Fat Pig by American playwright Neil La Bute is the clever but touching story of a stereotypical young urban professional called Tom, who has a bad track record of quickly losing interest in the attractive women he dates.  Then one day, Tom encounters Helen, a smart, flirtatious woman who is described as plus-sized.  Tom and Helen connect and she gives him her phone number.  Tom is genuinely interested, and the two start dating.

The unexpected happens. Tom falls in love with Helen, who is bright, sexy, funny and confident.  But he finds himself having to defend Helen when he is forced to explain his relationship to his shallow (and shockingly funny) friends.  The play explores how society treats the romance between the two and how Tom comes to terms with his own preconceptions of the importance of conventional good looks.  The play is provocative as it critiques our perception of beauty, which is so strongly influenced by Hollywood and the media, and questions our own ability to change what we dislike about ourselves.

Neil La Bute is one of America’s hottest and most controversial playwrights. His plays are performed more than those of almost any other contemporary playwright. Almost as frequently, in fact, as works by his idols, Harold Pinter and David Mamet. (He has dedicated plays to both.)  La Bute has established a reputation as a moral provocateur, with a series of plays and films that shed unflattering light on such human failings as misogyny, superficiality and betrayal.

Fat Pig which was written in 2004, could easily have been called ‘Cowardice’ as that’s what the play is really about. Fat Pig, along with his other plays, The Shape of Things – 2001 and Reasons to be Pretty – 2008, forms a trilogy of acidic black comedies that examine society’s fixation with physical looks. In these plays, La Bute takes on beguiling questions, such as who decides what is beautiful-or rather, who is beautiful-and what is beauty?

The cast of Fat Pig is made up of a quartet of talented young actors – Sheril Amira (Helen), Nicholas Bloodworth (Tom), Stephane Brusa (Carter) and Vanessa Vanderstraaten (Jeannie). We were intrigued by Yellow Chair Production’s choice of play and got in touch with the Director, Mohamad Shaifulbahri and his cast who were happy to answer a few questions about Fat Pig:

What made you choose Neil La Bute’s play Fat Pig?

I happened to be at the Esplanade library looking through plays when I saw the title Fat Pig and, thinking it an interesting name for a play, I decided to borrow it. Until I eventually found a copy of the play that I could purchase, I kept borrowing it a couple of times because I found it hard to put it down. Being someone who’s been big for the most part of my life, the brutal honesty of Neil LaBute’s struck a chord and it made me question my own life and whether my weight or body size might have led to missed opportunities where relationships are concerned.

Having chosen Love and its Complexities as the theme for our 2013 Main Season, it was the perfect opportunity to stage Fat Pig which questions our perceptions about love and beauty. Furthermore, we felt that while society has eased a little with its perceptions on big people and that it had become a ‘silent problem’. However, that said, it is quite timely to stage the work now, what with the recent Abercrombie & Fitch saga, which once again puts an issue like this in the spotlight.

Do you think that the Singapore audience will be able to relate to this play and is it relevant to our society?

ShaifulFat Pig is a play that our Singapore audience can most definitely find a connection with. The four characters in the play are vivid representations of people we know in our lives. It is quite frightening to also discover that we can find parts of ourselves in each character. When I first read the play I thought I could connect with Helen’s character the most, but the more I became familiar with it, I realised that I also had a little bit of Jeannie, Tom and Carter in me.

Vanessa: Most definitely, on both counts. The whole idea of appearance and subsequently compatibility is something that has been ingrained in us for a very long time. Us, of course, referring to human beings in general, not even distinguishing between a Singaporean society and/or American society. In my opinion, a Singaporean audience will definitely be able to relate to Tom’s overwhelming fear of what other people think.

Sheril: Yes. Especially to those who are undergoing the same situation as Helen. I mean there is a minority in our society that is going through this but is afraid of being rejected by someone. In Singapore, I find that big people here are either the jolly ones or loners. I hope this play could help those people to slightly open up to themselves and don’t allow anything to stand in their way.

Stephane: Yes, because it deals with a universal topic. Not only the obese or plus sized problem but more how the society sees or denigrates the differences.

Are you following the original setting of the play (i.e. in the US) or have you moved it to a Singapore setting? (If that’s not giving too much away!)

We’re still making some changes to certain references, so we’ll keep it a secret for now.

Do you think that this play would still work if the roles were reversed, i.e. Tom is overweight and Helen is slim?  Do you think the play’s message would still be as powerful?

Vanessa: Assuming that all the other dynamics stay the same after the role reversal – Helen is now embarrassed to bring Tom around, Helen’s best friend also teases her relentlessly about it like Carter, Helen’s ex-boyfriend is as neurotic and insecure as Jeannie) then yes, the message might remain intact. However, I think the play is such a strong piece precisely because it is the woman who is overweight. Society – post-Renaissance, post-Venus-on-a-clam-shell – demands a very specific image of femininity, which Helen, despite her great personality and spirit, does not conform to. Without focusing on gender equality/ gender roles issues (that are quickly being overturned and seen as sexist), LaBute calls our attention to the one thing that everyone sees but not many people acknowledge – physical appearance. The question he asks us is “How important should it be?” By the end of the play, we draw our own conclusions.

Sheril: I think it will still work, but, the message will be slightly different. I think if the roles were reversed, the circumstances of the ending of this play might have been different.

Stephane: Why not? Most probably it would even be more powerful if the girl is very very attractive! What would she do with such a guy?

What are the main objectives of Yellow Chair Productions? (And why the name “Yellow Chair”?)  What are the main challenges your theatre company faces and why is community theatre important in Singapore?

At Yellow Chair, we see ourselves as a playground where those with a passion for theatre and the performing arts to be able to play, learn, explore and express themselves. Come build a sandcastle in our sandbox, jump onto our slides or find someone you can sit on the see-saw with. The idea is to provide opportunities for people of all levels of experience.

A programme like our Quarterly Shoestring Series is important for a community theatre group like ours. The productions staged under this programme are meant to be done with a modest budget and at venues around Tampines. They are also meant to be affordable for residents (at no more than $5 a ticket) and we can experiment with more obscure works, so it’s a test bed for productions that we are considering staging under our Main Season banner or the staging of a new and original work. In addition, these productions are meant to be no-frills where the focus will be primarily on the text and the acting. The programme is a dedication to the immediate community where Yellow Chair is based while at the same time, an opportunity for newer actors to work with more experienced ones.

It is important for community theatre to thrive in Singapore because our professional theatre industry is a pretty small one as it is. There are numerous talents out there who may not yet be able to break into the industry for a variety of reasons. Getting involved with Yellow Chair allows them to be seen, and we are always excited to learn of those who have worked with us getting opportunities to audition for a role or being signed in a production team capacity. At the same time, we also want to empower those who have wanted to try their hand at theatre but may not have had the chance to do so to explore it in a safe environment. We have more programmes in the pipeline in the later part of 2013 and in 2014 to cater to such individuals.

The Yellow Chair name came about when the group was first founded in 2005. The three founders of the group happened to be sitting at the food court in Tampines Central Community Club where the group is based, and were coming up with a name for the group. After coming up with a list of names, we couldn’t settle on one and decided to adopt the first name on the list, on a temporary basis until a better name could be found. Years later, the group is still called Yellow Chair Productions and the reason Yellow Chair was on top of the list was because we were seating on chairs that were yellow. Coincidentally, yellow also happens to be the identifying colour that Tampines Central has adopted.

Catch this thought-provoking play at the Drama Centre Black Box from 27th June until 30th June.  For more information and ticketing details please visit www.ticketmash.sg/fatpig

Photographs courtesy of Malvin Foo