Swimming With Sharks? A Q&A with Adrian Pang & George Young

Next month, one of Singapore’s most dynamic theatre companies -Pangdemonium – will be bringing Swimming with Sharks, a critically acclaimed and award-winning movie starring Hollywood legend Kevin Spacey – to the stage.

We had a chance to catch up with Adrian Pang (pictured below centre), who is also the Artistic Director, and George Young (below left) for the low down on their latest theatre production.

But first, here’s some background information (without giving too much away…):

Adrian Pang plays ‘the Boss From Hell’ movie producer Buddy Ackerman and George Young plays his assistant / fish-out-of-water wannabe screenwriter, Guy.  Janice Koh plays Dawn, a sexy, ambitious filmmaker. The other members of the cast are Daniel Jenkins, Shane Mardjuki, James Shubert, Cripsian Chan and Melissa Faith Yeo – who we will hear from them another time…so stay tuned on that.

Swimming with Sharks (the film) is a smart Hollywood satire, written and directed George Huang, a Taiwanese-American film director.  A dark comedy based on Huang’s real life experience at a major studio. It is Spacey’s performance as ruthless studio mogul, Buddy Ackerman, which makes the 1994 film so memorable. Re-written for the stage by British playwright Michael Lesslie, the play had its world premiere at London’s Vaudeville Theatre in 2007 starring Christian Slater as Buddy and Matt Smith as Guy.

Conversation with Adrian Pang:

Why did Pangdemonium choose to do “Swimming With Sharks”?  Have you seen the film as well the stage version (on London’s West end)?

I was barely aware of the film when it first came out in 1994.  I saw a DVD of the film 18 years ago when I was still in the UK and really loved it.  It was funny, thrilling, a great psychodrama, full of suspense, with great witty dialogue – a real actor’s piece.  And, of course, there was Kevin Spacey’s unforgettable performance as Buddy.

When I heard that there was a stage adaptation opening on London’s West End, I thought, ‘Wow, that will be great!’ but I did not manage to see that.  Last year, when we were planning our 2012 season, we felt it was the right time to do a comedy.  But we did not want a safe, feel-good, fluffy comedy with easy laughs. No, we wanted something darker, with more substance and ‘balls’!  We wracked our brains and read several scripts.  And then we had this light bulb moment and thought of ‘Swimming With Sharks’!

Do you think it works equally well as a play and a film?

I think it works better as a play actually. Michael Lesslie, the young playwright who adapted the screenplay, expanded on it, and, dare I say it, improved on something that everyone thought was great from the outset. I think the play is richer, the characters are more intrically drawn and the story is darker and much funnier.  So we said, let’s give it a go!

Are you sticking to the original setting of the play / film – i.e. Hollywood / Los Angeles or is your version going to be set in Singapore?  And having said that, can the play be set in Singapore?

Yes, the setting will be in Hollywood, we are sticking to the original.  So far, Pangdemonium has not got our hands on a piece where we feel the need to adapt or transpose to another setting or indeed, to Singapore. The setting of this play is Hollywood and it may feel like a different planet but I think Singapore audiences are intelligent and brave enough to immerse themselves in this world. If they can do so when watching a film or television, then why not a play?  What’s the difference?

Also, it’s about respecting the text enough not to mess with it because something always gets lost in translation. Adapting / transposing a script can cause it to lose substance, which would be a disaster! A lot of the scripts we choose are so particular, if you change even the smallest detail; it’s just not the same anymore.  So, we’re going to stick to the context. People will be able to relate to it and they don’t have to be spoon-fed. Some theatre companies do adapt scripts very well but that’s not what Pangdemonium is about!

What is it like playing the boss from hell? What did you do to prepare for the role? Did your TV roles help?

(Laughs).  Not necessarily the roles but certainly TV helped!!! I’ve had directors who were just like Buddy. I worked with one in particular who did not seem to be able to function on set unless he was in the zone where he was abusive to everyone.  He would (and I’m not kidding), throw shoes, scripts, yell at extras for no reason. I even saw him take his shoe off once and whack a crew member on the head with it, yelling, ‘Have you got no brain?’ But he didn’t do anything to me, fortunately.

It was as if he was bipolar.  After the wrap, he’d smoke or drink and be very nice and normal. But it really was months of sheer unhappiness every day going to work and having to be in that ‘zone’ to protect yourself.  Always cowering with fear and observing his diva-like tantrums!  Doing TV made me very jaded and cynical, and I had to get away before it turned me into an unhappy, bitter and twisted person.

Being an abusive boss in one thing but there’s a lot of politicking that happens in the story, which infects everybody.  You will be able to see the slow contamination of Guy’s character. All the principles and ideals he came in with slowly get withered away as he is dragged into the dark side.

