All the World’s A Stage: Siti Khalijah Zainal

Siti Khalijah Zainal is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. As she gets ready to take the stage in An Actress Prepares, we find out what acting has taught her and what it’s like to play herself on stage.

I first realised I wanted to be an actor while performing in a school show. I was in ITE (Institute of Technical Education) at the time, and we were putting on a musical version of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Kallang Theatre. That was my first time performing on such a large stage. I played Hermia, and I had to act, sing and dance all at once. It was really quite exciting. And when it ended, I wanted more! That’s when I thought: is there a possibility of me doing this full-time?

I’ve been working in the theatre industry since 2004… but not as a full-time actor right away. For the first three years or so, I was learning the ropes. I had a few acting jobs, but I also did production work behind the scenes. In the day, I would perform in school shows. And then, at night, I would be a dresser or a member of the backstage crew for a professional show.

I may not have formal training as an actor, but I try never to resort to excuses like: ‘I can’t read towgay [musical notation]!’ In fact, I work doubly hard in areas where I know I’m weaker, like in singing and dancing. I’m just glad that there are people who still want to work with me even though I’m not professionally trained.

Acting has taught me to be adaptable and open to learning new things. I’m always learning something new. For example, I recently performed in a monologue called How Did The Cat Get So Fat?, which involved a lot of complicated puppetry work. It was my first time working with Tan Beng Tian, who is a co-founder of The Finger Players. She’s one of Singapore’s master puppeteers, so being able to learn new skills from her was a privilege. I hope I remain open to challenging myself to learn new things, even in my 40s and beyond.

I’ve grown to appreciate how everything in theatre is, in a sense, temporary. It’s, oddly, part of the joy of what we do as actors. All shows must come to an end. That reminds me to always live in the moment. Why be sad that a show is going to end? Enjoy the moment while you have it… now, today! That applies, of course, to bad shows too. You can endure it because you know you won’t be stuck with it forever!

Rehearsing for An Actress Prepares

As an actor, I always try my best not to let my own personal judgements get in the way of the work. My responsibility as an actor is to play the role I’ve been given. If I form my own negative personal opinions about a show or a script or a character, that already indicates I’m not committed to my role. And that’s not good. Audiences can tell when an actor isn’t fully enjoying herself on stage. And here’s the thing: you can think something isn’t good, but other people might really enjoy it. I’ve had friends come up to me after a show and tell me they loved a scene that I had trouble with.

I prepare for every new role by making sure I am physically capable of playing the part. That could mean not eating durian, which I love, for a few months beforehand to preserve my singing voice. I also always ask if there are any special skills or technical abilities I need to practise before rehearsals start. We decided to go with the darbuka (goblet drum) in the end, but I actually took accordion classes for a while for The Emperor’s New Clothes when Pam Oei, my director, wanted me to play a musical instrument on stage!

I’m blessed to be the kind of actor who can let go of a character when the performance is over. I’m method when I’m on stage – I become the character and leave Siti behind. But I leave the character in the theatre. Why bring her with me and affect other people when I’m off-stage?

Performing in An Actress Prepares is difficult for me because I have to be myself on stage. When Alfian Sa’at first approached me to do this piece for the 2016 Singapore Writers Festival, I remember protesting: ‘You want me to talk about myself? I’m not interesting!’ The characters I play are interesting. What do people want to know about Siti? What does Siti have to say? But, while working with Alfian, I realised that I do have a different perspective to offer. I’m a girl who used to live in a three-room flat in Boon Lay, who went from normal neighbourhood schools to ITE. That’s not a route you normally associate with a career in the arts. I have a different family background from a lot of the friends I’ve made in the theatre industry.

Theatre has taught me that everyone has a voice. When I started out, I did occasionally think: ‘I’m an ITE student. All my friends graduated from NUS or LASALLE. How am I useful to this community?’ But, when I started doing devised works – which rely heavily on improvisations by the actors involved – I realised that I could contribute my own experiences, ones that my fellow actors might not have. I’ve done a lot of work like that for The Necessary Stage, as well as WILD RICE’s HOTEL. Not every idea we come up with ends up in the final script, but it’s still rewarding to have been a part of that kind of creative process from the very beginning. It’s tiring, but also very fulfilling.

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