Best Supporting Actress

Meet the Life Theatre Awards nominees for Best Supporting Actress

This year's Best Supporting Actress nominees were never far from the spotlight, filling the stage with scene-stealing performances.

Theatre practitioner Edith Podesta tackled with ease the character of the troubled Mary in Cake Theatrical Productions' Versus, up-and-comer Frances Lee belted her way into the spotlight as Rosemary in Beauty World and Chinese theatre veteran Jalyn Han left the audience in stitches as the maidservant Dorine in Nine Years Theatre's Tartuffe.

Stage mother and daughter collide as well.

 

This category sends Serene Chen and Yap Yi Kai up against each other for their roles in Wild Rice's Public Enemy, where they play the wife and daughter of a disgraced scientist.

The award, among others, will be given out on April 25 at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards ceremony, an invitation-only event at the Esplanade Recital Studio.


JALYN HAN

Nominated for: Tartuffe (Nine Years Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for First Light (Toy Factory, 2009)

Soft-spoken Jalyn Han, blinking behind thick-framed glasses, comes across as perfectly unassuming at first glance.

But once she gets into position for the photo shoot, she proves herself a comic force to be reckoned with, exploding into a rapid-fire series of outlandish poses with no need for direction: wide-eyed, cheeks ballooning, eyebrows cocked and shoulders up to her ears in a parody of shock.

It is easy to see why Life theatre reviewer Corrie Tan singled her out as a bright spot in Nine Years Theatre's Chinese adaptation of Tartuffe, one of French playwright Moliere's most famous comedies.

As the maidservant Dorine, Han, 54, brought "a bounce into every step", wrote Tan, adding: "She is smart and sarcastic and animated, and laughter follows in her wake."

The veteran of the Chinese theatre scene, with almost four decades of experience under her belt, says she ramped up her workouts for the role.

"Dorine is a very impatient character who can't stay still, so it's important I keep my stamina up for the whole play," she says.

Besides attending training in the Suzuki method - which involves actors going through exercises that focus, for one thing, on breathing and energy production - she doubled the duration of her brisk-walking, which she does four times a week, from 45 to 90 minutes.

And the role of the saucy, sharp-eyed Dorine was a delight for Han.

"Dorine has the lowest status in the house, but she is the one that sees everything most clearly and in the most detail. Because she's just a servant, she has to rely on her wits to survive in her world, surrounded by people of higher status."

She adds: "So when playing Dorine, I just bring out the witty and merciless part of me to fulfil the role."


YAP YI KAI

Nominated for: Public Enemy (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: None

You can spot shades of the spunky Yap Yi Kai - determined and passionate - in her character Patricia Chee. In Wild Rice's Public Enemy, Patricia is her disgraced scientist father's biggest champion, "not just because he was her father, but also because he stood up for hard truths".

She was also a schoolteacher who did not entirely agree with the school's values, dreaming instead of setting up a school of her own. That, says Yap, 24, is the part she identifies with most. Rehearsals for the show had started just as she left a company where she had been teaching once a week for some extra income.

But, she says: "Over time, I'd found out that the people in charge cared much more about getting more kids enrolled than about the actual content of the lessons."

While she usually loves working with children, it left her jaded. "I usually love working with children and in that period, I actually wondered if I did at all because the classes were so hard to enjoy - it's hard to love teaching something you don't believe in," she says.

Through Public Enemy, she met R. Chandran, who plays Captain Ravi Kumar, a loyal friend of her father in the play, and got involved with Act 3 Theatrics teaching children, including those with special needs.

"Imagine that - all this wonderfulness happened because of Patricia Chee. Thank you, babe, I love you and I'm so glad we met," says Yap. "I think you would have been proud of how things turned out, Patricia."

She took on the role of Patricia with flair, with former Life arts editor Clarissa Oon praising her for her "sassy and spirited" performance.

But, Yap says figuring the role out took some time, trying to reconcile the character's "seeming prudishness and full-of-moral-fibre-ness" with the fact that she was self-aware and intelligent.

"For a moment, I even thought, 'Whoa what a manipulative b****. Cool, even sexier'," she says. "And then eventually, with director Glen Goei's help, I had my questions about Patricia answered and learnt how to navigate the character, her motives and her actions."


FRANCES LEE

Nominated for: Beauty World (Singapore Street Festival)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actress for Fat Pig (Pangdemonium, 2015)

At age eight, Frances Lee was picked by singer Jacintha Abisheganaden - then her singing teacher - for the role of the bubbly Rosemary Joseph in a children's version of Singapore theatre classic Beauty World.

For last year's revival of Beauty World, Lee, 25, found herself stepping into those familiar shoes, playing Rosemary with verve and bagging herself a nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the process.

She caught the eye of Life theatre reviewer Tan Li Min, who described her as a powerhouse whose "every pore oozed moxie".

Lee, a theatre graduate from the Lasalle College of the Arts, says: "Playing Rosemary when I was a kid was my first big thing. So playing her again kind of feels like coming full circle. This role just means so much to me. Now there's all this sentimentality and nostalgia to it. And to do it with (composer) Dick Lee and (playwright) Michael Chiang, it was just great. And Jacintha came on opening night to watch it too."

