Off Stage

Acting is like flying

Malaysian actress Cheryl Tan plays Ivy Chan, a small-town girl in Beauty World.
Malaysian actress Cheryl Tan plays Ivy Chan, a small-town girl in Beauty World.PHOTO: ALFRED PHANG

Ivy Chan - the small-town girl from Malaysia at the heart of Singapore theatre classic Beauty World - is reborn.

This time, she comes in the form of Malaysian actress Cheryl Tan, a singing-dancing-acting triple threat raring to take on the challenge of writing and directing next.

Beauty World returns to the stage next week.

  • BOOK IT / BEAUTY WORLD

  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre

    WHEN: Nov 13 to Dec 12. Tuesday to Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3 and 8pm; Sunday, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $28 to $128 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Tan, 26, says: "I was a lonely child. I didn't make friends easily. I just read a lot of books. And I was also quite naughty - never did my homework, hid behind the sofa from my piano teacher... People thought I was strange.

"So my mother sent me for speech and drama classes when I was about eight and I was hooked."

Michael Chiang's Beauty World, set in the outlandish world of a cabaret in 1960s Singapore, premiered in 1988. This will be its seventh staging.

What do you love about acting?

The most amazing feeling in the world is when you're completely immersed in a performance - no insecurities, no thoughts about technique. It's like you're totally blank and you just receive and channel energy, and you see everything with incredible clarity.

It's like you're flying. I think performers spend their whole lives chasing that feeling.

What's your favourite thing about being in Beauty World?

It's being involved in such an important piece of Singapore's theatre history. Based on the response we've been getting on social media, it's becoming clearer to me how much people love this show.

I'm Malaysian, so I've never really experienced Beauty World until now. I didn't have the emotional connection to it that my colleagues here do.

It's a huge privilege, but also a massive responsibility that I take very seriously.

What do you think of your character? Do you see yourself in her?

At first, I kind of thought she was a hapless damsel, but I've come to see her as an extraordinary young woman.

To be a woman in the 1960s who leaves home is no small thing and she goes all the way to the big city in another country with no money, no help and no plans. She encounters aggression and dangerous situations, but she perseveres. I think I share her sense of adventure and her non-conformism.

The role has been taken on by heavyweights such as Claire Wong. How does it feel stepping into such big shoes?

I've not watched any footage of previous productions so I can be sure that my take on Ivy is my own. For me, it's most daunting stepping into the shoes of Claire Wong, who is a director and actor I greatly respect.

Elena Wang, the last Ivy, is now understudying Lea Salonga on Broadway, so that's pretty crazy too.

I don't know if I'll ever get there, but there's no point comparing yourself to others or allowing others' opinions to disturb your stability. That way lies madness.

Do you have any habits or routines to get "into the zone" before you perform? A lucky item of some sort?

I have to make sure I eat. If I sing on an empty stomach, the pitch and stamina go haywire.

As for a lucky item, I've just bought a proper Japanese futon that lives in the rehearsal room so I can take super awesome naps during long breaks.

Out of singing, dancing and acting, which is your favourite?

These days, I'm exploring the creative and production side of theatre. I'm directing Nick Choo's Follow The Light in Kuala Lumpur immediately after Beauty World ends, and writing a new musical with veterans Michael Veerapen and Huzir Sulaiman that premieres next May.

I might be directing a show in Los Angeles next year and I've just completed vocal teacher training in New York and started my teaching studio, Voice KL.

You could say I get bored easily. Whatever I'm doing at the moment is my favourite thing.

Any favourite post-show spots?

I have yet to find a reliable mamak here - in KL, you go to the mamak as the default late-night place, but it's just not as much the culture here.

I've never been to the Victoria Theatre before, though, so I'm looking forward to exploring that area if I think my pocket can handle it.

What's the harshest criticism you have received and how did you deal with it?

When I was 14, my choir mistress told me I had an attitude problem. I was quite outspoken about trying to help everyone sing better, but it understandably irritated people.

Criticism is tricky because you can't improve without it, but you can't immediately tell who is being constructive and who is being destructive because you're emotionally compromised.

At the same time, you can't listen only to the opinions from your own circle because then you aren't getting a balanced perspective.

That's why theatre here and in KL is feudal - everyone mostly hangs out among themselves. Which is fine, but it means the culture of criticism in Malaysia and Singapore is really not quite mature yet. But it's okay. Slowly lah.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Acting is like flying'. Print Edition | Subscribe