What A Dame!

Darius Tan is no stranger to the W!LD RICE pantomime. He’s played the traditional pantomime dame with relish, donning wigs, skirts and make-up to hilarious effect in the likes of Aladdin and Cinderel-LAH!. Here, he tells us about the “madcap fun” – and hard work! – that goes into transforming himself into a grand old dame.

Tell us about your character.

She’s Jack’s mother – a loving mother, obviously, but she’s got other ‘hobbies’ to pass the time and to make money. Nothing illegal, but it’s definitely a new way of making money in the Singapore era now. She likes to bet on her life on things, she likes to gamble with things. She likes to go to a specific place where there’s roulette and chips – I won’t say which place lah!

I think she’s a typical Singaporean mother who doesn’t express herself as much. You know, Asian mothers – they don’t say, ‘I love you’, they say, ‘Eh boy, what did you do today? Make sure you eat ah!’ That’s the part we want to let audiences see.

What’s it like playing the dame in a pantomime?

I can tell you what’s fun about it – you can do whatever you want! Of course, that must be in the line of the whole show lah. But you can take advantage of that. She’s larger than life. She gets to be the bawdiest, loudest, crassest character in the entire show, and people will still have to like her. You can’t make people hate her, ’cause she’s not the villain. I think that’s fun for me.

She’s also the one that deals with the lead actor the most. That’s fun, you see. To help the journey of the lead character travel, so to speak – like how I help Aladdin, and how Jack has a different journey as well. I think that’s fun.

How different is your Widow Neo from Ivan’s version?

It’s Ivan Heng – I’ll never be Ivan Heng! And I’d like to say Ivan would never be me as well. Joel Tan has written a very different version of Jack. Ivan’s got his way of doing it, and he’s directing it this time. He would want it to be totally different as well. That’s going to be fun for us.

What do you enjoy about being in a pantomime?

In pantomimes, I’ve always played the women. People boo at them, shout with them – it’s actually joyous. It’s very precious, that moment of the audience enjoying you onstage. The audience gets to participate. It’s the end of the year, people just like to have fun. I think that’s important in theatre now – to just have fun and to enjoy theatre. Of course, we want them to go back and think about what was being said, but just to entertain – it’s very important, because the world is so depressed now. I like to do happy theatre. Of course, I want to do serious stuff too, but when you do things that are funny, that are musical – the audience just likes to enjoy things that have music and dance and colourful costumes and glitzy sets and funny characters.

Here’s what is interesting about pantomime: some actors will probably say it’s very simple, and you just go up there and make people laugh. I tell you it’s not as simple as that. It’s not easy doing a pantomime. It’s not just ‘anyhow’ theatre. It involves a whole different set of skills, and it’s really hard work. It’s double the work of any show, because apart from the music and dancing and acting, you still have to deal with audience interaction. If you flub a line onstage or get heckled by the audience, you have to deal with that in character. You have to have the confidence to do that. W!LD RICE has really trained me in that sense, to work with the crowd. Some actors can do it, and some won’t be able to.

Any memorable moments of audience interaction?

In theatre, nothing is fixed. Things happen. But, in pantomime, things really happen. And then you’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, what do I do now?!’ I remember a moment in Cinderel-LAH!, when me and Enlai were running around in the audience, looking for the prince played by Sebastian Tan. We had to climb over the audience, Enlai in his Wonder Woman outfit, me in my Fiona outfit. At that time, there was a little gag that I had a third leg, which was cut in the second half of the run. It got entangled in one of the chairs and I couldn’t move! The song was starting already and I was all, ‘I gotta go!’ But I couldn’t drag it because if I rip it off, the whole skirt would come off! So I had to ask the audience to help me. It was very unglamourous! We had a big laugh about it and the audience loved it too.

How do you prepare for the role of the pantomime dame?

We live in Singapore – every day we see all the aunties, and I grew up with an assortment of aunties. So in that sense, it’s very easy to have that stereotype in your head. Maybe I’m a little bit ‘auntie’ myself so it’s easier for me to do that. But the love and the warmth of the character is where the director comes in to help me.

I’m growing my own nails now! For all pantomimes, I grow my own nails. That’s something I have to deal with in rehearsals and my daily life. We have a make-up artist to help us, but we do our own make-up. I believe that’s part of getting into character and it’s a must for me. For that, you have to look at different aunties in Singapore, ’cause they have different make-up and different facial expressions and hair. It’s all about slowly observing and working it out during rehearsals.

What’s it like working with the kids in the cast?

W!LD RICE Kids are all Broadway babies! They’re hand-picked – they audition and go through workshops and some of them are veterans who have done more pantomimes than I have! They’ve actually grown up doing the pantomime. It’s very good training. Of course they’re kids, so I’m not going to say they’re very disciplined all the time – they can be rowdy as well. But they know exactly what they’re doing, they know how they should handle an audience because they’re trained.

Our kids are all very smart children. There are instances when a prop drops on the floor. Normally, the adult actors will pick it up. But our kids, I tell you, are trained – they know that they should clear the stage to ensure that there’s no cluttering in the next scene. That’s professional! The questions they ask are quite smart as well. For choreography, they’ll ask if they’ll block the main actor – things like that. It makes you feel like you’re working with a professional group of people. You don’t treat them as kids. At the same time, they’re still children. They’re growing and they’re learning. So, as part of the adult cast, we help the kids as well. .

How about dealing with the kids in the audience?

You just have to make sure that you acknowledge them, and don’t diss them. It’s very important: you have to include them. There’s always audience interaction and they will interact with you and say things that are unexpected. So you must be ready. I think it’s a training for the actor as well. You can’t just stick to the script. You have to respond, but not in a way that would delay the whole show.

When the kids’ audience see kids onstage, they can relate to it, you see. Some of the kids say, ‘I watched this [other] show, and now I’m in the show!’ I won’t say it’s a dream, but it’s something they can work towards: ‘If this kid can do it, I can do it too.’ It goes back to education. If this character can save the world – I’m not saying you can! – but you can try to.

Any final thoughts on this year’s pantomime?

It takes a whole village to make a show. It’s not just you yourself who makes a character funny. The others must support you as well. I think that comes back to working together. And pantomime is like this. You must be fast and switch very fast. Elaine Chan has written some very beautiful music – it’s completely new and we’ve got very nice songs and we have people who can sing very beautifully like Caleb and Ethel.

We’ve got the original cast from the 2006 version, with new people as well. It’s a joy to be acting with Caleb again, my good friend who’s been missing for so many years! And, of course, my wonderful friends Siti Khalijah, Karen, Alecia, Candice and Jo and Gene and Qian Chou. We’re all very close-knit, the whole cast, so it’s easier to work in that sense. I’ve known Caleb for so long, I think we can work something magical there. It’s hard work but it’s fun work.

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