Art always challenges us to think about ourselves and who we are – something Siti Khalijah felt particularly keenly during rehearsals for Another Country. Siti chats with us about the challenges she encountered as a Singaporean actor looking for meaning and identity in the words of a Malaysian writer.
Tell us about Another Country.
Another Country brings together actors and texts from Singapore and Malaysia. The interesting thing is that the five Singaporean actors work on the texts that have been curated by Leow Puay Tin, who is Malaysian, while the Malaysians perform texts related to Singapore that have been curated by Alfian Sa’at. These include extracts from plays, poetry or songs.
What was it like to work with the Malaysian texts?
The intense discussions we had about the texts were very interesting, because they raised so many questions about identity. Do we approach the texts as Singaporeans – or do we act as Malaysians? It’s especially tricky and fascinating for me as a Singaporean Malay. Our opening text, for instance, sees a lady recalling what her mother went through during the 1969 race riots in Malaysia, as a Chinese person who’s in the minority. I found it a bit hard to wrap my mind around that at first: to think of Chinese people as the minority. After all, as a Malay living in Singapore, I’m in the minority.
And yet, although the texts did have me questioning our differences and our identities, I also couldn’t help feeling that so many of them weren’t very foreign at all. There’s a sense of familiarity to many of the texts, which I found so interesting. Some of the pieces really brought me back to when I was growing up, especially the Sejarah Melayu – I grew up reading that as a child. It was touching for me to think that Malaysians grow up with it as well. That allows me to see the similarities between us – our countries may no longer be one entity, but we’re still taught the same things and ideas when we’re growing up.
What has the rehearsal process been like for you, working with Ivan and this cast?
It’s been really quite intensive, but very useful and very satisfying. We were given the script way earlier, so we could each read it and do a bit of research beforehand. When the cast met with Ivan, we found ourselves sharing and discovering new things about the texts. For instance, I would have a certain reading of a text, but I’d find out that my fellow actors thought differently about it. That opens up a lot of possibilities for discussion and interpretation. Also, Gani Karim and Lim Yu-Beng were in Second Link ten years ago – they shared with us their original interpretations of the texts, and how some have taken on different meanings ten years later.
How were the texts and words allocated amongst the actors?
It was quite an organic process. First, we read the script together. We would divide the lines up for any given text, and just read it around the table. Then we’d go on the floor and improvise based on what we’d just read. We would always be looking to see who’s best suited to speak the words of any particular text. It could go from five people performing a single text, to just one actor.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in working on this production?
I’ve never done anything like this, so it’s all quite different for me. There’s so much happening! There are songs and dances and scenes and poetry. It gets physical, and then it gets still. We have to snap in and snap out of characters and ideas as quickly as possible.
This is also my first time performing a show in a tikam-tikam manner. The Malaysian actors will perform first, and at the end of their performance, before the interval, the Singapore team will come on and explain the tikam-tikam rules. The audience will determine the order of the 31 texts we have. We’ll only have 15 minutes during the interval to get it all in our heads, and then we’ll perform whatever we can within the span of one hour. There’ll literally be a clock ticking! Of this cast, Sharda Harrison, Janice Koh and I have never done this before – so we’re quite stressed about it, although we’ve been told to have fun!
In the spirit of Another Country, can you share with us a personal anecdote or experience related to Malaysia?
I always enjoy going to Malaysia – for me, it represents a quick escape to a place that’s very different from Singapore, and yet is very familiar because of the language and the people. Here’s the interesting thing: you’d assume that I can blend in easily because I’m Malay but, at the end of the day, people can somehow tell that I’m a Singaporean Malay, not a Malaysian Malay! Maybe it’s the way I talk or the way I look. I’m not judged or ostracised for it, but I know they can tell!