Becoming Peter Pan

  • Shawne Wang
  • 18 December 2019
Transforming into a teenage boy who flies is one of the most demanding things Pam Oei has done in the theatre. Read on to find out what it takes for Pam to become The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up!
It's Peter Pam!

Pam Oei is no stranger to shows that demand a great deal of her as a performer. She’s learnt complicated choreography, endured knee-shredding high heels and flown through lightning-fast quick changes.

But becoming The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens has presented Pam with a whole host of challenges – not least the amount of preparation she must undertake before she even makes it to the stage every night!

We followed Pam on her backstage journey towards becoming Peter Pan – and, along the way, she opened up about getting into character, how she takes care of herself during the run, and her absolute favourite thing about Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens.

How do you get into character as Peter Pan?

Peter is a happy-go-lucky teenage boy who has also existed for a really long time. Playing him has been an interesting challenge as an actor because I have to get into the mindset of someone who experiences no consequences in anything he does. As an actor, it’s always about consequences. When you play a character, you’re always reacting to other people, to what they say, to the situation. But Peter’s reactions aren’t normal.

There’s a scene in the show in which Wendy is unconscious, and Peter boasts about how he can do CPR. My own reaction would be, “There’s a girl lying on the floor. Am I really going to boast about being able to do CPR right now?!?” That’s just not me. But I have to take myself out of it. Because that is the way Peter would react. He’s not unkind, but he’s very boastful and proud and arrogant and cocky, even in a situation where a friend might be injured.

So that’s something I had to really learn – to abandon the way I feel a normal human would approach certain things. That took a bit of getting used to.

Pam stretches it out backstage before suiting up as Peter Pan!

What’s been the most challenging thing about playing Peter Pan?

It’s quite a physically demanding role. I’m very, very conscious that I’m 47, so I take great care to stretch before, during and after the show. I try to take care of my knees, especially. I don’t have a great right knee – that’s from years and years of dancing on high heels. I’m glad I don’t have to wear heels in this show, but I do a lot of jumping and leaping off things. With this being a six-week run, I can’t afford to have my knees give out on me. So I’ve bought very good-quality knee guards. Also, I’m very diligent with my vitamins and my glucosamine sulfate supplements!

What else are you doing to prepare for the show that you don’t normally do?

Vocal rest! I have to make an effort to keep really quiet on my off-days, because playing Peter is very demanding vocally too. Not in terms of the singing – Julian Wong, our composer and music director, has brilliantly written the music to suit my key, while keeping me in a ‘boy’ register. I don’t sing extremely high notes. But I do talk a lot throughout the show, and there are moments that are very taxing on my voice – like when I’m shouting and begging the audience for help.

Pam learns to fly – without fairy dust!

As Peter Pan, you have to literally fly in this show. What’s that been like?

There’s a lot of flying and, with that, comes a lot of pain because the harness is not the most comfortable thing in the world. It’s a matter of: “You want tight and uncomfortable? Or would you like to die?” So… tight and uncomfortable lor! But the aerial rigging team we’re working with is very good. They take great care in harnessing me up, so I feel safe in their hands.

And, painful and uncomfortable as it might be – when you do it right, when the music and the lights come together – that moment of flight is still magical. I mean, everyone in the audience can see all the cables attached to you and all the riggers are exposed. But, even so, when you lift off, there’s a gasp. I think it’s very nice for the audience to be wowed by the flying, but at the same time, also understand completely how it works, because you can see the riggers climbing up and down in the theatre.

In Singapore, most theatre productions run for three weeks. What are you enjoying the most about Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens’ relatively longer run?

Because it’s such a long run, I’m able to develop a relationship on stage and off stage with my fellow actors. The person I spend the most time on stage with is Mae Elliessa, who plays Wendy. I didn’t know her before we met on this production, so it’s been nice to develop that friendship off-stage. But also, we are now into our fifth week and we are still discovering things that we can do with these roles and with different moments in the show. That’s a nice luxury we don’t always get with shorter runs.

Music director Julian Wong watches Pam bring Peter Pan to life at our first table read!

If you had to choose one favourite thing about Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens, what would it be?

The music! I truly believe that the core of this show is Julian’s music. I loved it from the very first read – it’s so lush and so romantic and so old-school, with such gorgeous harmonies.

What makes it even better is the way Julian uses his music to help tell the story. He has a real knack for taking a tune and deconstructing it, so that it becomes another song. And you may have no idea that it’s the same melody, just in a different form, but the reason it hits you so hard is actually that you’ve heard it before. [Ed: try comparing Wonderful Things/Flying with Goodbye on Spotify!]

The best testament to what Julian has achieved is the way the band members have responded to this score. There are several veteran musicians in our band – like Daniel Chai, Rizal Sanip and Din Safari. They told me that, when they saw Julian’s score and listened to his teach tracks, they booked a room in LASALLE to practise so that they could come prepared for rehearsals! To see musicians so much more senior give Julian so much respect is very inspiring.

Pam takes flight in her first show in WILD RICE @ Funan!

Last but not least – what’s it been like for you performing in WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan for the first time?

Our director, Ivan Heng, has performed in the space before, so he’s quite familiar with the challenges and opportunities it presents. He prepared us for performing on a three-sided stage – which essentially means you have to keep moving, and the audience has its own work to do to keep up with you. That’s especially challenging in a show like Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens, where you can have 20 people on stage at a time. In effect, this is the biggest musical that WILD RICE has ever done in the smallest space possible!

It’s also been interesting getting used to how intimate this space is. As an actor, you really, really cannot cheat in this theatre – if you are distracted, the audiences can tell.

And it’s so acoustically sensitive that we can hear everything when we’re on stage – like every tissue packet that comes out! That can be frustrating when you have an uncooperative crowd or a disruptive audience member who’s talking on the phone. But, on the flip side, you could have an audience member with a good, infectious laugh… and that person will fill the space with laughter and give everyone else the license to laugh out loud too. When that happens, it’s really quite magical!

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