As a child, I always secretly harboured a desire to be a performer. I went for speech and drama classes, and I acted in school plays and things like that. But I don’t think I ever really thought of doing it as a career until I was much older, when I realised that there are people who actually do this for a living. That’s why I initially enrolled to study architecture in the University of Auckland. I never completed my degree, though – because I soon realised that I appreciated architecture as a discipline, but I didn’t really like doing it. At that point, I tried switching to drama school. But I couldn’t make it work before I had to come back to Singapore to serve National Service.
I love acting because you get to explore different worlds. Every job is different. With each new show you do, you get to enter a new world and learn, in a sense, a new language. You live this life for a few months, and it’s exciting and new. And then, you get to go on to explore something else. I think that’s why I like travelling too – because I like seeing new things!
It might surprise you to know this about me, but I still experience varying levels of terror before any show I do. As long as it’s live, I’m terrified. Five minutes before I go on, I’ll be asking myself: ‘What am I doing? Why do I do this to myself?’ To get over my nerves, I try to breathe a bit better. I try to trust myself – telling myself that once I get at least the first line correct, everything will flow from there. And I try not to freak myself out by thinking about, like, the fourth thing I’m supposed to do!
Returning to WILD RICE’s The Importance of Being Earnest has been a bizarre, lovely experience. It’s been five years since we last did the show in Brisbane, so it was very strange to pick up the script again. I found myself going, ‘Wow, this is all new to me. What show is this?!’ But it actually does come back to you, because it’s all there, somewhere… in my spleen or my pancreas or something! What’s really interesting this time around is that everything has changed because of the space we’re performing in – WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan. The blocking is completely different, so we’ve had to connect what’s deeply embedded in us, all these deja vu moments, while putting a bunch of new things together.
Performing in WILD RICE @ Funan is scary! I’ve never performed on a thrust stage before, and it’s insane having audiences on three sides of the stage and so close to you. I’m one of the few members of the cast who’s unlucky enough to be able to see the audience clearly while the show is going on. So, during our very first performance, I remember thinking, ‘Who are all of you people? And why are you so close to me??’ I was so stressed that I actually started having gastric problems. My stomach hurt, so I had to go back to the green room and eat cookies after my first scene!
But, terrifying though it might be, it’s also wonderful. That first night, the applause was so powerful I could feel it all the way up my ass crack!! [laughs] More seriously, it was so overwhelming that it actually moved me to tears. And the space is so intimate that you can observe audience reactions! The other night, I could see these two women in Balcony One – they obviously didn’t know the play, and they were loving it so much, gasping in shock at every revelation. It cracked me up, and it was incredible just to watch them relishing the play, to witness their pure delight.
One of my most memorable on-stage mishaps happened when I did a play called Prospero’s Children, based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I had two different scenes with Karen Tan, which were quite far apart. However, my first line was the same for both scenes. At one performance, I started doing the second scene first! Karen couldn’t say anything to me while we were on stage, but I could see it all in her eyes as she tried to will me back to the original scene – ‘You want the show to go faster ah?! Where exactly are you going with this, Enlai?!’
I’m inspired by everyone who works together to put together a piece of theatre. Even if I don’t like a show that much, because of its script or vision or whatever, I’m still well aware of how much work goes into putting on a show. As a host myself, I’m also inspired by Jimmy Fallon – he must have such a huge and amazing team that enables him to do what he does five times a week.
If I could give my younger self some advice, I would say: be open-minded and be a team player. And try to keep fit and be healthy! As performers, our jobs are physical ones; we can’t hide behind a keyboard. Our brains, our hearts, our bodies – they’re all we have. And you definitely need a lot of stamina in the theatre, because it’s live!
I love working in the theatre because it requires you to be present, to be in the moment. In the days before mobile phones, we used to be able to concentrate and focus on doing one thing at a time. These days, I find I’m always swiping, moving on to the next thing, and my attention span is getting shorter and shorter. What I love about theatre is that you can’t do a scene halfway and then just wander off! You’re doing what you’re doing with your utmost attention, and whoever is on stage with you is just as fully involved. You have to be there. And I think that’s an important thing to remember in this day and age!