Veteran and new directors to vie in M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards

First-time Best Director nominees Sebastian Tan and Edith Podesta up against stalwarts Tracie Pang and Nelson Chia

Four directors will duke it out for this year's M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards' Best Director honour, including two first-time nominees in the category.

The line-up includes stalwarts such as Tracie Pang, for her comedy Fat Pig, and actor-director Nelson Chia, for the comedy Art. Pang is the most nominated of the lot, having entered the category eight times now. This nomination is Chia's third in the category.

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Both directors also squared off last year when two works by Pang - family dramas Next To Normal and Rabbit Hole - were up against Chia's directing of the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men. He eventually won.

In a twist this year, theatre practitioner Edith Podesta, who wrote and directed the intimate prison drama Dark Room x8, will vie with Chia, one of the actors in her play.

The final name on the list is comedian Sebastian Tan, making his debut in the category for his work on Wild Rice's rollicking pantomime Monkey Goes West.

The Best Director award, among others, will be given out on April 20 at the 15th Life! Theatre Awards ceremony, an invite-only event held at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

jianxuan@sph.com.sg

Go to www.straitstimes.com/life-theatre- awards-2015 for the complete list of this year's nominees and full coverage of the awards.


Sebastian Tan

Nominated for: Monkey Goes West (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actor for A Twist Of Fate (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2005), Titoudao (Toy Factory Productions, 2007), Hansel And Gretel (Wild Rice, 2012)

Previous wins: Best Supporting Actor for Snow White And The Seven Dwarves (2008)

The greatest challenge actor Sebastian Tan faced while directing his first production last year was to not "act for his actors".

The 41-year-old comedian, known to many as Broadway Beng because of his long-running stage persona, says: "I have an idea of how I want things to play out, so I tried my best to let my cast carve out their characters, while I functioned as the eyes to oversee everything."

He notes of the difference between acting and directing: "As an actor, you have to focus on how your role contributes to the story and getting your part right. But the director has to care about how the whole team works together to tell the story. You are the ship's captain."

His Best Director nomination - for theatre company Wild Rice's zany take on the Chinese classic Journey To The West - is a first for Tan, who has a Best Supporting Actor win for an earlier Wild Rice pantomime, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves (2008).

Acting remains his great love, "but with directing, you get to see the bigger picture. Everything, from the lights, casting, design, costumes, down to the colours of the sofa, is your responsibility", he adds.

Actress Siti Khalijah Zainal, who played river ogre Sandy and goddess Guan Yin in Monkey Goes West, says of Tan: "It helped that he's a practising actor, so he understands our struggles and limitations as actors."

The Business Times' theatre reviewer Helmi Yusof also commended Tan's direction as "top-notch", casting two actors and two actresses in roles traditionally played by men, resulting in "gorgeous vocal harmonies".

While Tan considers directing a big brave step, he admits he loves being in the spotlight too much to relinquish it.

"I don't think I'll ever give up acting. I enjoy being on stage.

"With directing, I feel like I've finally grown up and reached the adult stage of my career. But it's something you get better at as you gain more life experiences, so I'm taking my time with it."


Nelson Chia

Nominated for: Art (Nine Years Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Director for Oleanna (Theatre Practice, 2002); Best Actor for Mad Phoenix (Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, 2003)

Previous wins: Best Actor for White Soliloquy (Toy Factory Productions, 2010), A Language Of Their Own (Robin Loon and Casey Lim, 2012); Best Director for Twelve Angry Men (Nine Years Theatre, 2013)

Following his first Best Director win last year, actor-director Nelson Chia has garnered another nomination, this time for his Chinese translation of French playwright Yasmina Reza's acerbic comedy Art.

"One challenge was to handle the negotiation between languages and cultures. But I believe in the play's ability to transcend differences when we focus on the human relations. I'm fortunate to have had actors who could do exactly that," he says.

Translated works are in fact Chia's forte. The 42-year-old and his wife Mia Chee, 36, launched their own theatre outfit Nine Years Theatre three years ago and have quickly built a name for artfully rendering Western classics in Chinese.

Past pieces include the American courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, which scored Chia his Best Director win last year; Tartuffe (2015) by French comedy maestro Moliere and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy Of The People (2014).

