ACTING: WHERE DO WE START?
Whenever I tell people that I am studying theatre acting, I always get the same set of responses: “Can make money?” “Acting so easy, must go school ah?” “So I will see you on Suria soon?”
The answer to all of these questions is “Yes”, although I don’t know how soon you will see me on Suria or television. I can only hope that I would get the opportunity. When asked about the specifics of what I do, I never know exactly where to start: Do I tell the Grab driver uncle about having to learn Beijing Opera right now? Or that part of my training is climbing a hill at 7.30 a.m for Taiji exercises? How do I explain to my aunt why I need to go to school so I can pretend to be other people?
I’m sure there are plenty of theatre students and even professional actors out there who find it hard to make people see just how much goes into what we do, so I’m writing this in hopes that it helps readers – including myself – understand what it is we do, and why we do it.
ACTING NEED TO GO TO SCHOOL ONE MEH?
I’m currently studying at the Intercultural Theatre Institute, or ITI, a lesser-known private theatre institution in Singapore compared to LASALLE College of the Arts or the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Prior to that, I went down a fairly typical, and Singaporean, educational path where I did my ‘O’ Levels at Anderson Secondary School, my ‘A’ Levels at Temasek Junior College, graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Studies from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and held a full-time job.
However, throughout my schooling and working life, I had always been involved in theatre, either as a co-curricular activity (CCA) or through external training programmes. Acting has been a lifelong dream, and ever since I joined an after-class speech and drama programme at the AMP Kindergarten in Katong, I knew it was something I wanted to do, be it on stage, television, or the silver screen. I also saw performing as a way of telling the stories that matter. As such, sometime in 2016, I decided to leave all the economic safety of mainstream full-time employment in order to pursue that dream.
Nevertheless, I knew that I didn’t have the necessary tools an actor needs to captivate the audience, such as onstage presence, vocal projection, or the techniques for creating a character after reading a script.
Apart from the technicalities, I also knew that an actor’s body needs to be athletic: full of vitality, versatile and agile.
I once went to an audition, and was told, “I see a good actor, but she’s trapped in your body”, meaning that my body was not expressing the same things my voice and intention were expressing. It couldn’t keep up.
Just as a musician’s tool is her instrument, a writer’s her words, and a painter’s her paints and brushes, an actor’s tools are her body, emotions and energy. Where most artists could separate their tools to make art from themselves, an actor does not have the same privilege. As such, training becomes all the more important in order to build such a clarity. However, going to acting school never seemed like an option for me.
The first reason is that I am an only child and had shown a proclivity for academic studies. As such, there were expectations from my family and a sense of responsibility from myself to pursue a path that would make it seem that my parents were successful in raising me. Furthermore, acting training in Singapore are only offered in private institutions. Course fees are expensive and when I was graduating from junior college, my father had just been retrenched. I didn’t know where I could apply to for financial help, especially for private education in a non-mainstream course of study. I did not see how I would ever make it to even LASALLE or NAFA, and never considered going overseas.
All these points considered, I chose to pursue a university education instead.
SO WHICH SCHOOL?
An opportunity presented itself when I was at one of the events for the Singapore Writers’ Festival in 2015 during which graduating students from ITI performed their final year showcases made up of their individual devised work. The moment they started performing, I knew I had to find out more about this school.
That same night, I met T. Sasitharan, one of the founders of the school, and its current director. He spoke to me with great warmth, sincerity and focus, informing me that he would love to tell me more about the school, and encouraged me to apply. At the end of the brief, but life-changing conversation, he handed me his name card, which I still keep in my wallet to this day.
The school’s other founder was the late Kuo Pao Kun, a man who has often been considered to be the ‘father of Singapore theatre’ for his commitment to staging the inherent realities of Singaporean society. At the time he was writing for and creating theatre, people were only making, performing, and watching theatre performances within their own race or dialect group. However, Kuo wanted to create an encompassing ‘Singapore’ theatre, rather than separate Malay, Hakka, or English theatre. Famously, he wrote and staged Singapore’s first multilingual play titled, Mama Looking For Her Cat, which contains a scene of a Hokkien-speaking auntie trying to communicate with a Tamil-speaking uncle, an everyday truth that he saw as part of daily life in Singapore. Kuo kept moving forward with this idea of intercultural theatre, and it eventually led to him founding ITI.
