When Ivan Heng’s knee buckled midway through the gala night performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, he realised that there was simply no way Lady Bracknell – the character he plays – could stride her way on stage for the rest of the run.
Decades of performing with great physicality in the theatre had finally caught up with him. From prancing around in high heels to kicking spears in full Chinese opera regalia, Ivan has done it all.
“Actors are athletes. I act with my entire being, completely changing my own shape to embody my characters – and that’s very physically demanding,” notes Ivan. “Unfortunately, that means I now have the knees of a 90-year-old!”
That fateful night, he had torn his meniscus (the cartilage) in his right knee and dislocated it.
“My leg was literally dangling at an angle, but I finished my lines through gritted teeth,” Ivan recalls. “Curtain call was a blur; I had speeches to make, flowers to present and a birthday cake to cut as we celebrated WILD RICE’s 20th Anniversary. But the adrenaline got me through it.”
“When I finally hobbled to my dressing room right after the show, I sat down and I just couldn’t get up.”
“Our gala was going on outside in the foyer, with our greatest supporters all asking, ‘Where’s Ivan?’”
“But I was in excruciating pain and I couldn’t move. All I could think about was: ‘How am I going to do the next show?’”
For Ivan, the show simply had to go on. “So I asked for a large glass of wine and, remembering that we had a wheelchair from Supervision stored away in our warehouse in Tuas, I arranged to have it delivered to the theatre first thing in the morning.”
All Hands on Deck
The ensuing countdown until the next performance – a matinee at 2.30pm the day after – was a whirlwind of activity. With the help of the entire cast and just an hour and fifteen minutes of rehearsal, a new Lady Bracknell was born.
Ivan is quick to express his gratitude for his castmates. “I couldn’t have done it with any other cast!”
“I always say, ‘You can’t play King Lear by yourself; everyone plays King Lear for you.’”
Together with Crispian Chan, who plays butlers Lane and Merriman, Ivan devised how Lady Bracknell would make all her new entrances into her scenes.
The result: an already imposing Lady Bracknell becomes an even more formidable figure who barely has to lift a finger to send shivers down your spine.
“Now, when I barrel my way into a scene, everyone snaps to attention and is just jumping out of the way to avoid her! It’s very funny,” Ivan laughs. “You can’t really argue with a dragon lady in a wheelchair, can you?”
To complete Lady Bracknell’s transformation, her wheelchair needed a glamorous makeover.
The original wheelchair had been of the unprepossessing, standard-issue variety for Patrick Teoh’s stroke-recovering Teck in Supervision. Certainly not the kind of wheelchair the financially endowed Lady B would be caught dead in.
Enter Frederick Lee, the production’s brilliant costume designer.
“Over two days, Frederick was on his hands and knees, giving the wheelchair a complete overhaul,” Ivan recalls.
The gruelling process involved swapping the leather upholstery for a luxurious velvet, and adding rhinestones to all visible surfaces.
“We only had brief pockets of time between performances to work with. So, with every successive performance, you get a little bit more bling.”
A Theatre For Everyone
“My experience performing in a wheelchair has driven home to me just how much our society disables those who are different,” Ivan reflects. “From the way we treat others, to the spaces we design.”
Hiring other venues for past WILD RICE productions had long ago opened his eyes to how many public spaces excluded patrons with different needs.
“So, when we started designing a theatre of our very own three years ago, we intuitively knew we needed it to be wheelchair-friendly if we wanted to build a theatre for everyone.”
“My injury gave me the opportunity to walk the talk or, more precisely, to wheel the talk: to put our theatre to the test.”
“I’m quite happy to report that our theatre is indeed wheelchair-friendly,” Ivan chuckles.
“There’s always room for improvement, but I’m happy that WILD RICE is taking a step in the right direction in fostering the kind of inclusivity we want to see in the world.”