Come July, the company will present The Lower Depths by acclaimed Russian writer Maxim Gorky, he says. "As a director, I am particular about the sincerity an actor brings to the stage. I require discipline from everyone in my rehearsals. This affects how we treat our play and, in turn, the quality of work for the audience," he adds.

In her review, Life! theatre critic Corrie Tan praised Chia for "bringing a precision to the production and casting it well", allowing his accomplished actors Liu Xiaoyi, Peter Sau and Oliver Chong to feed off one another's different energies.

For all of Chia's toggling between his thespian and director hats, the award-winning actor himself shows no preference for one craft over the other as he considers them to be "very different". He puts it matter-of-factly: "A director takes charge of the entire play while the actor focuses mainly on his acting."


Edith Podesta

Nominated for: Dark Room x8 (Esplanade Studios)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: Best Actress for Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2013)

Actress-director Edith Podesta had quite a few doors slammed in her face while researching her prison documentary Dark Room x8, in which a cast of eight male actors narrate the recollections of real-life ex-convicts.

"Some were open, but the more people I approached, the more I realised that people found it unacceptable. They basically said: 'It's a chapter of my life that's closed. I don't wish to talk about it'," says the 35-year-old Australia-born lecturer, who leads the acting programme at the Lasalle College of the Arts and has been based here for eight years.

Over a year, Podesta met a group of ex-prisoners one-on-one, recording and transcribing their 16 hours' worth of interviews, carefully sifting out details that might identify them before editing them down to two hours.

"It took me forever, but I was determined to tell their stories loud and clear on stage in a clean, ethical manner," she says.

Of her directorial style for this production, she says: "I usually take a collaborative approach, but this time I had only a week in the rehearsal room to bring it together. The actors directed their own roles, while I concentrated on the production as a whole. This was also the first time I've worked without music in 15 years."

Life! theatre reviewer Corrie Tan named the play as one of last year's best, calling it "a deeply humanising look at the male inmates of Changi Prison", one that was "affecting, funny and also harrowingly vulnerable".

Her cast, which include fellow Best Director nominee Nelson Chia and veteran actor Timothy Nga among others, have since been rewarded with a Best Ensemble nod.

"They're eight very strong and well-known male actors. They were committed to the piece and so understanding and empathetic. They did their own research to read between the lines and find the truth and essence to their characters," she says.

On competing with fellow nominee Chia, she adds: "Nelson and I have directed and acted for each other before and I'm very proud of him. It was an honour to have him act in Dark Room x8. I don't see it as competition at all."


Tracie Pang

Nominated for: Fat Pig (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: Best Director for The Snow Queen (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2005), The Dresser (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2006), The Pillowman (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2007), The Full Monty (Pangdemonium, 2010), Dealer's Choice (Pangdemonium, 2011), Rabbit Hole (Pangdemonium, 2013), Next To Normal (Pangdemonium, 2013)

Previous wins: None

Director Tracie Pang, who has more than 20 years of experience in theatre in Britain and Singapore, does not buy into pre-show rituals for good luck. "I believe in hard work and focus. As a director, you must have patience, sensitivity and a sense of humour," she tells Life! in an e-mail interview.

Pang, who was twice-nominated last year for her work on the productions Rabbit Hole and Next To Normal, lost to fellow nominee Nelson Chia.

She says: "I believe that every director nominated is worthy and we are all up there for a reason. But I'm not thinking about what my chances are."

This year, she is up for her eighth Best Director nomination with the dark comedy Fat Pig, written by American playwright and film-maker Neil LaBute, which tackles society's obsession with beauty.

The biggest challenge for the piece was casting the right actress and hitting the right tone, she says. "Yes, it is a comedy, but it should make people take a look at what they are laughing at and make sure that we didn't lose the emotional core and truth," adds the Britain- born Pang, who helms Singapore theatre company Pangdemonium with her husband, actor Adrian Pang.

And by the critics' standards, she has accomplished that. Life! theatre reviewer and awards judge Corrie Tan wrote in her review of Fat Pig that Pang "draws out wonderfully nuanced portrayals of characters who could so quickly tip over into the realm of caricature… coaxing their buried likeability to the stage".

Next month, she will kick off rehearsals for a new production of Briton Nina Raine's award-winning play about a family with a deaf child, Tribes. Pang says: "You have to approach every show afresh with the aim to produce the best work you can."