The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards: Shining a light on ageing, assault and loss

Nominees for Best Actor and Actress at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards played characters struggling with myriad issues from dementia to poverty. Arts Correspondent Akshita Nanda reports

Nominated for: Potong by Teater Ekamatra



Nominated for: Potong by Teater Ekamatra

Playing a character of ambiguous gender earned Mohd Fared Jainal his first nomination in the Best Actor category of The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

He is up for his work in Malay-language production Potong by Teater Ekamatra, in which he played Saleha, a character who identifies himself and dresses as a woman in public but prays as a man in private.

Fared, who is artistic director of Teater Ekamatra, is better known for his work behind the scenes.

Most of his previous nominations have been for set design and, in 2010, he took home the Best Director Award for directing The Comedy Of The Tragic Goats, presented by Cake.

However, he was drawn to the role written by playwright Johnny Jon Jon and directed by Irfan Kasban.

Fared says: "Saleha is a character with a complex identity. He wants to be a woman. Every part of him is a woman. But he is still not."

In the play, Saleha serves as a masculine role model for a nephew who was born to a single mother and as a dutiful daughter to a mother who has dementia.

Fared says that more than the physical labour of donning false breasts, a wig and nail polish, "the hardest part is to understand the psychological and emotional struggles" of the character.

He feels that acting has become harder for him over the years.

"I feel a lot more work is needed than when I was young and just jumped into it without thinking too much about it," he says, admitting that he struggled with memorising lines for his role in Potong.

That makes this nomination even sweeter. "My only mission was to fulfil my task as an actor and make the audience empathise with Saleha. This exceeds all expectations."



Nominated for: Supervision by Wild Rice

"Playing an old man is not hard for me because I am an old man," says Malaysian actor Patrick Teoh.

He is nominated for Best Actor at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards for playing a senior citizen in Supervision by Wild Rice.

Teoh plays a 67-year-old stroke survivor who needs help with most personal and domestic chores.

Apart from being betrayed by his body, the character has to deal with the numerous surveillance cameras his daughter has installed in his home without his knowledge and ostensibly for his protection.

A production about the human right to privacy and dignity, Supervision is nominated for Production of the Year as well as Best Director, Best Original Script and Best Actress for Umi Kalthum Ismail, who plays the Indonesian domestic helper caring for Teoh's character.

This is his first nomination at the annual theatre awards in Singapore, though he has acted in several plays here over the years, including the drama The Way We Go by Checkpoint Theatre, which explored falling in love in later life.

After joining the Rediffusion radio station in 1966, he became one of Malaysia's best-known radio DJs and has also worked in film and television.

To get into character for Supervision, he read the script over and over again, building a backstory and history for the part he would play.

He also drew on his experience caring for his late father before the latter died some years ago.

More than the applause, he appreciated the post-show response from the audience.

"When an audience enjoys the show enough to want to stay back and chat with the actors about the performance, that is very gratifying," he says.



Nominated for: The Father by Pangdemonium

"This play changes your life," actor Lim Kay Siu says of The Father, a production which takes viewers into the mind of a man who has dementia.

The English version of French playwright Florian Zeller's script was staged here by Pangdemonium last year.

Lim's performance in the titular role has him nominated for Best Actor at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

He was the first winner in this category when the annual awards celebrating the best of local theatre were launched in 2001. He played a sexist university professor in Oleanna by the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

In The Father - a role written for an 88-year-old - Lim plays a man who is losing his mind and his ability to sustain relationships. The character swings between patriarchal confidence and creeping paranoia that drives away his caregivers.

"I had to be very clear with what was 'him' and what was the dementia," says Lim of the role. "He's a man who's used to being engaged with people, a charming guy who was good with people. The paranoia creeps in because of the dementia."

More than half the audience stayed back for post-show discussions, with caregivers speaking of how their perspective of their charges had changed.

"The play is special because it's from the dementia sufferer's point of view," says Lim, who met people who had dementia as well as caregivers in order to research the role.

He himself worries about being a burden in the future to his wife, actress Neo Swee Lin, if he were to have the disease and is researching how society can be "not just dementia-friendly but dementia-enabling".

