Photo by Matthew Fisher
Renee Yeong is a paradoxical kind of artist. While many would try to pigeon-hole a young Asian director into the niche of identity plays, Renee is not only able to succeed there with aplomb, but also transcends that mold entirely in this year’s I LOVE WHITE MEN and Annie Aspen’s Musical Spectacular, respectively, both at this year’s ANT Fest at Ars Nova. If that weren’t enough, the emerging Singaporean director is also an accomplished assistant director (most notably for Rachel Chavkin) and sound designer.
“[W]e’re introducing this country, this culture, that a lot of white people only heard of a year ago because of Crazy Rich Asians. It feels like a very tall order.”
I met Yeong at a bagel shop in Tribeca to talk about her process and her success. We wasted no time in digging into her versatility and her ability to find the core of a piece that she’s working on. “[W]hile you might call them both [I LOVE WHITE MEN and Annie Aspen] ‘solo pieces’ even though one has a band and one is very strictly a solo piece… I’m more on the side of collaboration in terms of talking to actors and designers and working very dramaturgically. I enjoy very in-depth conversations about materials, and text, and ideas. I think what’s important is what story you want to tell. Both literally and in the broader implications of the show, what you want to communicate to the audience.” Annie Aspen (co-directed by Talia Paulette Oliveras) is the story of a woman’s traumatic brain injury as conceptualized through a spaceflight while I LOVE WHITE MEN is a treatise on Singaporean white worship from a historical and personal perspective, but Yeong brings a warmth and humanity to both that honors the individual center of each piece while providing the perspective that could only come from deep discussions within a close-knit team.
“For [Annie Aspen], we had so many moving parts… there was less room for intense dramaturgical reckoning, so it was more focused on putting it on stage and figuring out how it goes along, rather than having the luxury to sit down and talk about it before staging. we needed to make the show as close to our vision as possible in the space… [while on I LOVE WHITE MEN, w]e were thinking about our long term goals: What do we want the show to say? What do we want the show to say about Singapore?”
Renee was born and raised in Singapore, “which is very small. I read somewhere that it’s the size of Manhattan, plus a little bit of Brooklyn or Queens…” She is from “Bukit Timah. A lot of ex-pats live there. It’s funny because the junior college–which is the equivalent of American high school–was next to this long canal, and YY (star and writer of I LOVE WHITE MEN) went to high school on the other side of the canal. We didn’t know each other.” She attended “what is the equivalent of public school, and… went to the National University of Singapore” for a year before transferring to NYU.
“The reason we do it here is to highlight the unspoken relationship between Asian and white people and the fact that it extends beyond America.”
“I only discovered directing when I was seventeen, eighteen,” Renee tells me. “I gave up acting when I was sixteen because of a traumatizing incident of stage fright where I forgot all my lines and vowed never to get onstage again.” But this isn’t to say that she is afraid to put parts of herself into her work. [On I LOVE WHITE MEN] “… it was hard for me initially to figure out where my voice was in the piece… but knowing that the show itself could not exist without my brain makes me feel like my voice is in it. The cultural influence… is all very applicable, but how we internalize it based on our upbringing is customized. A tailor-made experience. Bespoke some might say… especially in front of an American audience… we’re introducing this country, this culture, that a lot of white people only heard of a year ago because of Crazy Rich Asians. It feels like a very tall order.”
Photo by Matthew Fisher
Renee, however, is not only prepared for these challenges but is already imagining new ones. “We’ve been working through some pivotal feedback we got from Mei Ann Teo, another Singaporean director working in America that will inform the next version of the show which will be quite different… The version of the show we’d do in Singapore would be very different. We’ve actually talked about this, but because the cultural knowledge is so different, it would be doing them a disservice to put up the same play, so it would likely take another six months of rewriting the play and recontextualizing the material while trying to retain its essence. The reason why we’re doing the show would have to be different. The reason we do it here is to highlight the unspoken relationship between Asian and white people and the fact that it extends beyond America. In Singapore, it would be calling [Singaporeans] out to make them aware of this thing that we’re all a part of.”
Working between these two cultures has given Renee a unique perspective on her adoptive home. From the laudatory, “Oprah…she has influenced my life, how I live it, and how I experience the world… I had a very rough summer and fall last year… and what pulled me out of that was Brené Brown (a researcher and social worker) and Oprah…” to the critical, “People should stop doing Shakespeare… why are you doing the millionth version of Othello when you could be doing this new play by this new writer who is talking about real issues now?”
Through it all, Renee is grounded by her spirituality. “I grew up Christian I guess… but my mom said she only did that so I wouldn’t be a bad person. You can do whatever you want after…Spirituality has become a big factor in my health: mental health, physical health, emotional health, how I see and deal with other people. And that affects my work… I’m trying to have a beginner’s mind. You will never be an expert on anything, and if you think you are, you close your mind off to learning, but if you have a beginner’s mind, you are absorbing everything all the time. I want to live like that, forever.” This leads her to a koan-like philosophy when it comes to how she hopes people leave her work “I don’t want everyone satisfied… but I want everyone fulfilled.”
In order to experience such the unsatisfying fulfillment that is Renee Yeong, I LOVE WHITE MEN will be at Caveat NYC from January 24th-26th.