An Actor’s Journey – In conversation with Tan Meng Kheng
When he first cast in a proper play Tan Meng Kheng had to consult the Internet to understand what he’d be doing. Fast forward several years and roles later, the now full-time professional actor talks to ARTERI guest writer Zoe Liew about how he got here.
It was 2007 and director/producer Low Ngai Yuen learned that an intern at her production company was interested in acting. She encouraged the young man, Tan Meng Kheng to audition for Rose Rose I Love You. He did and remembers the following week of waiting for the callback as the longest in his life. When he finally heard that he’d been cast for the ensemble, he literally jumped for joy. “But I didn’t know what an ensemble was. I had to Google to find out.”
Six short years later…
For the next six years, Meng Kheng continued acting while holding down day jobs. Then, in 2013 he took that great leap from the full-time corporate world to the world of curtains, rehearsals, and encores (and, of course, some part-time paid jobs so he can pursue his passion and eat). He calls acting a personal journey. “Acting to me is a medium of storytelling expressed through a person using their mind, body and soul,” says Meng Kheng. No one actor “is the same in their interpretation of a particular material or story.”
Meng Kheng interprets he closeted and conflicted Joe in Angels in America.
What, if anything, do roles say about an actor?
If you’ve only ever seen Meng Kheng on stage, perhaps in the 2013 staging of Jody Lancaster’s A Little Conviction, Angels in America or theatrethreesixty’s Titus Andronicus production, you might think he is quiet, clueless, and a little meek in real life. And it’s true that there’s a sense of artlessness and a lack of guile permeating his disposition, which may be why he does so well in such roles. As director Alex Chua puts it, “(Meng Kheng) probably won’t admit it, but there are elements of his personality that closely mirror (the characters of) Billy in Stags & Hens and Henry in A Little Conviction. That charming innocence and infuriatingly clueless demeanour really did lend itself well to those roles.”
Sometimes you need a slap in the face
To illustrate exactly how far Meng Kheng is willing to go for his craft, Chua shares this story: “When we were working on Jody Lancaster’s A Little Conviction, we were deeply invested in the idea of spontaneity and practiced a lot of improvisation.” There was this one scene in which Meng Kheng was playing young man who wanted to leave home to travel but his mother, played by Ostella Adam, would not allow it. “I don’t know where it came from, but Meng Kheng came up with the most unfilial things (she’d say, ‘You’ll get to travel when I die’ to which he’d respond ‘So when are you going to die?’). In this way, he managed to push Ostella into slapping him. Not a light slap or a stage slap but a resounding, red-handprint-on-the-face slap.” Chua said that following the slap the actors did not break character. Apologies and laughter waited until they had finished the scene.
Last man standing at the bloody end of Titus Andronicus
It’s (not only) entertainment
As audiences, we might see an actor’s work and role as entertainment. Meng Kheng offers us a different perspective, “As the audience joins the character(s) in their journey, actors will raise questions through their characters that very often we don’t like or are too afraid to answer. We provide a voice to society.” He expresses hope that audiences leave the theatre with a new perspective, that they see it as more than just a performance.
“Actors raise questions through their characters that very often we don’t like or are too afraid to answer.”
Then there’s the technical side…
Meng Kheng says his most challenging role so far was in a Cantonese opera entitled The Inauguration of the Prime Minister. Directed by Chin San Sooi earlier this year, the cast had to learn the physical movement style essential to Canto Opera. This included learning how to walk in platform shoes, wear the elaborate Canto opera costumes and apply the genre’s make-up as well. “On the day of the performance, we also had a full Cantonese opera orchestra playing so it was the full experience. The saving grace was we performed in a theatre so we didn’t die from the heat. I had a lot of fun with this project.”
Who am I?
What’s still on Meng Kheng’s acting wish list? In theatre, the role of a lifetime would be Biff Loman from Death of a Salesman. “For film, any character by Christopher Nolan. It would be a dream to play Batman,” And while he’s clearly enthused about the idea it seems it’s a pipedream for the actor. As he admits with profound regret, “I’m too short for it.”