"That was the biggest lesson in the end. You go, 'What can I do about this situation? What can I do about helping people become aware?'," he says.



Nominated for: When The Cold Wind Blows by Wild Rice

Actor Joshua Lim has a recurring nightmare in which he stands before an audience with no recollection of the lines he is supposed to say.

"The freaky part for me is if I'm stuck in the dream and can't get out of it," says Lim, whose performance as a man trapped in a nightmare has him nominated for Best Actor at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

This is his second nomination in this category.

In 2017, he was nominated for his work in Starring Hitler As Jekyll And Hyde, a play by The Finger Players. He played a police officer who turns as dark as the serial killer he hunts.

In the Wild Rice play When The Cold Wind Blows, Lim performs the part of a man fleeing memories of his national service experience in Pulau Tekong years ago.

The character is freed only once he accepts that he was wrong to bully a weaker comrade, even if the cruelty was legitimised by the system.

Lim spent most of his NS playing the flute in the SAF Band and only three weeks in military training.

Yet, he recalls those three weeks as "the most vulgar, most crude I've ever been in my entire life" and easily sees how the environment could lead to bullying.

The Mandarin play written by Neo Hai Bin and directed by Thong Pei Qin showed viewers "a side of NS many people don't get to see", he says.

"When you're in an entirely male environment, something primal comes out. You're happy to be with your buddies and you're happy to be crude and to be celebrating that.

"It's like being in a cult, so to speak, because when you're in it, you're blind to it."




Nominated for: Underclass by Drama Box and The Necessary Stage

For actress Goh Guat Kian, the hardest part of playing her character in Underclass was selling tissue packets to the audience before the show.

"It was very difficult," she recalls. "Some of the audience members were my friends, how to make them believe it?"

Yet, she did and is nominated for Best Actress in The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards for playing a woman living in poverty in Singapore.

Goh last won Best Actress at the annual awards in 2006 for playing multiple female characters in the Mandarin and dialect drama, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, by The Finger Players.

She is not as comfortable speaking English, which made her role in Underclass more challenging. At the same time, she suspects that made her better suited to the role. "What comes out with this character is that people who don't speak good English are second class in this society."

Always aware of the women who sold tissue or collected cardboard boxes in her Clementi neighbourhood, she tried talking to and following some of them to understand how they spent their days. Some let her. Others were suspicious. She does not blame them, given her own experience playing one of them.

The play ends with her character struggling with a heap of cardboard boxes, calling for help from the watching audience. One night, a woman got out of her seat and started helping Goh. Another night, nobody did anything at all and the play ended with her leaving silently.

"I just wanted to break down. When I asked, 'Can someone help me?', it was very quiet. I spent a lot of time going through everyone's faces in the audience but..." she trails off. "My heart was broken.

"When you see somebody who needs help, don't turn away. Stop and see what happens."



Nominated for: Lanang by Hatch Theatrics

Dalifah Shahril is up for Best Actress at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, a year after winning the palm in this category for her performance as a former comfort woman in Teater Kami's Hayat Hayatie.

This year, she is nominated for Hatch Theatrics' Malay-and Javanese-language play Lanang, in which she played an overworked single mother who starts seeing hallucinations after her own mother dies.

The character is either misunderstood as "weird" or expected to be cured by exorcism.

"For many Malays, when they see a person like this, it's 'You must go to the bomoh'. No, you need to go to the psychiatrist, go to the doctor, go to the specialist to find out more," says the actress.

Mental-health issues are not easily spoken about in the Malay community, she adds. "I want the audience to know that these cases exist and, if you take it lightly, it will make the problem worse."

Lanang is also nominated for Best Sound Design, with artist Angie Seah - who goes professionally by "anGie seah" - using cardboard, cutlery and household objects to create the sounds of everyday life in a Housing Board flat. The noise intensifies as Dalifah's character spirals further into her hallucinations.

"It helped," says the actress. "It was like the annoying neighbour making things worse in your life."

To prepare for the role, she spoke to friends and relatives in similar situations. A cousin said that for two years after the death of her mother, she too withdrew into her room to speak to visions of her parent.

