By Chris Rebbert
It’s over. Two years gone, just like that. I’ve graduated, I’ve left Singapore, and for better or for worse, I’ve come back home. Now comes the scary part: trying to find employment so I can pay back these god damned student loans (most of which were spent on upsetting amounts of alcohol and other unnecessary consumables because I’m stupid, weak, and bad with money). But before all of that – before I make the next move in my life and career – I feel like there’s some air to clear. I feel like there’s a few things I have to say before I leave Tisch Asia behind me, at least for the foreseeable future. So here they are.
First, the positive. Going to Tisch Asia was hands-down the best decision I ever made in my life; but I’d be lying if I said the decision was completely mine. Like many of you, I didn’t apply to Tisch Asia – I applied to NYU Tisch in New York. I had vivid dreams of grandeur that involved me living in the Big Apple, writing at corner coffee shops, sharing a tiny apartment with a wacky room-mate of ambiguous ethnicity who would annoy the shit out of me by making me crawl out of my cynical writers’ hole and fall in love with the world in a new and different way (and for some reason we’d solve crimes together on the side). I thought I’d get a part time job at a small bar where I’d meet all of the real friends I’d have the rest of my life and win the heart of some big-name actress who accidentally wandered in one night looking to give a writer his first big break.
None of that shit happened. I mean, I did meet some great people who I hope will be my friends for the rest of my life, but I didn’t meet them in New York. I met them in Singapore. Yes, Singapore – one of the last places in the world I’d ever have expected to find myself, but NYU asked me to come there when I didn’t get into the NYC campus. The fact that I didn’t really get into any other respectable programs and the scholarship that Tisch Asia offered sort of pulled me in that direction. Whether or not I beat out a lot of other candidates, or whether or not NYU was just interested in my money and would have taken anybody is a thought that used to plague my mind daily, but now it truly doesn’t bother me one bit. I really don’t care either way. I made good use of the two years I was there and I got an education I could never have imagined or planned – an education that wasn’t laid out in a syllabus or talked about in recruitment literature. I got an education that I worked for and was able to have a hand in creating. I learned a lot about myself, people, the world; and like many of you, I worked really fucking hard to get it. So again, I don’t know what I was supposed to receive in terms of training as an artist and writer; I don’t know whether or not this education is going to give me success in the field; and I don’t know whether or not I was given the same education I would have received in New York at the original Tisch campus. But I do know one thing: I’m a way better artist and writer now than I was two years ago.
And isn’t it obvious? You should be able to tell based on where this piece is going. I mean, it’s so well-structured it’s like you already know what I’m going to write next. Okay, let’s drop the sarcasm – I know I’m digressing, but this sort of has to be stream-of-consciousness or it’s not going to feel genuine (more on that in a moment – see, there is planning!). Plus, I got my degree in Dramatic Writing, not Journalism, so fuck you. If you don’t like it, stop reading. Now, picking up from my last thought, what does it mean to be an artist and a writer? What did I learn in the Lion City that was so special? Why was it such a good decision to go there? Calm down. Jesus. Keep reading and I’ll tell you.
The first thing I learned is that no one can teach you to be a good writer or a good artist, so don’t expect them to. It’s just not possible. The sooner you learn that, the better. Yeah, they can teach you structure. Yeah, they can teach you technique. Yeah, they can tell you what to read and what to watch – which writers and artists who came before you are worth checking out because they succeeded – but they can’t teach you how to create good art. No one can. It’s got to come from inside of you or it’s going to feel manufactured to everyone who experiences it. What your teachers can do is tell you what not to do and what steps you might be able to take to help find your way as an artist. They can help you refine your own artistic voice, so when it comes to that, make sure you listen instead of just making that voice louder and more obnoxious because you think it has so much to say.
If, as a now Master of Fine Arts, you’ll allow me to teach you something, it’s this – don’t just immerse yourself in art. Nothing’s going to make your work more sterile or inaccessible than doing nothing but watching movies, reading scripts and working on your own stuff. Whether or not life imitates art or art imitates life, the two have got to cross paths at some point. They have to inform one another. In order to comment on life, you’ve got to live. I personally think that you should take a few years to just be a person in the world before you even think about honing a craft of this nature. This is why most artists don’t get recognized until they’re older, or dead (Avoid being one of those guys if you can, but I’m not going to tell you how to live your life). To represent people in art, you need to know their struggles. Get a job that sucks, has nothing to do with art and gives you little to no emotional fulfillment; be poor; put yourself in a position where you don’t know how you’re going to find or afford your next meal; fall in love; have your heart broken; break somebody else’s heart; get confused about your sexuality (just saying – hypothetically, wasn’t part of my experience); find your vice and battle it until one of you wins; do anything and everything that people do when they’re not purposefully creating art. The more, the better. Good art comes from specificity and a particular struggle, and the best place to derive specificity is experience. You’ll be amazed how much someone will connect to a stupid, little, minute detail you put into something that you drew from your own experiences or someone else’s that you knew. The devil, after all, is in the details; and in art, the details are king.
Being at Tisch Asia helped me with that – figuring out the details and where to derive them from. For instance, I fucking hated Singapore. Sorry. Maybe that’s too harsh. Singapore just sure as shit wasn’t the place for me. It was too clean, too organized, and too safe. It wasn’t what I was used to and I felt out of place. I missed graffiti and litter on the streets – the signs of people actually having lived there. I missed looking over my shoulder constantly while walking around late at night. I missed the comforts (and, to be honest, the vices) I had found for myself at home. But, as an artist, putting myself into that position was a good thing, and you should do it too.
