Cake for everyone

Wacky director Natalie Hennedige ditched plans for a medical career to pursue a theatre one

Loud guffaws and muffled, excited conversation are trickling from behind the glass doors of the Goodman Arts Centre's Multi-Purpose Hall. Push them open and you are greeted with a wall of wooden steps nearly two storeys high.

Theatre director Natalie Hennedige, 38, pokes her head out from behind the structure. "I could play on this forever. It's so fun," the founder and artistic director of Cake Theatrical Productions declares of the sprawling wooden edifice.

It is the main setpiece for her upcoming production, Illogic. She beckons: "We should do the interview on this."

In a two-hour interview, Hennedige speaks with disarming excitement, her sentences tumbling over themselves. Her infectious energy is one of the trademarks of her work, which inspires reactions as extreme as they come. Audiences scratch their heads afterwards, walk out halfway through or are exuberant in their praise.

She has also garnered dozens of Life! Theatre Awards and nominations.

Over the past eight years, she has made Cake synonymous with a brand of retina-searing, larger-than-life work that has consistently tested the boundaries of performance.

In the finale of Temple (2008), which was commissioned for the Singapore Arts Festival and set in an imagined universe that is falling apart, cheerleaders fitted with crocodile heads trot in with a brass band, their faces smeared with blood.

She says, with gasps of laughter: "The truth is, in order to create Temple, I had an almost monastic type of discipline. Sometimes people think I'm crazy because of my work, but my hobbies are aquariums. And really calm things. I water my plants."

The National Arts Council's 2007 Young Artist Award recipient adds: "You kind of have to have this calmness so this craziness can exist in the theatre."

Temple got 10 nominations at the 2009 Life! Theatre Awards and won three for Best Actress, Best Sound Design and a Best Costume nod for Hennedige herself.

Another landmark work was Nothing (2007), which clinched Production of the Year at the 2008 Life! Theatre Awards. Through a series of vignettes, three pairs of red-socked characters stumbled through problematic relationships on a platform that vaguely resembled a UFO.

For all her outlandish costume ideas, Hennedige is most comfortable in T-shirts and jeans.

Rehearsals for Illogic, which opens this Thursday at the Drama Centre Theatre, have been taking place in the multi- purpose hall just two minutes away from Cake's studio on the third floor of a neighbouring block at the arts centre.

The abstract work stars Edith Podesta and Noorlinah Mohamed as artists and lovers, and is about how their art and lives intertwine. Illogic also marks Hennedige's return to the stage after a year's break, in contrast to her prolific output in the years before, when she would churn out two or three new productions a year.

She allowed herself the time to create Illogic because she felt that Cake was finally in a place where it could support the work of other artists, not just her own. Over the past two years, its associate artists have had a platform to experiment with the Decimal Points series, a genre-busting programme not dissimilar to Hennedige's madcap aesthetic.

One of her long-time friends and associates is artist Rizman Putra, 34. He first met her more than 10 years ago, when they were both students at Lasalle College of the Arts, and has since performed in almost all of Cake's productions, including Temple and Nothing.

When asked what it is like to work with Hennedige, Rizman says with a laugh: "She's very intense. Her world is very warped but I'm quite warped too. So we understand each other."

He recalls how she had him play a character in Nothing who was "sporty and macho but has a feminine side to him - he's into pole-dancing. Then he switches into a sort of vampire and pontianak. It was really difficult. I was trying to find the rationale behind it. At the end of the day, I thought, 'f*** it, I'll just do it.'"

Even from a young age, Hennedige marched to the beat of her own drum. She is the oldest of five girls and the only theatre artist in the family - three of her siblings are doctors and one is a lawyer.

Her Sinhalese dentist father was "keen to open us up to the world of science". Growing up, her Peranakan mother, who ran a dental supplies company, would give her sewing kits while her father, microscopes and chemistry sets.

Hennedige says with a laugh: "I would cry because I was like - they don't know me. They were well-meaning, but I used to get quite upset."

The self-professed dreamer would spend hours creating her own adventures and having conversations with herself - in the garden of their semi- detached family home in Mountbatten, in drains or on staircases.

Throughout most of her school life at Haig Girls' School and Broadrick Secondary, her grades were painfully poor. But she leapt at any chance to be on stage, from creating assembly skits on kindness to emceeing school events.

Her sister Althea, 36, says over the telephone from New York, where she practises law: "Natalie was, even as a kid, that person who attracted other people. She was the life of the party, the one who started all the trouble among the cousins and would, at the same time, aggravate and delight all of the grown-ups."

While in secondary school, she found herself confronted by the difficulties some of her friends were facing, such as gang violence or unplanned pregnancies. Her dad encouraged her to study and she decided to give it a go for her O levels.

She got into Victoria Junior College and would have continued on her trajectory towards medical school but she discovered the school's theatre studies programme and got hooked. After a year in the sciences, she switched over to the arts, despite her parents' concern.

