homeless people and it becomes different when you realise that you’re literally performing in somebody’s home. So you don’t actually get to sit around and bitch about somebody being your stalker.
Cos you’re in their space?
You’re in their space, and maybe we don’t understand in Singapore so much this idea that a park might be somebody’s home. But I think A Street Theatre Named Desire was so important for me because it’s when I started to think very clearly about this idea – which I still believe in today – that we grossly underestimate pleasure as a means of organising. That people are attracted to what they’re attracted to, and I mean that sexually but I also mean that in terms of entertainment. There’s a way of talking about things like the arts or culture like it’s a medicine that is good for us.
Sometimes it’s just fun?
More than sometimes, the real reason people go to the theatre is that it’s pleasurable. It’s pleasurable to be around people performing some sort of narrative, virtuosic dance, or music, or whatever. Sometimes you just wanna see hot bodies. Sometimes you just wanna see beautiful people. I’m not suggesting that Benjamin Kheng is not a very talented actor, but I’m willing to bet that very often when he is cast in something, or a big part of the reason people go to it, is he’s cute. That’s more than okay. In fact, that’s a pretty good reason to go to something. As long as you’re not creepy about it.
So pleasure isn’t an entirely shallow endeavour?
It’s that we don’t allow this kind of shallowness to have power. I sound like I’m making an argument for taking influencers seriously – which I’m not – but in a way that’s what’s happening there. It is just true that people want to see pretty pictures, and the influencer market has just figured out that that can be monetized.
Wasn’t there another reason A Street Theatre Named Desire was a turning point?
It’s because of A Street Theatre Named Desire that I discovered drag. And it was because I discovered drag that I realised that I could say a lot of things I want to say in performance in a form that would at least pay for itself. Now it pays for my life, but at the time at least it wasn’t going to cost me money to do it.
Isn’t drag quite…
Expensive? Yeah, but I’m hella cheap. It’s hard to be that cheap in Singapore especially when you’re large because there aren’t a lot of inexpensive options. But in the U.S. you can go to a thrift store and pull together a look for 20 bucks. I stole a lot of wigs, I’m not gonna lie. When I was coming up in Boston, I was coming up at the same time as Katya. At Katya’s day job, she worked in a wig store called Dorothy’s, and we would steal shit. I would go in on a Sunday with a giant tote bag, almost like those black army duffle bags, and hand it to her over the counter and point at a bunch of wigs I thought were cool. I would leave with the bag full of these wigs. I remember going in one day seeing – you know there’s this Margiela, I think a tank top that’s made of silk stockings? Early Margiela artisanal – and I was like, “I wanna make one of those for myself”. I remember going in to Dorothy’s and stealing the entire rack of pantyhose. I’m not proud of it... yet I kinda am. I went home with 90 pairs of pantyhose in every colour and skin shade in between.