Portrayals of love, loss and sacrifice

(Clockwise from top left) Frances Lee, Sharda Harrison, Tan Kheng Hua and Sukania Venugopal.
(Clockwise from top left) Frances Lee, Sharda Harrison, Tan Kheng Hua and Sukania Venugopal. PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, SURROUND

Performances in shows that embrace love, loss and sacrifice are being recognised in the Best Supporting Actress category of the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year.

Playing multiple characters in their respective productions are young actresses Sharda Harrison in a retelling of Greek tragedy Electra, by Cake Theatrical Productions; and Frances Lee in The Last Bull, a play about the colourful life story of flamenco master Antonio Vargas, by Checkpoint Theatre for the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Seasoned theatre practitioner Tan Kheng Hua plays a doctor who questions if love can be medically induced in The Effect by Pangdemonium. The play is an adaptation of a script by British playwright Lucy Prebble.

And rounding up the list of four nominees is Malaysian veteran actress Sukania Venugopal for Ghost Writer by The Necessary Stage. She plays a bharatanatyam teacher who undergoes a spiritual awakening.

Best Supporting Actress Nominees

Frances Lee, 26


Nominated for: The Last Bull (Checkpoint Theatre/Singapore International Festival of Arts)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actress for Beauty World (Singapore Street Festival, 2016) and Best Actress for Fat Pig (Pangdemonium, 2015).

Previous wins: None

The Last Bull tells the story of Singapore-based flamenco master Antonio Vargas, so it is not surprising that it would feature the fiery Spanish dance form.

Lee, as one of the eight ensemble members in the production, recalls finding the lessons tough initially.

"I felt like I was doing it perfectly, but, apparently, I kept doing it wrong," says the actress, who does not have any formal dance training.

"Sometimes, I'd be really focused on my footwork and then I wouldn't really be aware of what my hands were doing.


"And when I focus on my hands, I'd get the footwork wrong," she adds.

She played a number of roles in this original production, including Vargas' aunt Clarita, who inspired him to dance flamenco, as well as herself, as an artist talking to the audience about being in this industry.

The ensemble went through a month's worth of intensive lessons with Vargas and a six-week-long rehearsal process.

At the end, they managed to pull off a performance of the Alegrias, or a celebration dance.

She says: "At the end of the day, the point of the piece was not to become an amazing flamenco dancer, but how flamenco has affected us in eight different ways.

"It was about our own journeys as well, through how we learnt this completely new dance form."

Sharda Harrison, 30

Sharda Harrison. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Nominated for: Electra (Cake Theatrical Productions)

Previous nominations: Two Best Supporting Actress nominations - Crossings (The Necessary Stage and Trafik, 2013) and The Crucible (Toy Factory) 2014

Previous wins: None

Playing three different roles in Electra was no cakewalk for Harrison (right).

In Cake Theatrical Productions' retelling of the classic Greek play about a woman who wants to avenge her father's murder, Harrison plays an old servant and confidante to Electra; her murdered father, Agamemnon; and an embodiment of the three furies - female figures who embody vengeance.

The rest of the cast included Edith Podesta as main character Electra and actors Lian Sutton and Andrew Marko playing various roles.

Harrison is an adept physical performer but still found these roles tough.

For example, as Electra's servant she had to wear an oversized mask on her head while climbing around the set, which resembled a grid.

Rehearsals under director Natalie Hennedige, whom she describes as "fearless", were interesting too.

"One day she handed me a badminton racket and asked me to say my lines while I was playing badminton. I was like 'whoa ok, that's interesting,'" says Harrison, who adds that such exercises during rehearsals helped her find the emotion in her various roles.

She says she is "thankful" for the nomination. During the show's run, she also performed in the Singapore Repertory Theatre's children's show, Charlotte's Web, as well as did work with her own theatre company, Pink Gajah Theatre.

"I was a wreck. I was so tired," she says. "To not be forgotten is quite nice."

Tan Kheng Hua, 54


Nominated for: The Effect (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: Five Best Actress nominations including Fear Of Writing (TheatreWorks, 2012), Wife #11 (Action Theatre, 2010) and Invitation To Treat (Wild Rice, 2004). One Best Supporting Actress nomination for Mammon Inc 2 (Action Theatre, 2003)

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

It took a while for Tan to fully get her character, Dr Lorna James, a psychiatrist with a secret in Pangdemonium's adaptation of Lucy Prebble's pharmaceutical love story, The Effect.

"I didn't have a fast grip on Dr James on the first reading. And then I was waffling about the role until about 10 days to opening, where we started to rehearse her monologue at the end of the play," she says.

In that scene, her character goes through an emotional breakdown.

That gave Tan the necessary insight into her character, which then "very quickly padded up all the muscles that I felt were missing" in earlier scenes.

She acted opposite Adrian Pang, who was Dr Toby Sealey, while Nikki Muller and Linden Furnell play a younger couple who fall in love while on medication.

"There were parts of Dr James that I relate to. This sense of trying to pick yourself up and do what you can," she says.

"This demon of self-doubt - everybody grapples with this no matter how successful you have been at some other moments in your life."

Sukania Venugopal, 61

Sukania Venugopal. PHOTO: SURROUND

Nominated for: Ghost Writer (The Necessary Stage)

Previous nominations: Best Actress for Good People (The Necessary Stage, 2008)

Previous wins: None

Veteran actress Venugopal played a role she could relate to in Ghost Writer, a devised play which comprised bharatanatyam dance, music, multimedia, text and sub- text.

Savitri is a traditional dance teacher who walks away from her bharatanatyam school and goes through a spiritual awakening after she is unable to pass on the school to her best student or her son.

"I could relate to her as my mum was very much like her in her approach to life, so is a close friend of mine whose actual spiritual experiences I had adopted for developing this character," says Venugopal, who has bharatanatyam training.

As a past collaborator of The Necessary Stage - the Kuala Lumpur-based actress has worked with the theatre company in at least four other productions - she is also familiar with their devised theatre technique.

But there is at least one moment in the lead up to the production that she could not have predicted.

Multimedia designer Bryan Gothong Tan had decided on a sandy location for a video shoot for Venugopal's character.

The actress felt that a place near water would have been more suitable as her character Savitri experiences epiphanies at a site near water.

"As providence would have it, the place that Brian had identified to shoot the scene was not accessible. When we got there, we found the area had a fence around it and the gates were padlocked with no one around," she says.

They had to film at Coney Island instead, putting her right by water.

"Secretly, I was delighted that it turned out the way it did."

For more Life Theatre Awards stories, go to http://str.sg/4sDs

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Portrayals of love, loss and sacrifice'. Print Edition | Subscribe