But they started to warm up to the idea after watching one of the performances she had crafted. Titled A Matter Of Potency, it reflected her punchy, anti- naturalist approach in which she blended restoration comedy with Chinese opera and populated the production with oddball characters.

It was staged in the school's small theatre studio. Hennedige says: "I think this kind of theatricality was just waiting to happen. It was a riot. Everybody wanted to come into that space. And I was like, wow, people really like this."

Her mother Irene, 63, says: "At that time, we didn't know what theatre was. But we found that she blossomed. I realised that I didn't know this about her and I don't know where she got this creativity from. And until today, she's still enjoying it."

From that point on, Hennedige threw herself into theatre. She joined Lasalle College of the Arts and graduated in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in drama, then worked as a freelancer for several years.

She worked with practitioners such as Mime Unlimited's late Christina Sergeant and turned heads in TheatreWorks' overnight theatre project Got To Go, with Near Normal, a haunting play about five women in an insane asylum.

Shortly after, home-grown theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS) invited her to join it as an associate artist, where she acted in seminal works such as godeatgod and Bote (both in 2002).

TNS resident playwright Haresh Sharma, 48, says: "She was the perfect child. If you wanted her to do something that no one else wanted to do, she would do it - like conduct a workshop with a group of noisy, sweaty kids. Sometimes kids just want to do the glam stuff, like direct experienced actors and do big-scale shows. But she was patient. She knew if she waited, she would get her turn."

And her turn arrived quickly. She was appointed resident director of the group, directing works such as Lanterns Never Go Out (2003), Sing Song (2004) and What Big Bombs You Have!!! (2005) with a now-characteristic dash of latent violence, taut satire and subversiveness.

Sharma adds: "She takes her characters and her aesthetic to a different plane. It's almost as if, if you were to analyse it, you'd need a pscyhoanalyst as opposed to a doctor or psychiatrist... But that's what is precious about it."

While TNS helped to shape Hennedige, she knew, after five years there, that she needed to take her practice further. "I needed to take a plunge. I wanted to do theatre with no safety nets."

She adds: "Cake was about pulling out whatever was safe and comfortable for me, which was a wonderful home in TNS. It wasn't easy because there was a lot of love. But I needed to be in a space of uncharted territory, uncertain ground."

With that driving her, she founded Cake in 2005.

Why name it after a food? She says with a chuckle: "For me, theatre is a communal experience. And you always bring out the cake for significant things, like a birth or anniversaries. It's also something that involves a gathering at an event.

"It takes skill to make a cake. It's not like slapping together a sandwich or noodles. You slap together a sandwich for yourself. You make cake for people."

The first three years were tough. To support the company, she would wake up at 6am almost daily to teach drama classes at secondary schools until 7pm, when she would go for rehearsals. She poured her savings into Cake which, until 2011, operated out of a storeroom for broken dental chairs above her father's shophouse clinic in Tanjong Katong Road.

Its first production, Animal Vegetable Mineral (2005), shook up theatre audiences with its riveting dream-like sequences and lurid flashes of colour. The trend continued with Queen Ping (2006), a dysfunctional family drama overlaid with hues of Alice In Wonderland.

The company introduced a niche of theatre for the MTV generation that had, till then, never quite been fully explored in Singapore. It now has five full-time staff and a stable of associate artists who work closely with the company.

Doors began to open for her. She took part in the 10th La Mama International Symposium for Directors in 2009, a prestigious annual programme of talks and workshops held in Italy.

She was also shortlisted for the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative in 2010. The mentor that year was the iconoclastic American director Peter Sellars.

During the interview process, he told her: "You don't need a mentor. You know what you're doing." He promptly invited her to stay in New York for a month to observe him direct the John Adams opera Nixon In China (2011) before it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera.

She was especially taken by how Sellars was so connected with the artists he worked with - as human beings, not just as practitioners. She says: "As much as the work means to us, you don't do it at the expense of people. That was the kind of artist I wanted to be."

She has incorporated this attitude into her work. Rizman notes: "She looks at the strengths of an individual. She's really focused on understanding a person."

Cake has also started to nurture younger artists. Last year, Hennedige founded In A Decade, what she dubs a "training playground" for Cake, where 11 emerging artists have been picked to create work and go for workshops under its umbrella.

Despite her successes, Hennedige, who is not married, remains modest and is still nervous about the moment her works go out to audiences. But with that anxiousness comes "unspeakable joy".

She says: "I just throw myself into things and I don't hold back. So it leaves me very vulnerable. But I always feel like if you don't put a bit of yourself on the line, it's really not worth doing.

"I love being in a room with people... You create this space for people to build stuff and create a vision of their own characters that you've written out, and that's very exciting to me.

"And then after that, you take it and share with more people."

Hennedige offers this journalist an eclair from a plate of confectionery after the interview ends. It is good. She is right: Cake is made for sharing.