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Art Design Meet Dwayne Lau, the Playwright-Performer for Wild Rice’s The Amazing Celestial Race

Meet Dwayne Lau, the Playwright-Performer for Wild Rice’s The Amazing Celestial Race

Meet Dwayne Lau, the Playwright-Performer for Wild Rice’s The Amazing Celestial Race
By Hashirin Nurin Hashimi
By Hashirin Nurin Hashimi
March 09, 2021
The theatre artist talks about the rat race of life and unsung heroes, inspired by the folk tale of the Chinese zodiac

If Dwayne Lau could rewrite the story of the Chinese zodiac, he would be rooting for the ox to win. “They work the hardest on the field, they carry the heaviest loads, but very often they are not given the recognition they deserve,” says the theatre artist.

This element of being a hero is just one of the themes explored in The Amazing Celestial Race, a musical inspired by the legendary race at the heart of the Chinese zodiac, by Wild Rice and is currently showing at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre in Funan. This is Lau’s first collaboration with the homegrown theatre company as a playwright. The production is directed by Wild Rice co-artistic director Glen Goei, with music by Julian Wong.

“In the zodiac race, the rat came in first. But we also know that the ox was kind enough to let the rat ride on its back while crossing the river. So the ox is really the unsung hero. Likewise in our society, there are many unsung heroes, from the theatre crew setting up to the cleaners who mop the stage to the ushers who sanitise every seat,” explains Lau, using the theatre stage as an example.

“Then, there’s the dragon. In the story, it doesn’t come in first, although it’d have been the fastest because it can fly. But it actually makes a detour to create rain for a village that was on fire. And in that sense, it becomes the hero. There are so many ideas that we want to teach children—and adults too—that you don’t have to win the race to be the hero. Other themes explored include the idea of friendship and working together for the common good, as well as respecting the elders.”

Lau gets us acquainted with the 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac, along with others that helped change the course of the race, and reimagined within the Singaporean context, and shares how he embodies the characteristics of his spirit animal.

(Related: Singapore Theatre Directors Discuss the Changing Face of Live Productions in 2021)

What is it about the folk tale of the Chinese zodiac that resonates with you?

DL We always ask the question: what animal year are you born in? I’ve always found this quite interesting because it’s not only my Chinese friends who would ask but my Malay and Indian friends too. Growing up, I started to wonder where these animals came from—was it a random selection? We know that the Jade Emperor called for a race on his birthday but there are different vignettes of what happened.

I have two godchildren, aged 5 and 8, and we always play imagination. So I thought that the zodiac would be really fun to put on stage because I can imagine what a race it would be with the animals running through the jungle, crossing the river—and paving their own way. Kids like seeing animals with human personalities, and that brings me back to the whole idea of the zodiac where we adopt different animal traits. I thought it’d be fun for people to see themselves on stage.

How did you reimagine the folk tale within the Singaporean context?

DL We didn’t want to alienate people by making it too oriental Chinese, for the lack of a better word. Think of it like Kung Fu Panda, which is very versatile, it just has an oriental touch and anybody can watch it. When we were discussing with Julian, who’s the composer and arranger, he had the same thinking to include elements of pop, rap and ballad so that when people watch it, they can connect straight away. In terms of the themes, we talked about the elements of TikTok—there’s a character who’s the trendsetter. There are also iconic characters, that when you watch it, you realise that there’s that person in this day and age.

If we can find a “contemporary description” of this folk tale, what would it be?

DL I would describe it as the rat race of life. We want the best for ourselves, we want the best for our children, we want to be on top. The animals have a goal as to why they want to be in the zodiac race, so it’s really the race of life. In Singapore, we are always chasing something. I think Singaporeans can identify with that because essentially, as much as it is about the Chinese zodiac, it is essentially a race against time—and we all have one life to live, the choice of how we live our lives is important.

(Related: Meet Asia’s Most Influential: The Culture List 2021)

This is your first time writing a pantomime, but you had previously written other musical theatre-type productions. Why did you decide to focus on this particular genre?

DL I like the idea of a pantomime. I love being in a pantomime. I love watching a pantomime. I love it because I like pop culture. You need to take an existing story and twist it. It’s fun for the audience to spot the difference and I get a kick out of it. Ever since I was a child, when I went to watch such shows, I loved it when the actors broke the fourth wall. I loved interactive shows where I can respond to them. The pantomime has all the elements of what I love. And I am happy to be given the opportunity to write The Amazing Celestial Race, and even happier when Glen, the director, asked if I wanted to be in the show. Of course, I said yes!

How has the past year been like for you? You pivoted to various other interests. Can you share with us a bit on that?

DL I was doing a show with The Theatre Practice called Four Horse Road and we were the last show standing before everything got cancelled. We performed only two shows out of the intended 26 and we went into the circuit breaker period [from April last year]. I don’t really cry at curtain calls because I’m generally happy, but I teared at the last curtain call we took because we didn’t know when we could come back. I think I was grieving at the loss of my career, the loss of my dreams, the loss of my skills.

I am grateful because my family and friends were very supportive. But what do I do now? I wanted to find something to do. I’m an actor, an entertainer, and I want to make people smile. So it was just nice that Hossan [Leong] and Mr Miyagi [aka Benjamin Lee] asked if I wanted to do an online talk show with them called The Lorem Ipsum Show—it’s like a radio show, but on Zoom, and we invited a guest every time.

I also started doing parody videos on YouTube. It was like a one-man show and I released about nine or 10 videos. One of them went viral, with some 119,000 views, because it was about the “Sovereign lady”. I took the Les Misérables music, rewrote the lyrics and filmed myself as different characters. It forced me to be creative through a whole new medium and allowed my work to be showcased to people. I had MPs messaging me privately to say thank you for doing this because what we needed was humour because it was  such a dark time. And I had a frontliner who messaged me and said it was the first thing that she laughed at in a long time.

I also sold handmade fabric necklaces and lanyards on Carousell, as part of the Made in SG initiative. They gave me a business account and helped promote my Nudles by Dwayne Lau label. This really helped me because people were very supportive.

(Related: Theatre Company Wild Rice Raises Critical Funds At Maskquerade!: The Virtual Rice Ball 2020)

What is your zodiac animal? Can you tell us how you embody its characteristics in life and at work?

DL I’m a dog. The dog in the zodiac is very playful, innovative and funny. It lives in the moment. A dog will always find a silver lining. It’s also man’s best friend. I think I’m very much like a dog—I like company and making people smile. At the same time, there’s the saying that every dog has its day. There are times where I just want to be on my own, to recuperate and recharge, and collect myself. Then I would have more to give.

Why should people come and watch The Amazing Celestial Race?

DL It’s a show for everybody because essentially, like I said, it’s about the race. It has great learning points for kids, in terms of perseverance, friendship, heroes. For adults, you would start identifying all these different animals traits—it’s funny and relatable. And I think with the doom and gloom happening around the world, we should all take time to laugh because laughter brings you to a different place where you can put aside your cares for a while. Come laugh for that one hour and enjoy the show. I think when you see certain things being played out, certain scenes where problems are solved, victory is achieved, friendships being forged, it reflects life and you will go, I can do that too—and I want that for the audience.

The Amazing Celestial Race runs until March 21 at Wild Rice @ Funan.


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