The many faces of Siti

Siti Khalijah Zainal takes on the roles of her past self in An Actress Prepares.
Siti Khalijah Zainal takes on the roles of her past self in An Actress Prepares.PHOTO: NAC



Singapore Writers Festival

The Arts House, Play Den/Sunday

Siti Khalijah Zainal brushes foundation over her face as the audience walks into the Play Den. Other intimacies will be granted in a one-hour monologue about her life and work.

Make-up also proves to be a necessary mask for Siti, one of the strongest actors on the local stage. As she says during the show, she is most comfortable playing a role. It is difficult for her to play herself.

It takes 15 minutes for her to be at ease before the audience. This happens as she enters into the roles of her past self. She is a child in the Chinese dance group in primary school or the outsider in secondary school. She is an ITE student furiously writing in for scholarships so she can join The Necessary Stage's young talent training programme.

She is even more mesmerising as an alternate version of herself. She is fully convincing as a Siti who married, had three children and never pursued her dream of being on stage.

It is a neat illustration of the balance between method and technique in creating a character. (Method actors literally live their roles to perform them. Technique is convincing the audience without having to do the same.)

It is one of many reasons the performance makes viewers want to read An Actor Prepares, Konstantin Stanislavski's book about acting - a good outcome for a work commissioned by the Singapore Writers Festival.

Just as An Actor Prepares is about more than backstage exercises, An Actress Prepares, written by Alfian Sa'at, can be much more than a summary of a varied and interesting life. (Actors should live such lives, Stanislavski suggests.) It is a way to discuss class, religion and division in Singapore.

Theatre in Singapore tends to be for and by the upper middle-class. Siti's experience of being excluded from the arts as an ITE student is probably typical - community arts scholarships in her time seemed reserved for those in junior colleges and polytechnics. Consider also that one $25 ticket for this show costs the same as two movie tickets.

It is even more eye-opening when she speaks of this show's director, Aidli "Alin" Mosbit, whose plays have drawn censure from religious leaders.

Similarly, when Siti played a Malay wife attacking her cheating husband in public, that sketch for TV comedy The Noose drew flak for, among other things, celebrating April Fool's Day.

It would have been fascinating to hear more about this balance of upbringing, personal belief and public career. Tidbits such as the fact that she runs all her roles by her mother only whet the appetite.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'The many faces of Siti'. Subscribe