M1-THE STRAITS TIMES LIFE THEATRE AWARDS

M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards: Strong women in the lead for Best Actress

The four nominees for Best Actress have impressed in their traditional female roles

Mother, daughter, wife, girlfriend - the performers up for Best Actress at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards both conformed to and subverted expectations of traditional female roles in plays.

All four nominees are also veteran contenders, whose acting chops have been recognised through multiple nominations in previous years.

Edith Podesta is nominated twice this year in the Best Actress category. In the work she wrote and directed, B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, she reclaimed a slur by playing both the canine pet and the feminist, human wife of a man suffering a stroke.

In Electra, Cake Theatrical Productions' version of the classical Greek tragedy, she played a princess plotting revenge against those who killed her father.

 

The stereotype of the sacrificial mother was displayed to heart-rending effect by Tan Kheng Hua in Falling, staged by Pangdemonium. She played a woman torn between love of her autistic son and the fact that caring for him damaged her relationships with the rest of her family.

Healing family ties was the heart of Jalyn Han's role in Grandmother Tongue, staged by Wild Rice. She moved audiences to tears as an aged Teochew speaker who has to rely on her English-speaking grandson to navigate Singapore today.

Comedy can be harder to pull off than tragedy and the fourth contender is actress Judee Tan, who made audiences laugh till they cried. Her multiple comic turns in Meenah And Cheenah by Dream Academy sent up racial stereotypes and celebrated female friendship.

Life speaks to the four contenders.


Best Actress Nominees

Tan Kheng Hua, 54


Tan Kheng Hua. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Nominated for: Falling (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: Nominated five other times for Best Actress, including for Autumn Tomyam (Action Theatre) in 2002, Invitation To Treat (Wild Rice) in 2004, Wife#11 (Action Theatre) in 2010 and Fear Of Writing (TheatreWorks) in 2012. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Mammon Inc 2 (Action Theatre) in 2003.

Previous wins: Best Actress for One Bed, Three Pillows: Pillow Talk (Action Theatre) in 2002

Up for Production Of The Year, Pangdemonium's staging of Falling was the tear-jerker to watch in 2016. Significant credit for this goes to Tan's portrayal of a parent stretched to her limits while caring for an autistic man-child.

Getting into the character written by American playwright Deanna Jent was physically demanding for Tan. At one point, her character is violently attacked by her son (Andrew Marko, whose portrayal won him a Best Actor nomination this year) and nearly has her hair ripped out.

The role was emotionally demanding, requiring research into the lives of families who deal daily with balancing the demands of a special-needs relative.

Asked how she coped, the actress talks about her ability to compartmentalise. Then adds: "At the end of the day, it was very nice to go home to my little family." She is married to actor Lim Yu-Beng, 51, who is nominated in this year's awards for Best Actor for his performance in the comedy Art, staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre. Their 19-year-old daughter also acts.

Tan is also nominated this year for Best Supporting Actress for The Effect, another Pangdemonium production. In this, she played a researcher worried about the ethics of experimenting on human subjects.

Another role she played last year has also been recognised through nominations. Tan produced The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, which funded original work such as Cafe, written by Joel Tan and directed by Chen Yingxuan. Cafe is up for Best Original Script, while the cast has been nominated for Best Ensemble.

Tan says: "I think it's very nice to be an older actress. You have enough life in you to reinvent yourself."


Judee Tan, 36


Judee Tan. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Nominated for: Meenah And Cheenah (Dream Academy)

Previous nominations: For Best Supporting Actress in Chestnuts 3D (Stages) in 2011, and in Chestnuts Does Christmas Like A Hard Candy Virgin (Stages) in 2010

Previous wins: None

Tan says her nomination for Best Actress comes at an interesting time. After 10 years in theatre, the 36-year-old was wondering whether or not to change direction.

"I want to be honest," she says. "I've been doing this for so long, it does make me tired."

Acting is hard, adds the actress, whose stage debut was with Toy Factory Production's Titoudao in 2007. "You have to keep trying to make sure the audience gets what it paid for. If the ticket price is $135, they walk away with $155."

Many felt her comic turns in Dream Academy's Meenah And Cheenah were well worth the entry price.

The Straits Times' reviewer Cheong Suk-Wai commented that Tan never over-played her hand in over-the-top sketches that illustrated cultural and racial clashes.

Whether acting as a ghost or Chinese princess Hang Li Po, who was married to the Sultan of Malacca in the 15th century, Tan's performance was perfectly pitched against the Malay characters played by Siti Khalijah Zainal.