First off, I had to find new comforts and new vices, so I got to round out my arsenal of inspiration a bit more. No more cheap booze; Chipotle; Dunkin’ Donuts; and other, unmentionable vices meant finding new, Asia-friendly ways to ruin my body and mind, giving me more to write about and rounding out my perspective. Second, I got a chance to take a look at myself outside of my own natural habitat. It wasn’t until I moved to Singapore that I realized how truly American I was, despite my life-long apathy and misunderstanding of patriotism. For instance, I never thought I had an accent. I’ve fought against having one for as long as I can remember. If you’ve ever been to Baltimore, you’ll know why – you’ve never heard such long, horrendous O’s in your life – but apparently, the O’s snuck into my pronunciation despite my best efforts and my classmates at Tisch Asia certainly meant to remind me of this. On a more important and relevant note, I didn’t realize how deeply rooted my own morals and values were in Christian-centric, Western culture. To elaborate on this, let me turn to one of the few things I consider to be a perk of living Singapore – its proximity to other countries easily allows you to travel to and from there and see more of the world. Because of this, I went to Vietnam where eating dog was considered a delicacy. My kneejerk reaction to this custom was, “What the cute, cold-nosed puppy fuck?! How could anyone eat a dog?” But once I thought about it, why is it any different than eating a cow or a pig? After all, science shows us that both of these animals are smarter than dogs, and they’re all mammals (and tasty ones!).
What it boils down to is this – someone told me once when I was younger that you shouldn’t hurt dogs, and since that moment its been ingrained in me as a moral constant, but if you take a step back and think about it, once upon a time the people there fighting for survival and their next meal probably had access to a dog when we had access to a cow, and so the tradition begin. Or at least, I’m guessing that’s how it happened (I’m too lazy to look it up). So fuck it, eat a dog. Shit, eat a puppy. It’s not my business. Okay, don’t eat a puppy, but seriously, having these experiences not only opened my eyes to my own culture’s influence upon me, but also made me look more closely at why other people act the way they do. This is something I consider to be essential when it comes to being a good artist.
This leads me to my next point and something I think is the most important thing I taught myself while at Tisch Asia: if you’re judging your characters, you’re doing it wrong. This also translates to being a good person in my humble opinion, but your job as an artist is to bring light to people and their situations, it’s not to preach (that’s why there’s preachers, stupid, and it’s also why less and less people are listening to those preachers). If you fail to find the reasons your characters act the way they do and decide to vilify the opposition (which in most cases will be your antagonist), you’re not doing anybody any good. What we do as artists in the realm of drama is bring humanity to an ideology, no matter how stupid or irrelevant that ideology is. It’s our duty to boil down that ethos to a relatable icon with a human (or in some cases, non-human) face and figure out why they tick so that we can cast a light upon them that other mediums can not. If you’re not aware of this, your characters are going to feel flat. It’s understanding this that will give your characters depth and dimension. I’m not saying I fully have a grasp on how to do this, but I am aware of its necessity.
Finally, be aware of the backlash this may bring. People don’t like to think, but it’s our job to make them do just that. They don’t want to put a face on their enemy (it’s easier just to point the finger and hate), so if you ask them to do that, chances are, they’re going to vilify you in some way or another. That is also a responsibility of ours as artists – you’ve got to be able to take the backlash if and when the time comes. You can’t and certainly shouldn’t be making dramatic art because you want other people to like you (and don’t get me started on money – if you’re doing it for the money, kill yourself). You should be making drama to tell a story, and stories, after all, are how we learn from one another. In fact, if you’re doing your job right, some people won’t like you, but shit, people learn best from conflict. Society needs artists because it needs stirrers – someone to kick some spice into the pot and make things taste a little different. We’re supposed to make people think about things in a different way – whether it be political and social situations; what human beings are really capable of under certain circumstances and how much or little we actually have control over our own actions; or, more often the case in my work, what is and isn’t acceptable in the realm of humor (dick and fart jokes are always acceptable, by the way). So rile people up and show them what they know and believe isn’t the only way (and you should know that, you go to school in Asia after all).
All of that being said, hopefully any students who read this will have a new light cast upon their past, present or future education at Tisch Asia. How are these parting words? They’re my experiences and the things I learned as a Tasian. They’re what I learned, and like I said, no one can teach you how to be an artist, but you sure can learn a hell of a lot while trying to become one.
On one final note, I’d like to thank every single person I crossed paths with at Tisch Asia. I really hope to make you proud and that you do the same – that one day we can brag about the fact that we brushed shoulders far too many times in the tiny rooms and hallways of 3 Kay Siang Road. Deal? And those of you who are just arriving – those of you who are still there – take care of the place. Respect the equipment, revel in and promote our free speech in an otherwise censored country, and for god’s sake, clean up after yourselves. I know you’re busy editing, writing, animating and doing whatever the hell the producing students do, but there’s really no reason your McDonald’s bags should sit spilling sauces in the student lounges or your coffee cups and half-eaten sandwiches should stay tucked under the benches in the Black Box. With all of the things that happened this year and as much as we wanted to fight for our school, take care of the god damned place!
Well, I guess that’s it. Time for your favorite, tall, lanky, tattooed, vulgar, profane, often off-color joke-making asshole to sign out.
P.S. If anyone has some work for me, I could really use the money. Just saying.