Glen Goei and Ivan Heng have known and worked with each other for decades. Glen has directed Ivan in iconic W!LD RICE productions like Emily of Emerald Hill and La Cage Aux Folles.
But, for all the magic they’ve made in the theatre, they’ve never acted together – until now.
In Mama White Snake, Glen and Ivan will bring the legendary snake sisters to life. With the help of Alfian Sa’at’s words, Elaine Chan’s music and an incredible cast, they’ll tell a story about love, family and embracing diversity.
During a break from rehearsals, Glen and Ivan chatted with W!LD TIMES about the entire eye-opening experience…
Glen, what’s it like for you to be acting again?
Glen: I haven’t acted on stage in 28 years, so it’s rather terrifying! Three weeks ago, I had my first nightmare. It actually brought me right back to M. Butterfly in the West End – I performed in that show, opposite Anthony Hopkins, for seven months. In my nightmare, it was opening night of M. Butterfly, and I couldn’t remember my lines or find my script. And I had the same nightmare again yesterday night. So all the nightmares that come with being an actor are returning to me!
Ivan: No matter how many times you go on stage as an actor, we feel that same fear. Always the fear. So it’s wonderful to see Glen experiencing it anew… Now he remembers what we actors all go through! [laughs]
Apart from the terror, has the process also had its rewards?
Glen: Definitely. At this stage in my life, it’s nice to get out of my comfort zone. A lot of my friends – people my age – are already thinking about retiring. And for me to return to the stage in a show like this? I’ve found myself using parts of my brain that I haven’t used for a long time. Beyond memorising lines, I’m learning to sing, dance and do Chinese opera. It’s demanding, but also exhilarating. The upside of all this is that I’m physically feeling younger, and it makes me feel alive.
Ivan, what’s it been like sharing the stage with Glen?
Ivan: I’ve known Glen intimately as my director and, as much as he’s sensitive to the text and the actor’s journey, he’s always thinking of the bigger picture. So it’s been very interesting to see him attack a script from the inside, bringing that same sensibility to it. We’ve had this long, amazing friendship, sharing so many adventures – both on and off stage. But we’ve never acted together. So I’m really enjoying the opportunity to be on this incredible journey with him where we’re both learning something new every day.
Tell us about working with your director, Pam Oei.
Glen: Pam is a part of the W!LD RICE family. We’ve been working with her for so many years on shows like Animal Farm – which was staged when W!LD RICE was just getting off the ground. I’ve loved getting to see her grow as an artist. She’s one of the best actors we have, and it’s been wonderful to have her direct us while taking care of every aspect of this huge show.
Ivan: The nice thing about the three of us working together is that, after years of collaboration, we have the utmost respect for one another. But it also means that no one has to apologise for an opinion or a viewpoint. We can cut through the crap and say what we think, because we all know that everyone’s just concerned for the good of the show.
The two of you are known for your original sister act – playing Glenda and Ivana at events like Pink Dot. How different is that from performing in Mama White Snake?
Ivan: Glenda and Ivana are our alter egos. We always have a laugh – but there’s also something political to it. We dress up in the pursuit of happiness, freedom and equality, hopefully changing the world one outfit at a time. With this show, we’re not simply dressing up as women. We also have to create our characters as part of the story. Who is Mama White Snake? Who is Auntie Green? That comes from the script, first and foremost, but we also inform it with our own life experiences. We’re drawing inspiration from the strong women in our lives – I think the two of us are thinking very much about our mothers as we work on this show.
What message or theme has resonated with you while working on Mama White Snake?
Glen: Vive la difference! That’s one of the key messages of this show – celebrating difference and accepting diversity. I think that’s particularly important given what’s happening all around the world, not just in Singapore. We’re living in an age where there’s so much division, and everyone feels safer in their homogeneity.
Ivan: In Singapore, so much of our existence is predicated on what is considered ‘normal’. It means we don’t have much space for people who fall outside of that category. And yet, we know that the reality is people are not normal. We are all special, in our own way.
Are you looking forward to being a part of WILD RICE’s year-end musical extravaganza?
Ivan: Absolutely. I’m so proud of how far this W!LD RICE tradition has come. I think we’ve transcended the pantomime conventions that we borrowed from the UK. Now, we’re producing a full-scale, original musical every year, with a real integrity to its music. Increasingly, the shows we’re creating can be performed anytime, anywhere in the world. They’ve become timeless, ageless and universal.
Glen: That’s so true of Mama White Snake. Alfian has taken this classical folk tale and made it so contemporary and relevant for our times. And, despite the nightmares, performing in our pantomime is truly a joyous affair. Our audiences look forward to it every year. It’s such a happy occasion. So I’m really excited to have the opportunity to end 2017 in this way – celebrating life and the past year, with good friends on stage and off!