New faces in Pangdemonium's new play Circle Mirror Transformation

Pangdemonium play will feature fresh talent and actors who have not worked with it before

If anybody wants to get any insight into what we do, this is the play for them," declares actress Neo Swee Lin, one of the most familiar faces on the Singapore stage.

The play in question is American playwright and Puliter Prize winner Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, which will be presented by theatre company Pangdemonium at the DBS Arts Centre from Jan 29 to Feb 15.

The heartwarming 2009 comedy- drama brings together five actor hopefuls at a community centre acting class, led by the bohemian Marty played by 52-year-old Neo.

They take part in plenty of head-scratching theatre games and the opening scene, for instance, involves all of them lying on the floor and counting to 10.

Neo laughs as she recalls some of the most baffling rehearsal processes that directors here have put her through, including the late Krishen Jit: "It was torturous. He would make us come out, one by one, stand there, present ourselves and exit."

She pauses, then exclaims: "We spent four hours doing that. In the beginning, for us, before drama school, we were like - what is wrong with him?"

But like the characters in Circle Mirror Transformation, who find out more about one another and the art of theatre over a few weeks, these exercises slowly begin to make sense.

Director Tracie Pang, 46, says: "Annie Baker has very cleverly picked out those moments in rehearsals where people are going, 'What the hell is going on?' or 'I don't think the director knows what's she's doing... oh no, did I join a pile of rubbish?'

"She's been very intuitive and it's very funny but very heartwarming as well. It's very clever, the way we wheedle ourselves into these people's lives and see how this one moment in their life changes them, and they just go off with the wind to lead their new lives."

The well- reviewed play marks the start of Pangdemonium's Transformation Trilogy series of plays this year, with each work dealing with change, renewal and reinvention. It will continue with Nina Raine's Tribes in May and David Henry Hwang's Chinglish in October.

This season is marked by a crop of new faces, as well as actors who have not worked with Pangdemonium before.

Making her professional debut in Circle Mirror Transformation is recent School of the Arts (Sota) graduate Selma Alkaff, 18, who won Pang over not just with her performing skills but also her work ethic.

Pang says of the Sota students who auditioned for the part of Lauren, a teenager: "They had all done their homework, they'd all read the script and knew the monologue by heart."

Selma says that the day she found out she had landed the part was "the best day of 2014". She had done a double take over the telephone, asking Pang if she was sure she had "the right person".

For Swiss-Filipina TV host Nikki Muller, 29, Circle Mirror Transformation marks her third production in Singapore, and her first non-musical. She was previously in Michael Chiang's High Class (2013) and Dick Lee's Hotpants (2014). She had wanted to work with Pangdemonium for some time, but was not quite sure how to approach Pang, whom she had found "quite intimidating" at first.

Muller admitted to wanting to do theatre with the company only after she had done a hosting gig with Pang's actor husband Adrian, the co-artistic director of Pangdemonium. She says of the play: "The focus is really on the characters, which is scary because you want to put as much truth and sincerity into it as possible. You can't hide behind songs or a grand persona, it's got to be authentic and real, and for someone without a theatre background, it's pretty terrifying."

But it has also been "a really wonderful journey", she adds.

Asked if there might be a glut of actors looking for jobs, especially with enrolment on the rise in arts schools here, Tracie Pang says a good consequence of this increase in numbers is the heightened competition. "It steps up the level of performances and that's good."

Pangdemonium has made it a point to work with young or relatively unknown performers when they can.

Pang says: "It's the only way for the industry to stay alive. If we don't continue to have new blood, the industry will eventually die. We have to keep those doors open and keep looking for new talent, and only when we do that will we find those wonderful new surprises."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan