BREAKING AWAY FROM EMILY

31 Dec 2018 // Filed under Articles

By Caitlin Ong

Diploma in Creative Writing for Television and New Media

Singapore Polytechnic

Stella Kon, 74, prepares to set the stage alight one last time, before passing the pen onto the new generation. (Photo Credit: Caitlin Ong)

 

From Malaysia to Scotland, Hawaii to Singapore, Stella Kon’s one-woman play, Emily of Emerald Hill, has wowed audiences worldwide since its first performance in 1984.

Emily won the 1983 Singapore National Playwriting Competition. But even with a major Singaporean cultural piece under her belt, the pioneer in the Singapore literary scene still feels unfulfilled.

“I’ve been writing ever since then [Emily] and I feel unnoticed,” the 74-year-old admits. “I feel unrecognised. You know, it’s like a one-shot wonder, way back when? And I meet people that say [to me], ‘Stella Kon ah? Your Emily, you’re still alive ah?’”

 

Her swan song?

Stella has a long list of works, including plays, short stories, poems, novels and musicals under her belt. Among her awards is the 1994 Singapore Literature Merit Prize for her novel Eston.

However, she says none of her writings has attained the same level of acknowledgement as Emily.

“I kept on working and it didn’t hit the public eye at all,” says Stella.

But, her upcoming work may soon change that.

“I am in the final stages of completing Lim Boon Keng: The Musical,” she confirms with a smile.

It is a busy time for her with the musical expected to be produced in October 2019.

It’s been in the works, “on-and-off for 20 years” because she could not get the format right. Based on the life of Dr. Lim Boon Keng, a national icon and Stella’s great-grandfather, the play carries her hope that it will be the breakthrough she has been waiting for. But she knows better than anyone, that the theatre audience is anything but predictable.

“And then they [the public] would look at Lim Boon Keng,” she muses, “and then they would say, ‘after all these years this is the best you can do?’”

With the pressures of writing constantly, there is only so much a person can take.

“I’m burnt out,” Stella confesses, expressing her desire to stop after Lim Boon Keng.

Her reason?

“Tired la. Very tired. My health is also fading… I have to ration myself more.”

But even with plans to lay down her pen, Stella continues to explore different ways to tell her stories.

 

When technology meets literature

An avid fan of sci-fi, Stella has always been curious about “what a future with technology would become”.

“At first, I wanted [Lim Boon Keng] to be like a ‘TED Talk’,” Stella shares, “with lots of stuff on the screen, but it didn’t work out”.

She explains that “absorbing all that information” would distract the audience from the performance onstage, and make it become “just another multimedia show”.

But Stella says she looks forward to seeing how the new generation of writers integrate technology in their work.

And she believes that the challenge will not be about what kind of technology is utilised, but rather how it is used.

“It’s a question writers must ask themselves,” she says, “what can you do to produce works of art in the media that will thrill, touch, move and research deeply into the human condition without the resources of an entire film studio behind you?”

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