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HOW TO CONQUER THE SINGAPORE STAGE: THE MALAYSIAN TROJAN HORSE (PART 1 – Casting the shiniest stars, no matter where they come from)

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For years now Malaysian talent has been killing it in Singapore’s spotlights. More and more of their local productions feature at least one Malaysian performer – often in a starring role. In the first of a three-part series, guest writer Stephanie Van Driesen explores the appeal of Singapore for our actors and the warm welcome they get from directors.

The grass is greener on the other side.

Or so you’d be told if you asked any number of lauded Malaysian performers who are stamping an indelible mark in the Lion City.

What’s so great about Singapore?

Fuelled by an economic agenda to promote the arts as a strong tourism funnel, the Singapore performing arts industry is well funded, with favourable government grants aplenty.

The effort has paid off.

Since 2003, various big budget infrastructure projects have included the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands, and others. In 2015 alone, audiences had their choice among a staggering 50 productions, from musicals, plays and festivals to art installations commemorating Singapore’s 50 years of independence and tributes to the late premier Lee Kuan Yew.

Getting in on the action

So how does an enterprising young Malaysian performer get herself a piece of the Singapore performing arts pie?

I spoke to three prominent Singaporean theatre directors, who have all cast Malaysians in their productions in recent years. Having recently performed in Singapore myself, and having been cast by one of these directors, I was curious as to why these directors looked to Malaysia for talent.

Malaysian performer Lyle Yeo in the musical -Lau Zhai Rocks-, directed and choreographed by George Chan

If the shoe fits: the search for Cinderella

Top directors go to great lengths to get the best talent for their productions. This is exactly what celebrated director and performer Hossan Leong did when casting for the role of Bobby in Dream Academy’s production of Sondheim’s Company.

“I even auditioned actors in Sydney whilst I was there for a break. I happened to be in KL for a corporate gig and Juita Jalil suggested I see Tony Eusoff and Peter Ong. So after a few phone calls and emails, the audition was set up in my hotel room.”

Needless to say Peter knocked the audition out of the park. He went onto a critically acclaimed performance in the leading role, the only Malaysian cast in the musical.

How about those of us who are not Peter Ong?

It’s heartening to know that directors who mean business are willing to go to such lengths to get the right person for the role and that often nationality is not an issue. But what do Singaporean directors need to consider before casting a Malaysian in their show?

The three directors I talked to had the same answer: A mix of sparkling talent, suitability to the role, and availability of the performer to commit to the rehearsal schedule and show dates.

Singaporean director-choreographer George Chan, says casting for the musical Liao Zhai Rocks earlier in 2016 was “daunting.” The technical and artistic demands of the role meant that he had to cast an actor who could handle varying degrees of complexity and juxtaposition. Lyle Yeo proved perfect for the role, says George, adding that the Malaysian actor “had excellent interpretation skills which saw him creating a complex and intriguing character.”

Sometimes, Singaporean directors are looking specifically for Malaysian talent. Director (and actor-writer-fight coordinator) Lim Yu-Beng, who for the past two years has written and directed commissioned pieces for the Georgetown Arts Festival; 2 Houses in 2014 and this year’s Pearl of the Eastern and Oriental, believes that if he writes a story about Malaysia, he needs to cast Malaysians, because he wants “people who had a feeling and a say in Malaysia.” He cast rising starlet Lez-Ann Chong and veteran screen actress Susan Lancaster over a phone call. “They had on previous occasions moved me deeply. So I already knew what I needed to know.”

In the upcoming part 2 of this story, the three directors share their advice on how to get yourself noticed and cast in their performances. To make sure you don’t miss it, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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About Stephanie


Well here she is again. Self-professed ‘hungry theatre slut’ Stephanie Van Dreisen is juggling four productions, writing new music and yapping away on national radio. “The fire in my ass is kicking me to stride my ambitious heels over to Broadway/West End, or kicking me to the curb before I kick the bucket.”

Main image: Peter Ong stars as Bobby in Dream Academy’s “Company” a musical by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Hossan Leong. Photo credit: “courtesy of Dream Academy®, used with permission”

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Stephanie Van Driesen
Stephanie Van Driesen

Stephanie is best known for her portrayals of musical theatre leading ladies in KL and Singapore, but also finds great adventure in asking questions; raiding other actors’ toolboxes on her way to perfecting her own.