For Beauty World, singing was her biggest challenge. Lee's first "real" musical was Wild Rice's Monkey Goes West (2014), but she played a man in it, so she could sing in a comfortably low register.

Rosemary, as she says, was initially a role filled by the "phenomenal" Abisheganaden.

"The songs were really hard to sing. They are not the kind where you can fake it, so it was quite daunting. But we had vocal training and I made sure I was doing something with my voice as long as I was awake," says Lee. "And now, my voice is of huge importance to me. I want to continue doing things to make it better."

She is taking flamenco lessons for an upcoming production inspired by the life of a flamenco dance master, just one in her jam-packed line-up for the year.

"I'm at a point in my career, where there are a lot of possibilities I want to explore... I want to be open to everything," she says.

"I want to do everything and be able to do everything. So if I can learn a new skill, I want to learn it. If I can pick up something new, I want to pick it up. I want that challenge and I want to stock up on abilities that will allow me to fully explore the realm of performing."


SERENE CHEN

Nominated for: Public Enemy (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: Best Actress for Wills And Secessions (Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, 2005) and Best Supporting Actress for Charged (Teater Ekamatra, 2011)

Previous wins: Best Supporting Actress for Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol 2 (Wild Rice, 2005) and Best Supporting Actress for 8 Women (Sing'theatre, 2014)

As Katherine Chee, the pragmatic wife of an idealistic scientist and the mother of a headstrong daughter, Serene Chen saw a character driven by a mother's instinct and protective spirit.

In Wild Rice's Public Enemy, Dr Thomas Chee, played by Ivan Heng, discovers the water in his town - the "spa hub of the region" - is toxic.

Even though this revelation will crush the city's reputation, he decides to make it public. But this meets with heavy backlash: He is loathed and rejected as people turn on him, terrified that his findings will affect the economy.

In his wife Katherine, Dr Chee finds support and a dose of realism.

Chen, 41, who has three children aged four to nine, says: "Katherine is a kind of balancing force. Of course, who isn't concerned that the water is poisoned? But at the same time, there's some pragmatism to her. There are things you have to protect, even while you want to go for the truth.

"Katherine represents that kind of strength, as well as the paradox that mothers very often have to deal with when they protect their child. How do you know to draw the line between telling your child, 'Go all the way, fight for what is right' or saying 'Look, be sensible, this is not the time. Hold back'."

Former Life arts editor Clarissa Oon praised Chen for giving Katherine "the right note of realism and resignation to be a foil to him".

Working opposite the dynamic Heng, says Chen, was a treat. "Dr Chee is different from day to day. Some days Ivan is very affected by the injustice, as supplied by other characters on stage. On certain days, he's very strong in retorting, on other days, I can feel he is human and he's feeling crushed by it all," she says.

"Ivan is a very sensitive performer and his concentration level is so high, I think it can't help but rub off on us. So from moment to moment, playing the wife, I need to be responsive to the changes and I liked that very much."


EDITH PODESTA

Nominated for: Versus (Cake Theatrical Productions)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for Home Boxes (Paper Monkey Theatre, 2011), Best Director and Best Original Script for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta, 2015)

Previous wins: Best Actress for Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2014), Best Ensemble for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta, 2015)

The magnetic Edith Podesta had just conquered her role as a troubled Mary, haunted by voices in her head, in Cake Theatrical Productions' epic Versus, but was already hurtling towards to her next adventure.

It was not a sprawling production that had her devoting long hours to rehearsal and research for a demanding role. The 35-year-old took on the Pieterpad, a rambling, 492km walking route in the Netherlands, once the show wrapped.

She started the walk in September and finished it in about five weeks. And rehearsals for Versus, she quips, had prepared her for the long walk.

"I had spent some time at the beginning of the rehearsal process training for this, but once rehearsals were in full swing, I no longer had the time," she says. "Surprisingly, I never experienced any physical discomfort during the walk and realised that rehearsals were preparation enough. So, a full day of Versus rehearsal is equal to a day of walking?"

She is no stranger to the Life Theatre Awards, having been nominated for categories from Best Director to Best Actress. Last year, her show Dark Room x8, staged as a work-in-progress under Esplanade's The Studios' Raw platform for developmental works, clinched the award for Best Ensemble.

For her, taking on the role - which was inspired by Mary Magdalene - was a new test of her limits. She dove into research, reading up on the life of Mary Magdalene and looking into borderline personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder.

The effort paid off. Podesta, wrote Life theatre reviewer Corrie Tan, was "truly excellent".

Podesta says: "My character's fortune rose and fell quite rapidly over the course of the performance because the play encompassed such a wide historical breadth, and that was something I've never been challenged to do so extensively.

"In addition to playing Mary, I got to play a ditzy pterodactyl in the second act, so (playwright) Michelle Tan had given me the gift of a comedic outlet within the turbulence of Mary's dramatic arc."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Scene-stealers'. Print Edition | Subscribe