"It was so heart-breaking to realise she had never shown her pain in front of us," says Dalifah. "I'm quite close to my parents too and, after the play, I question whether I would be able to accept it if anything happened to them."



Nominated for: Souvenir by Sing'theatre

British actress Leigh McDonald is known for solid performances in musical theatre, but her first Best Actress nomination at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards comes for singing very badly.

She is nominated for her role as tone-deaf singer Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir, a two-hander staged by Sing'theatre last year.

"I've never worked so hard or have been more challenged in my life," says the actress.

"I had to work at singing badly, and then, what was even harder was learning to sing classically for the last song.

"I'm a musical theatre girl, nothing classical about my voice at all. That was the biggest challenge. I've never been more nervous."

Souvenir is based on the life of a 20th-century New York socialite who became famous for her lavishly costumed private vocal recitals. Her wealth and her friends protected her from the truth - that she could not sing at all.

In contrast, McDonald has hit the right notes in several shows here since her first performance in 2002 in the Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress, presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

She played the American painter who befriended the ageing empress based on historical figure Empress Dowager Cixi. She has also been in SRT's Snow Queen (2006) and Sing'theatre's A Singaporean In Paris (2010).

For Souvenir, she trained to go wildly over or under the right notes. The trick was to do so without losing her voice.

"The hardest part of getting into character was making sure my voice was warmed up extensively before every show," she says. "And learning to walk naturally with the air of a high-society older woman. I usually walk like a builder."



Nominated for: Supervision by Wild Rice

A last-minute audition after the original lead pulled out led actress Umi Kalthum Ismail to this role as an Indonesian domestic helper and her first nomination at the annual The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

In the play, Umi plays Yanti, who bonds with her aged charge played by Malaysian actor Patrick Teoh. He is nominated for Best Actor.

The play looks at the trend of people putting surveillance cameras in their homes and how this affects the family and helper's right to privacy.

Supervision is also nominated for Production of the Year, Best Director and Best Original Script.

Umi has been working mostly as a drama educator in the last 10 years and came for the audition only because playwright Alfian Sa'at had called her the previous evening, asking whether she was free. "I didn't know what it was for. I'd put acting on the shelf for a long time," she says.

However, the first read won over director Glen Goei and she spent the next few weeks getting into character through meeting migrant workers and domestic helpers.

Meeting them changed her perspective - her family has never had domestic help and she perceived them as being oppressed and unhappy. "They're not always sad. They're so positive. I wouldn't have known this without meeting them," she says.

One of the most unforgettable experiences was working on her accent with a woman named Wiwi from Indonesia, who works as a domestic helper and is also part of a migrant worker writing group called Birds. "We're the same age, we have a lot in common," Umi says.

Umi's father, a former crane operator, migrated to Singapore from Indonesia about four decades ago. "If my father hadn't come to Singapore, I would probably have been a helper," the actress says.



Nominated for: Leda And The Rage by Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Writing, directing and performing Leda And The Rage took theatre-maker Edith Podesta to dark places as she researched the myths surrounding sexual assault and the difficulty survivors had in prosecuting their assailants.

She is nominated for Best Actress at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards this year for her performance as a survivor of sexual assault reclaiming her life.

Leda And The Rage uses Greek mythology and art history to show the prevalence of rape culture throughout the centuries. "It was easier to identify rape culture in ancient Greece rather than today," says Podesta, who is also in the running for Best Director for the same work.

The play has nabbed nine nominations in the annual theatre awards this year, including Production of the Year.

Podesta was last nominated for Best Actress in 2017 for the love story, B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species, which won Production of the Year. In 2014, she won Best Actress for Illogic (Cake Theatrical Productions).

A few weeks after Leda And The Rage was staged during the Studios season of the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Podesta met a viewer who said he spent the week after the show talking to his female friends about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in their lives.

She was delighted. "My objective for this production was to start a conversation about the subject matter and hope that people, who see the production, will then go out and have conversations.

"I do wish to restage it to open up the conversation again, but there is a very particular kind of emotional labour which comes with staging this performance."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards: Shining a light on ageing, assault and loss. Subscribe