Best Actress

Best Actress nominees: From politician to femme fatale

LI XIE

Nominated for: Legends Of The Southern Arch (The Theatre Practice)

Previous nominations: Best Actress for White Songs (Drama Box, 2003) and The Vaginalogue (Drama Box, 2004), Best Supporting Actress for Temple (Drama Box, 2009)

Previous wins: Best Supporting Actress for Happy (Drama Box, 2006)

 

For her role as the toxin-mixing innkeeper Wu Duya in The Theatre Practice's martial arts play, Legends Of The Southern Arch, actress Li Xie learnt to fight, roll, kick and twirl daggers.

It was no mean feat even for the taiji practitioner of five years, who suffered mild injuries while working on the production.

"Eventually it became easier, kind of like choreography.

"Our movements became more fluid, so we did not need to exert ourselves so much," she says.

The straight-talking Li, 44, tells The Straits Times that she does not know why she has been nominated.

"I didn't find the role to be any more challenging than others I had done before," she says.

But in the review of Legends Of The Southern Arch, Straits Times reviewer Ho Ai Li praised her line delivery and for "skilfully surfacing delicate emotions on the big stage".

The play, written by Liu Xiaoyi, tells the familiar tale of rival martial arts sects fighting for a secret manual that promises its possessor wisdom and power.

Li, who is single, wears her cool assuredness effortlessly, much like the long grey shawl she unfurls to pose in for this photo shoot.

Her favourite character from the Chinese martial arts canon is Linghu Chong in Louis Cha's novel The Smiling Proud Wanderer because "he's a person who lives life in his own way and that's what I'm doing."

She is also part of the team nominated this year for Best Director for Drama Box's It Won't Be Too Long, a trilogy of works which includes an interactive piece titled The Lesson, in which various parties, including audience members, debate what building should be demolished to make way for a new MRT station.

Li, who facilitated The Lesson, will take it to Taipei in December.

She readily admits that while she misses acting, she finds it "more liberating" to direct.

"At this point, I'm not keen to do conventionally staged shows.

"I like to explore the relationship between the show and the audience, and how audiences drive a show. Uncertainties like that excite me."


OON SHU AN

Nominated for: Chinglish (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: Best Original Script for #UnicornMoment (Checkpoint Theatre and The Esplanade, 2015) Despite a steamy bedroom scene in which she was almost naked, actress Oon Shu An did not regret inviting her family to watch the play Chinglish.

"I didn't realise it was so risque till we got down to doing the scene. By then, I'd already invited them, so they came and I just did it.

"After the show, my poor dad awkwardly said, 'Good job'. He had a drink in his hand. We haven't talked about it since," she recalls with a laugh.

In Chinglish, Oon, 29, plays Xi Yan, a conniving yet vulnerable Chinese vice-minister who falls for the main character, American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Daniel Jenkins), who is trying to expand his family's signage business in China.

She sums up her character with the Chinese word "jue", but demurs when this reporter loosely translates it to mean "vindictive".

"This is one of those words with no direct translation. She's hard- hearted, but not evil, and she wants what she wants." says Oon, who engaged a private tutor to drill her in Mandarin for the David Henry Hwang play.

She adds: "We had to understand our Chinese characters as they're not Singaporean Chinese. Though my ethnicity is Chinese, when I looked at the script, the culture was not familiar to me."

Oon, who is single, will star in the Singapore film anthology 4 Love this year. She is also re-shaping her #UnicornMoment2, a YouTube video series which was originally shown at last year's Singapore Writers Festival.

She says: "I'm looking forward to collaborating with different artists. I want to experiment ."


SITI KHALIJAH ZAINAL

Nominated for: Off Centre (Oliver Chong; The Esplanade's Studios:fifty)

Previous nominations: How Did The Cat Get So Fat (Teater Ekamatra, 2007), Nadirah (Teater Ekamatra, 2010), Desire At The Melancholic String Concert (The Esplanade, 2012)

Previous wins: Model Citizens (The Necessary Stage, 2011)

Siti Khalijah Zainal, who can have audiences doubled over in laughter one second and in tears the next, admits to "bawling her eyes out" after watching a 2007 re-staging of Off Centre, playwright Haresh Sharma's seminal 1993 play about mental illness in Singapore.

The 30-year-old, who is single, says the play is one of her favourites because "it's so relevant and real, and the characters are realistic".

Naturally, she leapt at the opportunity when she was asked to play Saloma, a lower-income former vocational student battling schizophrenia, in the Esplanade's 2015 revival of the play for its The Studios: fifty series.

To research the role, she and her fellow cast members were allowed into the Institute Of Mental Health to observe patients. She also looked up information on schizophrenia online.