"Meenah And Cheenah is about racism, stereotyping, the obvious clashes, things we don't want to talk about," says Tan.

"Comedy allows us to release the fear we have in discussing these topics."

The idea for the production arose when Tan and Siti shared a dressing room in 2012 during Dream Academy's stand-up comedy, Happy Ever Laughter.

They pulled funny faces at each other in the mirror while posing in ethnically inspired costumes and called each other "meenah" and "cheenah".

Last year, Dream Academy turned their backstage banter into a full-fledged show, scripted by a team led by playwright Alfian Sa'at.

Around the same time, Tan was also co-writer, director and performing in the stage version of Mediacorp's The Noose comedy show. It was fun but exhausting and made her question her future.

The nomination for Best Actress has come as a shot in the arm.

"It never occurred to me how nice it would be to be affirmed," she says. "It's a sign. All right, if people still want me to do this."


Jalyn Han, 55


Jalyn Han. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Nominated for: Grandmother Tongue (Wild Rice/Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for First Light (Toy Factory) in 2009, Best Supporting Actress for Tartuffe (Nine Years Theatre) last year

Previous wins: None

Actress Han balances easily on one leg for the photo shoot, belying the tottering frailty that won her a Best Actress nomination this year.

In Grandmother Tongue, she wrung hearts as an 80something Teochew-speaking woman who is increasingly cut off from others in Singapore, where people are encouraged to speak Mandarin instead of Chinese dialects.

Grandmother Tongue, presented by Wild Rice as part of its Singapore Theatre Festival, is also up for Production Of The Year.

Writer-director Thomas Lim is nominated for Best Original Script this year. Cast member Rei Poh is up for Best Supporting Actor.

Portraying the physically frail main character was no hardship for a veteran actress who started her career with the late Kuo Pao Kun's Lao Jiu in 1989.

Han is trained in the Suzuki method, which builds a performer's awareness of her body.

Speaking Teochew was the challenge. She is Hainanese. She had to take lessons in intonation and pronunciation from a fellow actor.

"It was difficult," she says, but worth it.

Members of the audience came to her in tears after some performances.

One viewer was reminded of her own late grandmother. The actress says: "It was very heart-warming. She looked at me and her tears just fell."

Han's own sister was one of those in the audience who was deeply moved. Both were reminded of their late mother, who remained determined to show no weakness and to control her own life to the end.

"I'm very grateful to Wild Rice for bringing out new playwrights," says Han. "We cannot always present old work."


Edith Podesta, 37


Edith Podesta. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Nominated for: B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species (Edith Podesta, presented by M1 Singapore Fringe Festival) and Electra (Cake Theatrical Productions)

Previous nominations: Best Ensemble for Home Boxes (Paper Monkey Theatre) in 2011, Best Director and Best Original Script for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta; presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay) in 2015, Best Supporting Actress for Versus (Cake Theatrical Productions) last year

Previous wins: Best Actress for Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions) in 2014, Best Ensemble for Dark Room x8 (Edith Podesta; presented by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay) in 2015

This is Podesta's year. The Australia-born actress is contending against herself, among others, for Best Actress.

The work she wrote, starred in and directed - B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species - is also up for Best Script, Best Director and Production Of The Year.

Another play she wrote and directed and presented with the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Dark Room, is up for Best Ensemble as well as Best Lighting Design (done by Adrian Tan).

Podesta says she is overwhelmed by the slew of nominations this year. "It's also validating my decision to leave full-time teaching positions and a full-time pay cheque." She stopped teaching at Lasalle College of the Arts in 2015 to focus on theatre and art.

B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species "comes out of years of living a feminist life", she says. In it, she played with spoken and body language to portray the canine companion and also the human wife of a man having a stroke. The work reminds viewers that a word thought of as a slur merely means "female dog".

Podesta, who has a partner and no children, grew up playing rough and tumble with 12 dogs and loves animals. In 2010, she shared a performance space with a stallion for eight hours in Horse: After Joseph Beuys. She says: "I adore animals. In some ways, I think animals are far more truthful than humans."

Humans are horrifically deceitful in the second play that won her a Best Actress nomination: Electra by Cake Theatrical Productions. That rendition of the Greek tragedy was played with pop music and vivid contemporary elements that are characteristic of director Natalie Hennedige.

The core, however, remained Electra's persistent fight to avenge her murdered father.

"Being nominated for Electra is like Natalie being nominated," Podesta says. "She's the reason I got to act in Singapore. She took the chance to work with me."

Akshita Nanda

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Strong women in the lead'. Print Edition | Subscribe