By Loretta Seto
Published in 16.4
From a dark night of the soul to a play ready to face the world, Valerie Sing Turner has proved that she is here to stay.
VALERIE SING TURNER is a woman of endless interests. She freely admits to this during our discussion of her new full-length play, which has its world premiere at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts (Burnaby, BC) on February 22, 2012. “Everything interests me,” she says as we sit in the lounge at the Sylvia Hotel overlooking the beautiful waters of English Bay. “How the brain works, why people do what they do, how they see the world. Religion and politics. Relations between genders. Homosexuality. Life.”
And adultery, a topic that gets a unique treatment in Sing Turner’s play Confessions of the Other Woman (aka, Confessions) about a 40-something year-old woman, Eve, who falls in love with Sam, a married man. The fact that Eve is also married makes the complicated situation even more complex. The relationships depicted in the play are no simple matter; they are intricate in their details and unsettling in their honest questioning of so-called morality.
More than six years in development, Confessions came about almost by accident, when Sing Turner was going through a career crisis and had decided to quit acting after almost a decade of working as a professional. “I took a class that was one of the worst experiences I’d ever had. I came out feeling devastated because I thought I’d wasted my life, I had no talent. Literally, it was a dark night of the soul.”
A friend encouraged her not to give up and instead apply for Canada’s National Voice Intensive, a prestigious annual five-week program hosted by the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. Sing Turner was accepted and there she met Gerry Trentham, one of the faculty members, and the person who would help set her on the path towards writing Confessions, her first play. The two formed a connection on the very last night of the five-week program when, during the closing party, they discovered that they both shared a passion and skill for dance (Sing Turner is trained in ballet, jazz and tap, and Trentham is a choreographer). They performed a Fred-and- Ginger-style dance number that prompted the others at the party to clear the floor to watch in admiration. It was the start of a professional relationship that continues today, with Trentham as co-director of Confessions.
The spark for writing the play came a few months later, when Sing Turner signed up for a weekend workshop with Trentham, which she mistakenly assumed was dance-based. She realized almost too late that it was actually for playwriting. The day before the workshop, and in between the matinee and evening performances of the show in which she was playing, Sing Turner came up with a paragraph that gave first voice to the character of Eve, who eventually became the fully-fleshed protagonist of her play.
An early version of Confessions went on to win the 2005 Solo Collective Emerging Writers Competition, and more recently, Sing Turner was awarded the 2011 Enbridge playRites Award for Emerging Canadian Playwright. When I ask her what the journey has been like transitioning from performer to playwright, Sing Turner replies that writing has always been a part of her life. Having worked for years in magazine publishing and as a freelancer, some of the demands of her job included writing newsletters, press releases, speeches, and articles. She notes, however, that the pressure to write for the stage came early in her theatrical career.
“People would always say, ‘Why don’t you write a play?’ so maybe the universe just gave me the kick in the ass when it had me sign up for that workshop. Maybe you don’t know you have something you need to express until you’re given the opportunity.”
Indeed, Sing Turner has much to express as an artist, and she speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about her craft. She has made interesting and perhaps unexpected choices in the development of the play—despite some vocal opposition to the idea, she has deliberately kept the piece interdisciplinary by including video projection and choreographed dance elements, and has cast a male actor of African heritage (Matt Ward) to play the part of Eve’s Chinese grandmother. “I’ve had many people ask, ‘Why not have an Asian woman play that role?’ and I won’t for exactly that reason—because it feeds into the expectation of who that character is supposed to be. As soon as I have an Asian woman in that role, you will expect her to act and speak in a particular way. But she is not going to act and speak like any other Asian grandmother that you’ve ever seen on stage or on screen because this is a different reality.
“It’s about widening people’s expectations, widening the resonance of who immigrants are. So when the character is cross-gendered and cross-cultural, then I’m not limiting it to people thinking, ‘Oh, this is a Chinese story, it doesn’t apply to me.’ When I’ve got somebody else of another cultural background and another gender playing this character, then people will think, ‘That’s my grandfather, that’s my great-great-grandmother.’”
Personal history and culture clearly inspire aspects of Sing Turner’s work and although she is third-generation Chinese-Canadian, she feels the resonance of those family members that came before her. “I do have a sense that our bodies carry genetic memories. There is something more than just flesh and blood when we’re born. I carry a pain that is not my own. There is nothing in my life or in my experience to warrant the kind of pain that I carry, but it informs my acting and who I am. I believe that comes from my ancestors.”
Despite her strong awareness of the past, Sing Turner’s Confessions deals with the subject of adultery in a contemporary way. In her research, she was astonished by how many women told her about their stories, either from the perspective of the Other Women or the Wife. She encountered tales of deception where women initially had no idea the man was even married, and situations where women knew exactly what boundaries they were crossing when they got involved in the relationship. Even more surprising was how these occurrences seemed to be a part of women’s lives across all demographics, cultural backgrounds, and ages. “Everything from a short fling to something that had lasted seven or eight years and was still ongoing. The number was more like seven out of ten women I met had had an affair with a married man,” Sing Turner reveals with a mix of disbelief and wonder. “I had no idea that so many women would have had this experience.”
This observation sparks a discussion about the prevalence of infidelity in modern society, but Sing Turner feels that not much has changed over the centuries in that regard. “Adultery has been around as long as there’s been marriage. It’s just our attitudes and awareness that have changed. I read Dan Savage and he’s come up with this term ‘monogamish’. We’re brought up with the ideal that marriage is forever, ‘til death do us part’—that’s what you say in your vows. But maybe there is a due date on particular relationships. Maybe we’re with somebody for as long as we can learn and grow and share with each other, and when that’s done, we move on to the next thing.”
Sing Turner, who is divorced, was compelled to explore these ideas in her play, and she emphasizes that one of her main interests while writing the play was to delve deeply into the characters’ psyches and the motivations behind their actions. “That’s the most important thing to me—that people see these characters as not representing one idea. Too often it’s easy to say, ‘She represents this view, and he represents that view,’ but people are so much more complex than that.”
Her perseverance in maintaining the integrity of the play and its characters has paid off—Sing Turner has gathered around her integral partners to help her realize her dream, teaming up with co-director Diane Roberts of urban ink productions, and garnering the support of the Vancouver Playhouse. She has also earned the backing of the Evergreen Cultural Centre as well as the Shadbolt Centre of the Arts, the latter which offered a month-long residency that allowed her the time and space to workshop the piece thoroughly. To have forged such relationships is an impressive achievement unto itself, and Sing Turner certainly has proved herself as a force to be reckoned with.
In the end, the play’s the thing, and Confessions promises to be a very good one. It is not a piece that will offer any easy answers to the characters’ predicaments, but that is just how Sing Turner wants it. She is committed to presenting a work that reflects the delicate nuances of how people relate to each other, how they determine their identity, and how they uphold personal principles. Given the comprehensive and involved journey that Sing Turner has undertaken to bring Confessions to life, it makes sense that ‘easy’ does not enter the equation.
“At the core of it, we’re human beings that are more than the labels we keep wanting to put on people just to make it simple for ourselves to operate in the world,” she says. “If only we went out and saw the world in all its colour. The world is not black and white, it’s not even grey. It’s in full colour.”
Confessions of the Other Woman runs from February 22-25, 2012 at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts (Burnaby), February 29-March 13-17, 2012 at the Evergreen Cultural Centre (Coquitlam). For tickets, please visit www.urbanink.ca.