She says: "Most people think it's easy to act crazy - just make weird noises. But they are real humans. How do you be that character, instead of acting?

"Saloma goes through many different levels of emotions. So my challenge was to chart that emotional journey - it's a fragile process. I am happy that the work has created more awareness about such issues."

She will tackle productions ranging from the comedy Meenah And Cheenah next month to a re-staging of Wild Rice's epic Hotel in July.

She says: "I am very lucky as I enjoy what I'm doing. Even if I get typecast, I take it as a challenge and try to make my role different."


KAREN TAN

Nominated for: Emily Of Emerald Hill (The Esplanade)

Previous nominations: Eight Best Actress nominations including Autumn Tomyam (Action Theatre, 2003), To Whom It May Concern (The Finger Players, 2012) and Goh Lay Kuan & Kuo Pao Kun (TheatreWorks, 2013); four Best Supporting Actress nominations including Invitation To Treat (Wild Rice, 2004) and Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol. 3 (Wild Rice, 2008)

Previous wins: Iron (Action Theatre, 2004)

Karen Tan is tired of always being the bridesmaid, almost never the bride at the Life Theatre Awards.

"So many times? And the first award was 12 years ago? You guys have to stop nominating me," says the actress, when this reporter ticks off her past nominations.

Tan, 49, is easily one of the most nominated actresses at the awards, with 12 nods in her career so far. She has won once for Best Actress.

She is up for her eighth shot at the award for her turn as the titular character in the Esplanade's re-staging of Stella Kon's monodrama Emily Of Emerald Hill.

And while other fellow veteran actors such as Ivan Heng and Margaret Chan have each put their own spin on the fearsome matriarch, Tan was not too stressed about having to fill their shoes.

"I did replace certain words in the script with Peranakan patois. For the scenes where Emily speaks to her mother-in-law in English, I translated it to Baba because that's how she'd have spoken," says Tan, who is Peranakan.

She is married to a gynaecologist and they have two daughters aged 20 and 11.

The Esplanade's staging, directed by Aidli Alin Mosbit, ran for about 90 minutes with no intermission, shorter compared with previous versions of the play which lasted about two hours on average.

"The director and I felt there was no need to drag out the story for too long. I panicked a lot because there was so much text to learn.

"And it's so lonely to do a monologue. You finish the whole chunk, and oh, it's still me, and everyone is waiting for you to get it lah, Karen," she recalls, chuckling.

For the last scene in the play, when an aged Emily looks back on her life and the mistakes she has made, Tan studied her 87-year-old father who has dementia.

"People of that generation have faded away. The things they believe in, like hard work and self-sacrifice, are gone. So Emily finds herself alone - that's what happens to people with dementia in the end.

"So in some ways, that was a tribute to my dad because he was always the one cutting out articles about me and supporting me in everything."



PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE, DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

NEO SWEE LIN

Nominated for: Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC) (Teater Ekamatra)

Previous nominations: wo(men) (SingTheatre, 2011), Best Supporting Actress for Romeo & Juliet (Wild Rice, 2013)

Previous wins: Best Supporting Actress for Nadirah (Teater Ekamatra, 2010)

Veteran actress Neo Swee Lin is the polar opposite of the Best Actress role she is nominated for.

In person, the bubbly Neo, 52, hams it up for the photo shoots, pulling faces and gesticulating animatedly for the camera.

Her character, Catherine Seah, is a prim and proper but idealistic school principal who is paraded as the token Chinese minority political candidate by her political party in the satire Geng Rebut Cabinet, written by playwright Alfian Sa'at.

She says of Seah: "She enters Parliament thinking it's the only way to make a change. She gives up her beliefs, gets elected then finds herself appointed Speaker. So she is suddenly made a symbol - the first Chinese woman, but all she has to do is keep time and order, keep quiet and listen to the debate when she has so much to say."

She says she thoroughly enjoyed giving a rally speech in the play, as she has become more engaged with politics in recent years.

"I came alive in the 2011 General Election when Vincent Wijeysingha, who was then with Singapore Democratic Party, ran in my constituency. That was the first time my husband and I went to the rallies," says Neo, who also played opposition politician Teo Soh Lung in Cooling Off Day, a 2011 political play, also by Alfian.

She is married to fellow actor Lim Kay Siu. The couple do not have children.

She says: "I'd never go near to being a politician in real life. But to be able to play one and make this speech about human rights and equality, that's something."

To watch the Best Actress nominees share anecdotes on their productions, go to http://str.sg/ZvEn

For more stories on the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, go to str.sg/Zy7U

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'From politician to femme fatale'. Print Edition | Subscribe