Off Stage

Witchy role started love of acting

To speak Baba Malay fluently in Si Wanggeh, actress Yap Yi Kai (above) listened to recordings made by her co-star in the play.
To speak Baba Malay fluently in Si Wanggeh, actress Yap Yi Kai (above) listened to recordings made by her co-star in the play.PHOTO: S. JAAFAR ALKAFF

Despite having never spoken a word of Baba Malay in her life, actress Yap Yi Kai gamely took on the role of Lucy Lim, the protagonist in Si Wanggeh, which requires her to speak the language fluently on stage.

The play, staged by Peranakan Siblings, is about a group of women who hold a seance to invoke a deity. It runs at Raffles Hotel's Jubilee Hall on Friday and Saturday.

Yap, 24, says: "I recorded Irene Ong, one of my producers and co-actors in the play, saying my lines and went home and listened to them over and over. Sometimes, the other actors would watch my scenes in rehearsals and give me tips too."

Describe your first show.

My first memory of acting was in this thing called Character Parade in school - in Primary 4, I think - where we had to play a character from a fairy tale and prepare our own script, costumes and props.

I played the witch in Hansel And Gretel - the nice witch at first, luring the kids into the house, and when they entered, I put on this evil mask and played the bad witch who put them in the oven.

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I was terrified of any form of public speaking when I was little and, at the start of my scene, I remember I was really scared, even though the audience consisted only of my classmates and teachers.

But when I put on that mask, everything changed. My face was covered and, suddenly, I wasn't scared anymore. I went all out, cackling like there was no tomorrow and giving the imaginary Hansel and Gretel a horrible time.

One of my classmates was at the time my biggest rival and bully - he was really competitive and loved sticking his tongue out at me whenever he scored higher. I remember his jaw dropped when my performance ended.

I walked back to my seat and in my head, I was like, "Oh my goodness, I did it." I couldn't believe it and that I'd actually enjoyed doing that terrifying thing in front of the whole class.

Do you still have onstage jitters? How do you get over them?

Usually, no. But sometimes, right before the show starts, the jitters come, especially on nights when I know certain special people are in the audience, such as my family, closest friends or a date.

I like those jitters though. They make me more excited about what's coming. I get over them by getting on stage. Once I'm on, they're gone.

What do you do after the show to unwind?

Disappear. I like that best.

When I have to step out into the foyer after the show - that often stresses me out way more than the show itself because I have to make a lot of small talk - and, for me, that's pretty painful, so maybe that part of me as a kid is still very much there today.

I often just want some peace and quiet - away from the show-related mingling - so even if it's a noisy bar, but the ambience is great and I'm barely noticed, that's awesome.

Hanging out with close friends or people from the production whom I'm very comfortable with is great too.

That said, I sometimes do meet lovely people who come up to me just to say something short and sweet and that can make my night.

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

Off the top of my head, I can think of three that tie for first place.

One, a director told me to use the space - move around the stage more because I'm not a tree. The harshness wasn't so much in the content of the remark as it was in the tone.

Result: I learnt to dare to make better use of the space and not be fearfully stuck in one spot.

Two, another director told me to stop mumbling because it was annoying.

The reason this was a blow was that I had always thought I was a clear speaker. Clearly, I was wrong.

The result was I consciously spoke more clearly in every rehearsal from then on and learnt that what is clear to me isn't necessarily clear to the listener.

Also, being more conscious of that in a conversation with someone just a few metres away is good practice for when you have to perform to an audience many metres away in a large theatre.

Three, an audience member told me I could play only a 20something.

The harshness of that came from the fact that it was a very close friend who had claimed to have complete faith in me.

Everyone has people like that in their lives and when those people criticise you, it hurts more and you're more inclined to believe they must be right. So you begin to doubt yourself.

The result? I later invited her to shows where I played an 18-year- old and a 32-year-old and she changed her mind entirely. Phew.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'Witchy role started love of acting'. Print Edition | Subscribe