Interview with the Playwright of The Old Woman and the Ox

After a double bill staging of two new works in 2017, The Second Breakfast Company is back yet again with a new play by yet another young playwright – 20 year old Isaiah Christopher Lee.

Isaiah’s The Old Woman and the Ox was one of the plays that was selected in an open call early last year. In this interview, we get to know a little bit more about Isaiah and  the inspiration behind the play.

2BCo: How did the play come about?

Isaiah: Well… (laughs) This work has been three years in the making; while most of the writing got done within the first year of me serving National Service (NS), I was actually toying with the idea of the Ox metaphor a year earlier. My grandmother was telling me about what it was like living in an old Singapore town, how she’d sit and watch the ox-drawn carts trundle across the dirt road. I thought that was a pretty neat image but didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time. Over the past few years, her health deteriorated and she was in and out of hospital. On days when we would visit, she’d sometimes get into heated conversations with my mother about gender and parenting. Most of my work begins with a strong visual image and a solid line, and in this case it was “tio, wa si zha bor, tang si wa em si li gai kia meh?” (translation: yes, I am a girl, but does that mean I am not your child?)

As I watched her health deteriorate, I knew that I had to embody some of her in my writing. Knowing the fragility of life, writing the people I truly love into literature is my way of honouring them. But one thing led to another; I fell in love, dated and broke up, enlisted, and still I realised that there are some things I wished I could tell my grandmother. Parts of who I am which do not deserve to be hidden away, locked up in a closet somewhere in the deepest abyss of my being.

This play began with a grandmother’s tale, but I know that it is more than that. It is everything I cannot bring myself to say in person because society seems to define revelation as synonymous with shame. (laughs) And I guess, I’m simply trying to say something good.

2BCo: How has it been like for you working on the staging of this play?

Isaiah: Unexpected. I entered the Open Call in 2017, not expecting to actually get shortlisted, let alone be selected for a staging. I didn’t think that I was clever enough. You have writers who are fantastic at dialogue and have experience working in a professional theatre since they were kids or in secondary school, but here I was, struggling with my A Levels, being told that I wasn’t good enough for the industry. When Adeeb told me that my script was selected and that the company was impressed with my work, I was speechless (laughs) no, really, you can see our WhatsApp convo. I was in Tekong when I heard that I was selected. It felt like the past eight years of theatre-making finally paid off.

On most days, I find the work we are creating beyond satisfying. But there are some “off days” when I grow increasingly frustrated at myself for being unable to write something better for my actors. I’ve grown a lot, I must say. The young people I have been so blessed to work with are full of talent and I have learnt so much about myself and about collaborative theatre-making.

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It takes a life of its own really. I wrote the work, but everyone else breathed life into the characters. (smiles) You have to come catch the work to find out what we’ve done with it. (winks)

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2BCo: Tell us something others wouldn’t know about the cast and crew!

Isaiah: We can’t focus in rehearsals. (can’t stop laughing) Or we try to, as best as we can but (laughs) let’s be honest, we are so giggly all the time. Marilyn – our ever patient and resourceful stage manager – puts up with us A LOT. Adeeb keeps winning at the category game in rehearsals, it’s so annoying, we try to defeat him. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. This might be TMI but there’s also a small clique of giggly boys who have grown too close for their own good (but I must say they’ve formed a tight bond over the last couple of months). (laughs)

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2BCo: National Service seems to feature a bit in the play – tell us about your experience in NS!

Isaiah: Erm… the absolute best?! I was the positive, hopeful enlistee who was too excited (yes I was!!) to sleep the night before. I was PES fit when I enlisted and completed my first three months of BMT in Tekong under the enhanced batch. Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I couldn’t have asked for a better BMT experience. I had commanders who were both tough and caring (shout-out to LTA Isaac, 3SG Bing Quan, 3SG Javen, 3SG Hanafi, 3SG Sholihiin); section, platoon, and company mates who just made the whole time there, un-for-get-table. I would go through so much hell with them. (pause) I would, I really would.

The air in Tekong, the environment, field camp, everything was different. On hindsight, somehow, it didn’t feel like home at first, but we made it a home with all the brotherhood and camaraderie you could ever ask for. And that’s what matters. I could go on and on about my NS life but we need to finish this interview! (laughs)

Subsequently, I went to SCS, went out of course because of a medical condition, and went to MINDEF as a **** ******* (sorry cannot say). It wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of all times, but I met some truly amazing people, learnt a lot about the administrative side of national defence, worked under pressure and time-sensitive situations; overall, ten-ten! But hey, I’m glad I’ve ORD-ed (does a little dance).

2BCo: Last but not least, and this is a question we ask everyone.. What is your ideal breakfast?

Isaiah: (inserts name of crush) KIDDING! Hmm… (thinks really hard) Probably an omelette, some sausages, and a toasty cup of tea! (laughs)

The script of The Old Woman and the Ox is now available for pre-order here: https://goo.gl/forms/fkWHdkCH8NbN3mYY2


Isaiah is a 20-year-old Singaporean playwright and poet whose works explore sex, gender and sexuality, the frailty of human relationships, and conceptualisations of the abnormal mind. He has been writing, directing and acting in plays for 8 years, including a Peranakan adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. His poem ‘Last Meal’ has recently been published in the Kindling Journal and he is currently working on his first novel. After his ORD in November, he will be reading English Literature and History of Art at university. ‘The Old Woman and the Ox’ was written while he was undergoing military training and takes inspiration from his grandmother’s stories. It is an ode to the important women in his life and to all he cannot be.

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