Tracie Pang and Nikki Muller Discuss Gender Roles in Pangdemonium’s Girls & Boys
We ask theatre director Tracie Pang and actress Nikki Muller what is a trait that they love about the other person. Pang is the first to answer: “Nikki is fearless. Pretty much anything I’ve asked her to do, she’s done it.”
To which Muller quips, “Because you are the boss—how can I say no?”
They are both right. Muller is fearless for taking on the sole character in Girls & Boys, a compelling drama written by award‑winning British playwright Dennis Kelly exploring ambition and gender roles, in an adaptation directed by Pang and presented by homegrown theatre company Pangdemonium, where Pang is artistic director.
“I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I really, really, trust her,” Muller explains. This is her third Pangdemonium production, having previously been in The Effect and Fun Home. “The thing with Tracie, wherever she is, she is fully present—and that's very hard for anyone to do. I’ve never seen her distracted. She could be in a million places at the same time, in terms of the journey of the character in the play, but she’s always present and I’ve always felt the support. And I love that.
“The reason why I’m not afraid to try things with her is that I feel comfortable. She has this innate ability to make you feel like you are in a safe space, that it’s not an authoritative but a team approach to creating this production together. This gives everyone licence to speak up and contribute,” Muller says, mock-grudgingly adding, “Yeah, she’s kind of cool.”
The duo discusses the process of staging the production, what they would choose to challenge this International Women’s Day, as well as advice to fellow women (and men) on navigating through life.
Tell us about your first impression of Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys. How is it that a man can go into the psyche of a woman and offer an astute understanding?
Tracie Pang (TP) It’s quite an astounding piece of work. The layers of details that he has in there, it’s not simple and straightforward. To be honest, in my years of directing, this is probably one of my favourite pieces that I’ve ever worked on. It’s just so beautifully written—not a single word is superfluous. Every word is there for a reason. That’s when you know, you’ve got great writing. On top of that, it’s not just a simple story of this one woman’s journey, he has brought in a commentary about the differences between men and women, our intrinsic differences from birth, which are very well-observed. Being a man doesn’t stop him from taking the time to sit back and understand the women in his life and around him, and understanding the differences as human beings and how we can grow to understand each other better.
How did the character resonate with you?
Nikki Muller (NM) What I liked most about her is her strength and her bravery; her wit, she’s very charming, she's a sharpshooter. And the more we got to understand the script and really read through the words, we can see just how intelligent she is, and also how genuinely curious she is about people, and about human nature. Her observations of men and women, and people, in particular, just the way she describes things, places, attitudes, feelings, it’s just so raw. She’s also surprising and she has all these layers—sort of three-dimensional. And I really like that about her.
I find this obviously very challenging as well as doing it on my own. But what’s so cool about this one-woman play is even though I’m on my own on stage, I feel like the characters that she mentions or brings up, especially the children, are coming to life. I don’t feel like I’m alone, and I think it’s a lot to do with how Tracie has directed it and how we've spent a lot of time talking, which gives the story life and little breaths and details throughout.
TP I love the fact that she’s clearly an intelligent woman who perhaps has not had the same opportunities as others around her, with going to the right schools and the right education. But we see this intelligent woman blossom in her life through the choices that she makes, and how she needs the support to be able to blossom.
Girls & Boys follows a woman’s journey of “a perfect life”. Can you share with us, at this point in your lives, is there really such a thing?
TP I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect life. Life is full of beautiful imperfections—and it is these imperfections that make life feel lived. Life is what you make of it. Without the lows, you can’t have the highs. I wouldn't take away the lows, because they’ve informed life. It’s a learning process. It’s like bringing up a child, if you don't allow them to fall they never learn. And I think that’s the same with life. Those moments where you hit rock bottom teaches you to be stronger.
NM Sometimes it’s the innocuous moments in life that we end up remembering the most when we look back. And I think some of that is definitely coming out in this play. There are certain moments that are chosen in the writing, you wonder, ‘Oh, it’s a seemingly normal day, why is that the day that she’s speaking about? Why isn’t it a momentous moment like the day her child was born?’ It’s because these are the things that we think about—the small moments that build up to create real life.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. What is one thing that you would choose to challenge?
NM I recently came across the World Happiness Report and some of the world’s happiest countries are the Nordic nations. There are many different reasons but what really stood out for me is that these countries have systems in place, where there’s a longer period of maternity leave, and when you come back to work, you can choose to work about 80 per cent of the time or something like that. And you have support for taking care of your children at the same time. With women and careers, I think it’s just so important because you want to be a mum, of course, you want to be with your kids, but you also want to show up at work. There’s also the notion of why do you need to take a break, why don’t we have more support for women who want to return to the workforce quickly? That’s something I’d really like to see.
TP For myself, I’d like to challenge the notion that a woman’s choice to stay home with her children is looked down upon because it’s important that women have a choice. And if they choose to be a homemaker—it isn’t a substandard choice. It’s a huge responsibility to bring up children and it’s crazy that these women should be looked down upon. Or that women should be looked down upon because if they make the choice to go back to work, then who’s looking after their children. Why do we have to have these views upon us? Why can’t we just make a choice and for it be accepted one way or the other? When I had my kids, I took three years off work because I wanted to be the mother who brought up my children. I didn’t bring children into the world for a helper to do it. That was my choice and it’s not the choice of somebody else. But we should have the choice and we shouldn't be looked down upon because we made that choice.
(Related: Singaporean Artist Dawn Ng Shares How Her Personal Journeys Inspire Her Works of Art)
What is one advice you want to share with fellow women on how to navigate through life? What are some areas that we should focus on?
TP Women and girls should know that you can do anything that you want to do. Don't be fooled into thinking, you can't go into a certain business because it's not a woman's role to be in that business. When I went into theatre, there were so few women, it was insane. I was like, maybe one of two women surrounded by a theatre full of men. I would say to go for it if you want to do something that is traditionally not seen as a female role to do. And if you don't see any role models, don't make that stop you.
NM I would say, your vibe attracts your tribe—that’s one of my favourites quotes. It's very important that you surround yourself with people that you consider will add more value to your life, will enrich your life be it intellectually, emotionally, any way possible. Surround yourself with people who inspire you because you know what, you can’t do it alone. I think we should start leaning on each other more and it's okay to ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. That’s why you should have a tribe that you can rely on and have a good, positive influence on you. It doesn't mean to have 10, 20 people in your corner, sometimes it’s just two, but these people are very, very essential to keeping you on the straight and narrow to living an authentic life that you can be proud of.
TP As a mother of boys, I also think that however much we teach girls to be strong and brave and go after what they want, we also need to teach our boys how to see the women in their lives as equals, as partners in life and how to support them. And that gender roles are not what they were 50 years ago. That’s part of us teaching the new generation of boys so that the world will continue to evolve to a place where women have an equal position.
Girls & Boys runs until March 14, at Drama Centre Theatre.