Profile: Helmi Yusof

Published on 21 June 2016

He has been an arts writer for 16 years, but is now up for scrutiny himself, as his first play debuts at the Singapore Theatre Festival.

BY JO TAN

In over a decade of critiquing plays, arts journalist Helmi Yusof never imagined he would write one himself. “It’s all Tay Tong’s fault,” he says of TheatreWorks’ managing director, who had invited Helmi to attend the company’s playwright development programme, The Writers’ Lab, in 2014.

“He asked me to sit in for the first day of a course, so I could write a story about cultivating writing talent. But it was so stimulating, I asked to stay for the whole course. The class was supposed to write a play within six months after the workshop ended, but I finished mine in three, when half the class didn’t write anything! That’s when I realised, maybe I have the discipline to do this.”

Helmi’s first play, My Mother Buys Condoms, is one of the highlights of W!ld Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival 2016. “It’s a dramedy about a female literature teacher — turned tuition teacher — in a gated community. She’s good at her job but starts to lose tuition kids and the respect of her neighbours because she has a romance with a Malaysian air-con repairman, someone supposedly beneath her station.” The story is allegorical and explores the definition of family.

Besides navigating tricky themes, you might expect Helmi to have to navigate relationships in his new status as playwright: working with directors, designers and actors whom he has critiqued in previous reviews. Yet there have been no problems thus far.

“Of course, people have been angry with me when I write negative reviews. I get hate mail, or artists coming up to me saying really nasty things. But there are also readers who think that newspaper reviewers are too nice, that we should be serving the readers first and foremost — and if a play isn’t good, we shouldn’t mince our words. It’s a balancing act, I guess. I’ve given W!ld Rice one or two negative reviews, but also some glowing ones, so hopefully, they know I’m sincere and professional.”

It also helps that Helmi is open to having his work critically appraised. “Reviewers can say whatever they want about My Mother Buys Condoms! I have so much to learn and the criticism is all good. Also, I believe that at the end of the day, whether you’re a playwright, director, set designer or reviewer, you’re just trying to contribute your best to the ecology of art in Singapore.”

Helmi shares that he still loves his day job, so don’t expect him to give up arts journalism for playwriting just yet. You can, however, expect more plays from him in the future, with talks already underway to produce his second oeuvre — My Father Wears Dresses.

My Mother Buys Condoms opens 14 July at LASALLE Creative Cube. See www.sistic.com.sg for details.

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