A Tough Act to Follow

Ivan Heng hasn’t had the opportunity to create a new role onstage in three years. That’s why he particularly relishes playing the part of Dr. Thomas Chee in Public Enemy. We talk to Ivan about creating one of the most challenging roles in the world’s theatre canon, his personal process and his love for acting.

Tell us about Dr. Thomas Chee.

He’s a doctor, by calling and profession. He is a devoted husband and doting father. He’s a dreamer, a visionary and an idealist, although other people would less charitably describe him as a crackpot or a madman. The spa in the play is his idea. But he’s also the one who will brook no compromise about shutting it down if it means people are going to die because of it. Dr Chee is a patriot. He says that he loves his country three times in the play. How many characters get a chance to say that?

How do you get into character? What is your process as an actor?

I read the script, I read the script, and I read the script again. Then, I write out every single one of my character’s lines. I write down what I say about myself, because that informs me about the character’s image of himself. Next, I write down what others say about me. And finally, I record what I say about others. This process allows me to have an attitude and a point of view about every single character onstage.

It comes from my training in drama at the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland. I find this helpful, too, because I don’t have a photographic memory like some other actors. I can’t really say or remember a line unless I know why I’m saying it. So I can only say my lines after a long and detailed process on the rehearsal floor.

Beyond the text, I read about the playwright – in this case, Henrik Ibsen – and what he was writing about, and the times he lived in. I read reviews, especially for a classic like this, which has been performed all over the world. That helps me see what it meant in different countries. And then, I think about what the play could mean in our society, to audiences living in our times.

Ivan writes out his lines for every show he’s in –
here’s a sample of his notes for Public Enemy.

What’s it like to work with Glen Goei as a director?

This is my fourth collaboration as an actor with Glen. What’s wonderful about working with him is that he has a very clear vision for a play and what he wants. At the same time, he gives us a lot of freedom to try different things. I think Glen also brings a very deep understanding of humanity, what it means to be human, to all his work – and that’s particularly important in a play like this, which is about one man standing up for the truth.

We are never not working. We spend months talking – we talked about the “public enemies” through history, and in Singapore. As artists, we are also constantly thinking about what we wanted to say, and how audiences would respond. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death, two weeks before we opened, cast a different light, or should I say a long shadow, on the play.

Glen is my best friend and closest collaborator – so we each count on being completely honest with each other. After the dress rehearsal, he came to my room and said, “You haven’t got the character yet.” That was a bit of a shock. He gave me a note comprising just three words (I won’t say what, as an actor must have his secrets!). But my delivery took on a very different tone. He came to my dressing room after the first show, gave me a tight hug and said, “That’s it. Well done!”.

In a long run like this, do you like to try new or different things in each performance?

No – for me, rehearsals are the time for you to try everything: why, when and how a character says something, or makes a particular move. Once it’s all set and you’ve agreed on what will be done, you have entered an agreement with the company on how you’re going to do a show. It’s a contract. It’s being professional. You don’t want to throw off the actors acting opposite you. In Public Enemy, where there are scuffles, punches, slaps – there is no room for mistakes. It’s about safety.

Of course, when the show opens, there is a whole other new factor: the audience. Suddenly, lines take on a completely different meaning and a different significance. The entire acting company begins the process of communicating with an audience. So the play shifts, and there’s room for play and spontaneity onstage.

The art and magic of the transformation –
Ivan Heng embodies Zaza (La Cage Aux Folles, 2012) and Dr Thomas Chee (Public Enemy).

What’s the one thing you must have to get into character?

I like getting my character’s shoes early! Whether it’s kasut manek, high-heeled shoes, loafers or lace-ups, I need to literally step into my character’s shoes. I can do without everything else, but I must have my shoes. They’re what connect you to the ground, they change your absolute posture and dictate how you move. It’s what makes you a human being: how your feet touch the ground. If not, you’d just be a ghost! [laughs]

What do you love about acting?

I love the singular focus of being someone other than myself. That involves both imagination and observation. It involves research. I relish the magic of transformation: the make-up and hair, the clothes, the physical transformation. Glen wanted Dr. Chee to have a paunch – so I stopped doing sit-ups and crunches.

There’s an element of wish fulfilment too, I suppose, though not necessarily on my part. My parents always wanted me to be a doctor, and now – in this play, at least – their dream has come true!

Ivan gets into character during a Public Enemy rehearsal

You studied law in NUS before becoming an actor. Isn’t that a big switch?

Not as big as you’d think! As an actor, I’m constantly advocating for a character. I am, in effect, the defense attorney for my character. Like a lawyer, I present my character to the audience, who are the jury. I take them on a journey, telling them my side of the story, and at the end – well, they judge me! [laughs]

What keeps you working in the theatre?

Theatre is the most collaborative and democratic of art forms, and I like the process of working with people, learning from one another, trying to understand life and the society we live in. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing in Public Enemy. It’s a real privilege to be acting with such a fine cast – from fresh faces to experienced veterans – and we definitely bring out the best in one another.

Plays are meaningless in books. Plays only exist in the encounter – in the present. That’s what distinguishes theatre from any other art form. It only exists when you are in the theatre, sharing time, space and an experience with an audience. An Enemy of the People may be a 133-year-old play, but when I, as a contemporary actor, perform it for you, an audience member in Singapore, it takes on a whole new life. Ultimately, it’s about the human connection – belonging and participating in a community and the human race.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin