Recalling Mother: A post-show dialogue with playwrights, directors, and performers Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed
Noorlinah Mohamed and Claire Wong have spent the past 16 years writing, directing, and performing a show about their mothers. Recalling Mother: Her Lines, My Lines has graced not only Singapore’s stages several times since its debut in 2006, but also those in Australia and the United States.
In many ways, it has been as much a literal journey as it has been a figurative one. The play has been through five iterations since its first staging. Each time, the duo – friends since the 1980s – re-examine, “re-recall”, and recreate a piece of work that has been deeply personal.
The play recently completed a run from 15 to 18 Sep at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, commissioned as part of the venue’s 2022 season of The Studios.
Recalling Mother brings the complexity of mother-daughter relationships onto the stage and to audiences. It is a piece of living work that has grown over the years with the writers, even as their own relationships with their mothers evolve with changing times and bodies.
What has not changed over the years is the pair’s insistence on being true to what they were feeling or going through as daughters at any given time. Likely anyone who watched the first performance in 2006 would have noticed that it was, in Wong’s words, a “lighter touch”.
The possibility that their ageing mothers do not understand the play or have had a chance to watch it matters little to the creators of the play. According to Mohamed, “These don’t matter to her. But they matter to me. It is a way of speculating, from memory, a profile of her as an individual. The process has been exposing, vulnerable, and at the same time affirming, and rewarding.”
Recalling the words of a doctor when Mohamed’s mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2009, Wong shared: “The doctor said the best way of treating your mother is to honour her biography. That’s one of the impulses (of working on this play) that’s been very important to us – to honour our mothers and the complexity of our relationships with them. That’s been very meaningful for us.”
The duo took part in a post-show dialogue online on 1 Oct for an honest interaction between the writer-performers and the audience on mothers and daughters. The A List listened in, and here are some highlights from the 90-minute conversation.
On the evolution of the play from its first version in 2006 to the current iteration in 2022:
Wong: The initial impulse of making this work was communication with our mothers – the gaps and sense of not being able to say the things that we would normally be able to say in English. As time went on, there was the opportunity to reinterrogate our work.
2016 was a very stark difference in terms of what we were going through. I was suffering the loss of my father. The first-time experience of losing a parent was very difficult even though one knows and expects. I don’t think we’re ever ready to let them go. I think that coloured my perspective of my mother and wanting to do more.
The idea of the ever-shifting perspective has been a very unusual, very special part of this particular artwork that I’ve been able to create with Noorlinah. I also appreciate that we’ve been able to make this because of a very strong, shared sense of the kind of work we want to make and how we want to tell these stories. That is a lovely base upon which we’ve made our work.
On their creative process and how they decide what to present in the play:
Wong: Noorlinah and I have an understanding of how we want to approach the work. We have a certain amount of confidence and trust in the process, which I realised as I went on, is a very important aspect of making the work – not judging what we’re making, not being anxious, and just trusting and enjoying the process.
For this, we started true to the roots and just had several meals together. Met up in cafes, and talked. The writing of this work is preceded and also then fed continuously by a lot of conversations and the act of listening and allowing for time and for new stories to come up. We spent a lot of the beginning just interrogating where we were and what we wanted to say. We made a lot of notes – so many different types of issues we wanted to talk about, anecdotes we started telling each other naturally.
Then we spent time writing scenes, pulling out notes, and also sometimes just talking and recording a lot of our conversations, getting that transcribed and looking through, shifting things around and writing new things. We had a lot of material and the other aspect of this which we also were disciplined about was that we said we must read through the different scripts we’ve made through the years.
We were like two sculptors, chipping away at something. It was both a sense of the rigour of structuring and keeping the rhythm. We were very conscious of those things – rhythm, pacing, flow.
In terms of what guided us, we also wanted to capture the sense of memories and how memories are sometimes surprising. One memory triggers another that you didn’t expect, while certain memories are very obvious. We allowed that to guide us in terms of how we wanted to shape the final potpourri or mosaic of stories and experiences. Keeping a sense of conversation between two friends was something we really wanted to keep.
On the script still going through changes a week before entering the theatre:
Mohamed: The process (of producing this play) was so “porous” that I remember having to change a segment of an answer a week before we entered. One of the Checkpoint Theatre interns commented on a question in the play, and everybody turned and went “Ya, ya, you’re right.”
That was given on a Monday, and Tuesday I had to come back with a text and that became what we performed. It replaced something that I had already memorised. I had to re-memorise. But that’s the porosity of the work – because we had to be open to how the interns were our audience through the rehearsals and were receiving the piece as well. As they received, they felt committed and they too responded to you.
On whether they would consider doing a “Recalling Father”:
Wong: There was no language barrier (with my father) and the kind of world knowledge or interest that he had, we had a lot of shared interests. I think these kinds of stories would end up being very sweet. My relationship with my father… he was really such a gentle and loving father. It would be a very different kind of work. Never say never – I didn’t think we would still be doing this 16 years later. I do have stories – I’m not sure what form that would take.
Mohamed: I don’t have that relationship with a father figure. I suppose it would be a 15-minute play because those were the moments. Or it could be photographs or paintings. I can see myself creating a series of paintings of the sweeter moments I had with my stepfather and there would be enough to make several still images. We don’t talk much. We would not have a lot of text so it would be a 15-minute piece.
On whether their reason for continuing this work has changed over the years:
Wong: The first time we presented this work was at The Magdalena Project, which was a performing arts conference for women held in Singapore for the first time. Women artists from all over the world, most of whom don’t speak Malay, or Cantonese, and barely understood English. We had no subtitles. Despite them not having access to the language, all of them gave some incredible responses. They understood what it was about and that was such a lightbulb moment.
The specificity of the stories and our own experiences in this place, in this part of the world, in the language we speak or do not speak, still resonated so much. The themes were so universal – they were crying and laughing. Next iteration: no subtitles too.
Then we brought it to New York, we had a post-show reception and people started coming up just telling us their stories. That made us realise this work is opening up thoughts and spaces within our audiences and they feel they need to talk about themselves. That’s what made us realise that this is meaningful.
On the play being an ethnographic work and the links between memories of someone and love:
Mohamed: This is the fifth version of the work since 2006. The act of doing this work and the act of recalling for me has generated another set of memories which was not forgotten but had been stored somewhere in my memory palace. It’s great for me to have remembered them and they now reverberate freshly in my body.
If I ever were to do (another iteration), I do have an aspect of my mother I never spoke about – she is warrior-like and very brave, and I never remembered that about her until this year. In each moment of doing this work, I remember another aspect of my mother. We always look at our mothers as our mothers, but not really as people. I see her more and more as Bee Bee Bte Mohamed Salam, not as my mother alone. As artists, sometimes we need triggers to start thinking of something.
Wong: My father has passed on and I still feel my love for him and his love for me. That resides in memories. My mother has switched off now and I actually miss the difficult moments with her. But it’s not there. All I have to hold onto are those memories of this force that was such a big part of my life. I think, for me, this process has been understanding my love for my mother. Love is such an all-encompassing word. It’s about reviewing memories that help us understand and put together the complexity of this person that we think we know.
(Photos: Checkpoint Theatre)