Was there a part of you that actually really enjoyed being that nasty? And what else did you enjoy about the role?

I love it! Because the writing is so good, the words given to Buddy are so wonderful to speak.  Just the things he has to say, the games he gets to play with Buddy and Dawn – he’s a very fun character to play. You also see how different Buddy is when he is dealing with his boss.  He can change his skin like a snake.  Buddy is a survivor, a real shark and he’s conditioned to be that way.

What is the difference between Pangdemonium’s previous plays, ‘Closer’ and ‘Dealer’s Choice’ and ‘Swimming With Sharks’?

There are shadows of similarities but also huge differences.  Patrick Marber, the British playwright, wrote both ‘Closer and Dealer’s Choice’.  Both are set in London, so the dialogue reflects that.  Marber has a bleak view of human relationships – that basically, people are flawed. He paints his characters not in black and white but in all shades of grey.  No one is all good or all bad, because at the end of the day we all screw up and we all hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally. In ‘Closer’, for example, he explores relationships and tells us not to take them for granted, as they are easily shattered.  Both plays are humorous, albeit in a dark way.

Swimming With Sharks, is set in Hollywood, so of course, the dialogue and the way the characters are portrayed is different.  The play explores human frailty and temptation and the dark side of humanity but in a darkly humorous way.  It’s a social satire on how we all have wants and needs in a dog-eat-dog working environment, and we often go after these at the expense of the other people around us. It takes a more cynical view of human beings but anyone who is working or has worked in a company will be able to relate to it!

Conversation with George Young:

George Young is a well-known television personality but Swimming With Sharks is his first professional theatre production….

Are you having fun?

Yes! I am enjoying my stage debut! It’s a great play and Guy is an interesting character – he has lots of different sides to him, which the audience will get to see (say no more!).

They say that revenge is sweet but few of us actually attain the amped-up version that your character achieves in this production…what does it feel like getting it and getting even in Swimming with Sharks?

You can relate to having a nightmare boss.  The bullying may not be physical but it’s certainly psychological. And I get it all – there’s no holding back! You see how that affects someone.  Someone like Guy, a wide-eyed dreamer who only sees the glamour and not the ugly side of the Hollywood machine.

There’s only so far you can push someone and there’s a point it gets too much for him and he snaps. We haven’t started rehearsing that scene yet.  I’ve seen the film and I’ve got some ideas about what we are going to be doing. I’m very keen to delve in.  The way things are heading, it looks like it’s going to be a no holds barred production!  I’ve already had coffee thrown on my tee shirt several times….

How did you prepare for the role of Guy?  Have you been in a similar situation where you had to work for the ‘boss from hell’?

I have been in that situation before when I worked in a law firm for two years.  Naming no names, my boss was an ass!  So, I’m going to be drawing on my past experience and re-imagining myself back in various situations.  That’s going to help!  I just put up with it and that’s helped me with my character and putting up with Buddy.  But in real life, I never had a chance to retaliate but I guess that’s the beauty of theatre and acting.  You can do things on stage, which you would never be allowed to do in real life.  And that’s very therapeutic…

The last word from Adrian Pang:

Overall, what will attract audiences to the dark ride that is Swimming with Sharks?

What will attract them to come?   Without boasting (too much!), I honestly believe we’ve chosen this play because it’s not only entertaining, but also has something to say about us as people living in a community where we are all running in a rat race. I think Singaporeans, in particular, will identify with this piece. Also, you get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Hollywood movie making process and all the ugly things that happen when creating a movie. Plus it’s a fun night out – the play is funny, suspenseful, moving in parts.  AND it also stars major heartthrob, George Young!   He has coffee thrown at him, so he might have to take off his shirt…

Join the Group Night Out at the City Nomads Culture Vulture Launch at Pangdemonium’s Swimming With Sharks on Wednesday, 26 September 2012 at the Drama Centre, National Library. You will get a discount off top price tickets for the show plus two glasses of bubbly all for only $50 a ticket! Plus you get a chance to win a holiday package for two to the Maldives courtesy of Club Med.  Now who says swimming with sharks is no fun??? For more information, see here.

Swimming with Sharks runs from 20th September – 7th October at at The Drama Centre Theatre. For tickets outside of the 26th September, see SISTIC here.

Interview by Ms Culture Vulture and Ms Demeanour.

Images courtesy of Pangdemonium

Nithia is a freelance marketing communications professional, copywriter and editor. She is passionate about supporting the arts in Singapore and getting more people fired up about local productions and the arts scene. passions are cookery, cinema and travel.

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