Minister of Fashion

For her fifth pantomime outing, Siti Khalijah Zainal plays a Minister in the court of W!LD RICE’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. She tells us about what makes this pantomime refreshingly different, what inspired her to become an actor, and her recent tour to Brisbane and New York.
Image courtesy of Pavane Recording Studio

Tell us about your character.

I play Nafisa Jasmani, the Minister of Finance. In Malay, she’s what we call an orang kuat – one of the people who constantly goes wherever the Emperor is. Really the angkat bola – carry balls! – kind.

This is your fifth W!LD RICE pantomime. What makes this one different?

Pam Oei just made me realise that I’ve done the most pantomimes amongst this group of actors! [laughs] Of all the pantomimes I’ve done, The Emperor’s New Clothes is definitely the most different one. This time around, we’re required not just to act, sing and dance, but to play musical instruments as well. There’s still a band, but the actors – including some of the kids – will be playing musical instruments, and it will all be included in our blocking and choreography. We had a taster of what that would be like in our first choreo session, when we put it all together: the music, the movements, and more. It was quite chaotic. We really need a lot of practice to get it all right!

How has working on this pantomime challenged you?

I’m not a musician, so there’s a lot of extra work I have to do. I can’t read scores, so I have to record the music and learn it by memory. It’s quite hard! Initially, I was supposed to play the accordion but, because of lack of time, I’m now playing mainly percussion, like the djembe. We have to really work on the timing and getting comfortable with the instrument, to the point that it’s almost a part of us and our characters.

What’s it like working with Pam and this cast?

She choped me quite early, and I was happy to say yes. This is my second time working with her as my director – obviously, I enjoy it! I had such a fun time when she directed me on Hansel & Gretel three years ago.

This cast has such a different, young energy. Apart from Lim Kay Siu and Candice de Rozario, I haven’t worked with the others on a pantomime. Everybody’s so excited and no one ever complains about getting tired. They’re all musicians, which is a bit scary for me – because I keep thinking, ‘Wah lau eh, I have to catch up!’.

Siti holding court with her fellow ministers,
played by Andrew Lua and Benjamin Wong

As a non-musician, what has struck you about the music for this show?

The songs – written by Joel Tan and composed by Julian Wong – are really beautiful! During the rehearsal process, we made sure to have our songs down pat first, because we have to be prepared for the CD recording. Even without any blocking, we can find the story of each scene in the songs. It’s quite stressful for Julian to be musical director for this pantomime. Not only must he compose the music, he has to consider the musical instruments we can play, and figure out how to work that into his score!

What is it about the pantomime that draws you back to it?

I always enjoy doing the pantomime – it’s something I look forward to doing every year. After a whole year of doing many different types of shows, it’s nice to close it with a bang, doing something big and fun that’s meant for the whole family. As an actor, it’s the perfect kind of show to end the year with!

What was the first theatrical experience that really stayed with you?

One of my earliest memories of watching theatre was in school. It wasn’t some big, fancy show in an actual theatre, because I wasn’t exposed to that kind of theatre at a young age. It was a simple format, with actors coming to the school and performing during assembly. That was the only form of theatre I was exposed to. And I found it fascinating. Some of my friends would cabut or escape or sleep, but I always looked forward to those assembly shows! Looking back, I seriously think it’s amazing, because it’s not easy to capture the attention of thousands of fidgety students in a school hall within half an hour and make them laugh and think, you know? That was my first exposure to theatre, and it’s what made me want to explore doing theatre myself.

What challenges did you face in becoming an actor?

It was something quite embarrassing for me to admit, actually, because I’m an ITE student and none of my family members comes from a theatre background. I had no exposure to it. I didn’t go to an arts school either, because my parents thought I was just fooling around. Instead, I attended The Necessary Stage’s youth programme for one year and joined ArtsCommunity. I looked out for auditions and had to pluck up the courage to go for them.

The first few years were definitely tough, because I didn’t know anyone and I was trying to figure out how the theatre scene works. I learnt everything from scratch on my own. I wrote down whatever I didn’t understand, like theatre theories or terms that I had never heard of before in my life, and then did my own research online. I had to do my homework! When I first started out, I was fortunate to get shows in which I had to work with people who were older and more experienced than me. But that meant I had to grow up even faster – I told myself that I had to catch up, that I couldn’t use the fact that I was young and had no experience as an excuse to screw up or not know things.

You’ve plunged into rehearsals for Emperor right after a whirlwind tour to Brisbane and New York. What was that like?

That was quite an experience! I’ve always wanted to go to New York because it’s the place to watch theatre. To finally be able to go to New York and perform there was quite surreal. I still can’t believe it actually happened. It was just a small theatre, but to be able to represent Singapore in performing Best Of was an incredible experience. I personally feel quite a lot for that show, as it contains some of my personal stories, and explores Malay culture and Islam in Singapore. To be able to say Malay words I never imagined I’d say in New York was really something! It was interesting, too, to perform for a mixed audience, consisting of Singaporeans who live there and native New Yorkers. When I perform a monologue, I always think of the audience as my co-actors, and I react to their responses to what I say. It was quite magical to have people in New York connect with my performance, often in exactly the same way as audiences in Singapore did.

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