Sebastian Tan has taken leading roles in no less than four of W!LD RICE’s pantomimes, winning acclaim from both critics and audiences. It’s fitting, then, that he is making his directorial debut with W!LD RICE on Monkey Goes West – which is, incidentally, the first W!LD RICE pantomime to look East for inspiration. We chat with Sebastian about his childhood affinity for the original Chinese classic and the joy he finds in directing.
What was your first thought when you were approached to direct this year’s pantomime?
How did the concept for Monkey Goes West come about?
Journey To The West is my childhood fairytale. When Ivan spoke to me about directing a panto, he also asked me what fairytale speaks to me the most. I thought of many, but the one that really stood out to me was Journey To The West. That’s why I suggested it. It was then up to playwright Alfian Sa’at to reimagine the story for our purposes.
Journey To The West is such an epic tale, filled with many adventures. How did you and Alfian find the story you wanted to tell in the pantomime?
Alfian and I had a Whatsapp conversation in which we went to and fro about all the different stories and adventures. In the end, we had to choose one. Even then, we did wonder how we were going to condense this epic story of Journey To The West into one pantomime. Especially since we still wanted to tell the main story of how the four main characters got together, while giving them their own backstories. Alfian has done a great job of condensing all of that into two hours!
If you were writing Monkey Goes West, what would that version look like?
My version would be all Hokkien! [laughs]
What would you do if you could have dinner with the Monkey King?
I would ask him to steal the Immortality Peach for me, so I can stay young and look beautiful forever. I don’t know about actual immortality though!
You’re best known to theatre-goers as an actor. What’s it like for you to direct, especially a show of this scale?
Wonderful. [laughs] I enjoy directing. I always say it’s a natural progression for an actor. As an actor, you’re like a kid. It’s your role, and you’re allowed to play as you find and bring it to life. As a director, it’s like growing into an adult. There’s a lot more responsibility and a wider vision in telling the story. I’m enjoying it. Right now, I’m feeling inspired by my wonderful cast and really challenged by the experience. Every day, I’m asked many, many questions. I’m expected to answer but I don’t even know whether I have the answers, much less the correct answers, to these questions. But… just hantam lah! Hopefully, everything will fall into place.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt during this process?
That I know more than I thought! I’ve been an actor for more than twenty years, but I didn’t realise just how much I’ve learned along the way – while onstage and in the theatre. I’m quite surprised that I’ve learnt so much that I can apply in directing.
What’s challenging about working with the kids in the production?
For adult actors, you can give them tips and directions that they will pick up. But, with children, and some of them are as young as five years old, they don’t pick it up as easily. It’s harder to bring them into the emotional side of the story and get them to understand the meaning of the text and what their characters want to achieve. Picking up cues, blocking, having a sense of what blocking gives you power as a character – there are so many things that they’ll only be able to appreciate as they grow up and become adult actors.
In effect, it’s a very literal sense of directing them. Sometimes, you have to demonstrate. Sometimes, it’s actually telling them to go from Point A to Point B, doing exactly this or that. It’s very different from directing adult actors – you really need a lot of patience. But it’s rewarding too. When they listen to your direction, you kind of go, ‘Wow!’. And they give you the unexpected as well!
Monkey Goes West reunites you with Ian Lee, who played the miniature version of you in last year’s Broadway Beng.
I think he’s got potential to be an acting prodigy. He’s very intelligent. The minute you tell him something, he understands – and understands it like an adult, sometimes! Sometimes, he will improvise as well, and he’s spontaneous and he dares to play and he makes us laugh. He comes up with new things that we never expect. That’s why he’s been cast as one of the generals, with speaking lines.
You’ve worked with the panto kids as an actor too. Did you have any tips for your cast in sharing scenes with them?
There’s a saying: ‘Do not act with animals and kids’. That’s because they have to do very little to achieve what we adult actors crave: we want the attention, and the love of the audience! [laughs] Children – the younger they are, they just have to go onstage and cough cutely, and the audience goes wild! Sometimes, I tell the actors that they really have to grab the attention of the audience back when they share the stage with the kids, because they’ll be upstaged otherwise.
Do you prefer acting or directing?
Now, I’d have to say directing, because I’m currently doing it! But I’ll have to do both – I want to do both. I still love acting.