ITI continues with its vision of trying to discover ways of allowing interculturality to exist on stage. The question that is often asked of us is, ‘In a world where we often try to suppress or iron out differences to create a veneer of sameness, how can we change to look at all our differences as something worthy of working with and of sharing?’
The training at ITI reflects the intercultural approach and mindset. Students’ training comprises both contemporary western acting techniques, as well as traditional eastern forms. Students are trained in four Asian traditional forms, namely Noh from Japan, Wayang Wong from Indonesia, Kudiyattam from India, and Beijing Opera from China. Each of these forms have a unique set of ideas about time, space, concepts of beauty and the nature, and role, of art.
To illustrate this, in Noh, movements are distilled to the bare minimum, so each movement has great energy and emotion concentrated into it. Although, the idea of ‘emotion’ you might have in mind is probably not what is correct in Noh, where the actors’ faces are often covered by a mask, or if not, kept as blank as possible.
Even the music is simple, repetitive and muted. The use of voice borders on being monotonous, and sounds almost like chanting. In modern Japanese aesthetics, this minimalism is still clearly reflected. Contrary to Japanese art forms, Indian art and culture is well-known for being vibrant, saturated, and immersive, sometimes to the point of being overwhelming. Kudiyattam is a 2000-yearold Sanskrit dramatic form where the movements are generally quite open and big. Emotions are clearly displayed on the face and extend into the body, following the knowledge of the Navarasas from the Natyasastra. The drumbeats are deafening and mesmerising. Voices are used to their extremes to convey pure emotion.
ACTOR TRAINING IS LIKE TRAINING FOR THE OLYMPICS
Training is from 8 am to 6 pm every weekday, and, as one can imagine, keeping to such a daily schedule can be exhausting. Classes are almost exclusively practical, giving students little to no opportunity to sit down, or take notes.
In the first year, one of our foundation classes was ‘Movement for Acting & Performance’, which comprises routines made up of an amalgamation of aerobics, dance, and gymnastics. The class is designed to get us moving and using our bodies in efficient ways, getting rid of bad habits we have built up over the course of our lives. The trainer, Lim Chin Huat, has created a very special mopping sequence for this class, which we use to improve the use of our joints and the extension of our energy to all our limbs. As someone who has lived her life as a couch potato, I had plenty to correct, and still do. For example, I was using my quadriceps way more than needed as a result of posture and poor body use when doing things like climbing stairs. Since this class, I have relearn how to do simple things like standing and walking for more efficient energy and muscle use.
Students also need to take a ‘Voice’ class in which we discover different ways to use our vocal instrument and work on using it in performance. In taiji and yoga, we learn how to control the flow of energy by working physically with our bodies. The amount of physical work that goes into each class means that at the end of the day, students are often ready to fall to the floor and not move.
WELL WORTH THE HARDSHIP AND SACRIFICE
It was a difficult transition to go from someone who barely used her body (and in fact, barely liked to) to someone who has to use her body in ways that are often wildly uncomfortable for at least 10 hours. Within the second week of school I had already broken down crying, convinced that I was not meant to be here. My Beijing Opera teacher even went so far as to call me “the most physically uncoordinated person” she had ever met.
However, I always recall my Taiji shifu’s view of the school’s core training: developing a good attitude towards hardship and that one must still get up and put in the work. Everything is work and every passion needs work. The important grounding lesson, I found, is to stay: accept one’s limitations and to work on moving the boundaries of those limitations further and further through small, incremental improvements and change. Through this, I found that the journey is as much the destination and I would not change that for another day in the corporate office. ⬛
Tysha Khan is a Singapore-based actor and writer who has been a performer all her life. She has been involved in a number of productions, both on and backstage, and worked with theatre companies such as Teater Kami, HuM Theatre, and UNSAID. Also a screen and voice talent, Tysha hopes to increase her experience in those fields as well. She also hopes to further understand the human voice, and teach vocal training one day. She is currently pursuing her training at the Intercultural Theatre Institute, where she is a recipient of the ITI scholarship. She also won the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award in 2017, given to Malay/Muslim youths who have the potential to be role models for the community.