8 Questions With: Cheryl Tan, imperial concubine in Forbidden City

Cheryl Tan plays imperial concubine Yehenara in Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress.
Cheryl Tan plays imperial concubine Yehenara in Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

Rising theatre actress Cheryl Tan sets high standards for herself and worries about the stretches she goes without work


Theatre actress Cheryl Tan's star is on the rise.

This year, the 28-year-old Malaysian clinched the role of young imperial concubine Yehenara, in the musical Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress, which is playing at the Esplanade.

She also made her local television debut this year, starring as professor Sylvia Soo in the Channel 5 drama, Faculty.

In last year's staging of Shakespeare in the Park's Romeo & Juliet, she bagged the lead role of Juliet.

Earlier, she led the 2015 production of local musical Beauty World and also played the titular characters in Singapore Repertory Theatre's productions of Rapunzel in 2014 and Red Riding Hood in 2013.

Cheryl Tan plays imperial concubine Yehenara in Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

Ask Tan what she thinks about her successes to date, however, and she sounds a lot less confident than her impressive resume.

She says candidly: "I know, I'm doing very well. But I always worry and wonder, 'How do I make this financially sustainable?' I guess insecurity comes with the turf."

Theatre projects are inconsistent and there can be stretches when she goes without work, she explains, plus she sometimes encounters "people low-balling you in the price department".

She was born in Kuala Lumpur to a stockbroker father and teacher mother, and has two older siblings who are both educators.

At age eight, she began acting and appeared in a musical - her first paid production - in Kuala Lumpur at the age of 15.

Since graduating in 2011 from Wesleyan University in the United States, where she did a double major in music and theatre, she has busied herself with a string of musical theatre roles as well as giving acting and singing lessons in Kuala Lumpur, where she has made a name for herself as a jazz vocalist.

Tan, who shuttles between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, is looking to do more television roles and is contemplating breaking into the Malay entertainment market here.

The actress, who is of Chinese-Indian parentage, speaks Malay because she learnt the language in school. "In this kind of economic climate, I should aim to be diversified," she says.

1 What is the most challenging aspect of playing Yehenara?

Frankly, I think the biggest challenge is dealing with the headpiece that I'm wearing.

The period costume is elaborate and gorgeous, but it places a lot of strain on the neck, which, in turn, adds extra difficulty to all the big belting that I have to do in the show.

2 What is the best part about playing Yehenara?

She is a strong woman and she has some beautiful songs. My favourite number is the reprise of My Only Chance at the end of Act 1. This is where Yehenara really takes charge of her own fate and triumphs despite overwhelming odds.

3 Are you like Yehenara in any way?

She is fierce and smart and willing to fight for herself. I'm fierce and smart, but the fighting part I'm working on.

This is a rough industry and I find it hard to ask for what I want, pay-wise. I don't want to ask for too much because I worry about getting blacklisted, but I think it's also about knowing my self-worth.

4 What is your favourite scene in the musical?

My favourite scene is during the Record Keepers' song Let The Tale Be Told. It's in the second act and chronicles Emperor Guangxu's growing-up years.

I love how his growing up is staged. Three actors who play the young Guangxu are swopped in and out with clever stagecraft tricks that are a lot of fun to watch.

When he finally emerges all grown up, you feel as though you grew up with him.

5 Is there any role you would not play?

No nudes, unless it's really justified. And if it's something that paints women in a really horrible light, I would turn it down.

6 How high are the standards that you set for yourself?

I will never really meet my own standards. I'm only very very happy with my performances 20 per cent or less of the time and I'm reasonably happy with my performances about 50 per cent of the time.

I've been obsessed about my work for a very long time, but I'm trying to be less perfectionistic. When I was younger, I'd beat myself up whenever I performed badly.

7 Are you less exacting with your students, whom you give acting and singing lessons to?

I can be very exacting. I don't take stupidity very lightly and I want my students to be able to fulfil their potential. I push them, but I think I'm gentler with them than I am with myself.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I used to want to be known for my work, but I think there's more to life than just my work or career.

I'd like to be known as someone who was inspiring and who was a good person to the other human beings around me.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Feeling the weight of stardom'. Print Edition | Subscribe