Building A Character came about when Alfian Sa’at first approached me in December 2016. He wanted to create a companion piece for An Actress Prepares, which stars Siti Khalijah Zainal and explores what it’s like for a Malay actor to find her place in the theatre. That same night, we had watched K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird together. It featured an amazing Indian actor as the lead in an incredible movie with a fantastic story – which is not something we see every day, on all three counts! That evening set us on the path to creating a piece that examines what it’s like for a young Indian woman to build a character on stage when roles and opportunities in Singapore are hard to come by.
Creating the show involved a great deal of collaboration between me and Ruth Tang, the playwright. Alfian introduced us. For over a year, we would meet and talk. She got to know who I am, and vice versa. We discussed my process as an actor, and our thoughts on issues such as race, casting, womanhood and class. Ruth would go off and write, while I did my own research into the ideas we were exploring. As we progressed, Alfian gave us feedback. We sent the first draft to our director, Mei Ann Teo, who helped shape the writing. And then, we had a workshop with the designers, all of whom had input into building “my character”.
The greatest challenge for me in working on this show was talking about my personal life. My closest friends often lament that, even after many years, I still keep things very close to my chest. Quite far along into the process, Ruth pointed out that I tend to steer clear of the personal and talk in theoretical terms – like saying ‘global warming is bad’, as opposed to ‘I really wish I recycled more’. I finally realised that I had to get personal in order to get to the heart of the matter. It wasn’t about airing all my dirty laundry, or revealing every aspect of my life. It was about sharing honestly how certain things have affected me on a deep and, sometimes, painful level. You can’t build a deeper connection with someone – in this case, the audience – if you’re skating over the surface all the time. And every single person coming to see my shows matters to me.
This entire process has taught me about the importance of trust – in God, in my ability as a performer, in the work and in my team. And also to never give up! Building this show has taken one year and four months thus far, and there were a few moments when I thought, “Can I really do this?” But, if you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done. This piece has given me a whole new perspective on my life, my craft, my artistry, and my choices.
I’m really looking forward to rehearsals! They begin in June. I absolutely love working with Mei Ann. She’s this incredible fireball of energy who’s kind but also firm. She has a very clear picture of where she might want to take the work, yet is fully open to ideas and collaboration. She has been constantly teasing out areas for me to go deeper in my craft, and I’m super excited to tackle this work on the floor with her.
Building A Character tackles issues of race and representation, which matter because: We. Are. Here. I truly believe that we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. And a lack of representation means that some groups of people are more invisible than others. That’s a problem. I’ve heard so many artists complain that all our shows are the same after a while. I think one possible reason is that a fair amount of stories are coming from the same well. If we keep digging from the same well, it will dry up soon enough and there will be no more stories left to tell.
But Singapore has such an incredibly diverse population. There are so many people here who haven’t even had the chance to speak or be heard. They are not reflected on stage enough. We barely see them on screen. We cannot condone this cycle. W!LD RICE is a good example of a company that’s working to build different wells, but it can’t do it on its own. More people – artists and audiences alike – have to come together to improve representation in the stories being told. Works that we generate in our city need to be as diverse as the people living in it. Only then can our arts scene truly reflect the richness of who we are, what we feel, what we struggle with, and what we desire.
In creating a character, the first thing I do is learn my lines and get off-book. I have no problem memorising lines – what I have trouble with is speaking them in the correct order. I was slow in retaining details as a kid, and I still find myself jumbling up words as an adult, so I have to take the extra time to work on the lines as best as I can in order to lock them down. When working on Boeing Boeing, for example, I recorded the whole script and left gaps where I was supposed to speak, which allowed me to practise on the go.
My favourite part of getting into character is transforming myself – my body, my voice, my accent, and doing whatever’s necessary to become the vessel for another human being. I would really love to go all out and change my hair too for every single role I play. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hair left for that. Thank God for wigs!
Some of my biggest inspirations as a performer are Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Benedict Cumberbatch. What I love most about them is their sharp attention to detail and their ability to transform into their characters. Cumberbatch, for instance, has a unique face that is hard to forget, yet all I see in his work is the character he has built. Streep’s accent work is unbeatable, and I love Hoffman and Davis’ ability to portray the full depth of a person – the good, the bad, the ugly, the everything. I was deeply saddened by Hoffman’s passing, but if I ever get to work with any of the other three, it would be a dream come true.
Building A Character plays at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 5 to 8 July 2018. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!