Like many others we've featured in this series - what can we say, we have a respectable bunch of friends - we went to secondary school with Ethel and were even table partners in the same class. Ten years on, Ethel is slowly but surely making a name for herself in the theatre world. She speaks to us about the realities of being an actress.
Q: So Ethel, what has changed since Cedar?
A: I think the significant stuff happened during JC. When I went to ACJC I joined the Drama Club and even though it wasn’t an A-level subject yet – that only happened after our year – it was an all-consuming CCA. I was in school rehearsing all the time, but I think it was really good training for me. Even though I went to NUS and did Theatre Studies I still go back to AC drama as my foundational time as an actor – Mrs Creffield, who’s like the Lee Kuan Yew of ACJC, headed the Drama Club. I feel like she really taught me a lot, in terms of discipline, focus, how to be a good actor – just a lot of basic skills that have been invaluable in my work experience now. At that time acting was just a passion; I genuinely wanted to read Literature in Uni and become a teacher. Of course my parents fully supported that decision.
A lot of people now ask me why I didn’t go to LASALLE directly after JC to train as an actor. But it was really because I didn’t think it was a viable option to be a fulltime performer. I was going to major in Lit but the modules just didn’t resonate with me. At the same time I was taking Theatre Studies classes and discovering that I enjoyed those a lot more, so I started veering toward that direction. The point where it was time to declare my major was also the time I started dating my now-fiance, Ronald. So together with another ACJC friend of ours, Matthew, the three of us formed our own theatre company called Parables. I really felt like my life was moving in a certain direction and so I spoke to my parents about choosing Theatre Studies as my major and they weren’t the most enthusiastic at first. For obvious reasons though – they had concerns like how I was to earn a living and the lifestyle that the entertainment industry promotes like hard partying etc.
It took a while but I started to show them with Parables that we can use drama for important messages. It’s a lot more than the glitz and the glamour, which there is none, by the way. Even though my parents had their reservations they started to see that my passion in theatre should be developed and that it is a viable choice for me. And then they started to loosen up.
I think once I made that decision about my major it became a lot clearer to me about what I should be working towards.
Q: Tell us more about Parables.
A: Well right now we’re taking a hiatus. The people who run it are myself, Matthew, and Ronald. Matthew just came back from Scotland but is on an MOE scholarship so he’s bonded to the government. Ronald is a lawyer, so the only person who can run the company is essentially… me. And that’s not something I’m afraid of; it’s just that in the next three years or so I’d like to learn more from existing industry people, which is why I’m working in different productions and learning from different directors.
Prior to now, the productions that Parables did were all semi-pro/amateur, and I feel like we really need to push ourselves to cross this amateur barrier and move into the professional realm. We want to stage shows that have high production values and involve fulltime actors. But in order to cross this barrier I feel like I need to learn more, so I’m taking the next few years as an actor to learn from other actors, producers, designers, and also to network and make contacts.
Q: You went to do your Masters. Why did you decide to do that instead of just working to gain professional experience?
A: I knew that when I graduated from NUS TS I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t feel prepared. The TS programme is very theoretical – it basically prepares you to be a good theatre critic or scholar but not a good performer. I’m also not the kind of person who can multitask, so when I was in school I wasn’t doing shows outside. A lot of people manage to do that, but I can only handle so much at any one time. So because of my inexperience and the fact that I didn’t know anyone, it would have been very difficult to break into the theatre scene right after graduation.
Also, around the start of my fourth year the school I went to – Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – came to Singapore for auditions. How rare is it that such a well-known drama school would come to Singapore for auditions right? If they hadn’t come to Singapore, I wouldn’t have flown out for auditions, but they came and so I did. Pus they offer musical theatre, which is exactly what I wanted to do.
When I got accepted, I started to apply for scholarships, but I didn’t get anything. I was accepted December 2010 for the September 2011 intake. For 7 months from December to July I actually had no idea whether I could go because I didn’t get scholarships. My parents offered to pay for me to go but I turned them down because I didn’t want them to take money out of their savings. It just didn’t feel right for me to continue expecting that my parents would pay for my education. So I decided that I wouldn’t go if I didn’t get a scholarship.
How I managed to get the funding eventually was quite a miracle. I finally decided that I wouldn’t be going to London because no scholarship had come through and told my parents. The very next day, my parents had a random meeting with some insurance agents who were updating them on a fund that they had started investing into in the ‘80s. It was the kind of account that would “eat itself up” if a certain amount wasn’t consistently injected into the fund every year. Because of the Asian Financial Crisis and other financial setbacks they experienced over the years, they had stopped putting money into the fund midway through the intended process. In fact, it had been so many years since they touched that fund that they actually forgot it existed! When the insurance guys called them up about it, my parents thought for sure that there would only be at most 5-10k left in the dwindling fund. But when the agents gave them the update, it turned out that the amount they had in one of the funds was the exact amount of money I needed for London, about 70k. There’s really no other way I can describe this other than it being a God-given miracle.
Q: How was your time in London like?
A: It wasn’t a perfect year, but I know that I received a lot of good training in terms of being a performer. Of course the life experience of living on my own was great. I considered staying there to work but there were visa issues so I came back home.
Q: How did you start finding work in Singapore?
A: So while I had training, what hadn’t changed was that I still didn’t know anyone in the industry. I had some random connections – I have a cousin who’s an actor who used to live in the US for 10 years, and another cousin who’s married to Hossan Leong’s brother – but I’m really bad at networking, like it actually makes me physically sick to talk to people whom I don’t know. When I first got back my strategy was to audition for as many things as possible. There’s this thing called Arts Community; it’s a Yahoo group started by Alvin Tan, the Artistic Director of The Necessary Stage. It’s kinda like an arts forum with lots of subscribers. I would trawl that everyday to see if there were any audition calls – and it was very rare to come across those kinds of posts. I also trawled through some random online casting portals too and sent out emails to all the theatre companies with my CV and headshot.
But it was a really rough first few months because I had no work. At all. There was absolutely nothing. So I’d just be sitting at home feeling very depressed and useless, you know, here I am as the most overqualified actor with no work. The running joke in my family is that I’m the most qualified person but I was earning the least. That was kind of a dark period for me. I sometimes thought it was a mistake that I had gone to London and that I should be doing something more practical instead. I started looking for “regular” jobs at that time because I didn’t want to be too idealistic. And I spent a lot of time feeling very sorry for myself.
My first break was this TV job on OKTO. The show itself wasn't really my cup of tea, but it was my first opportunity so I took it up and got my first paycheck, and hoped that more doors would open. And the open door from that job was that the casting director from that TV show is friends with Ivan Heng, and he must have been impressed with me because he not only gave me a role in the OKTO show but also recommended me to Ivan, who wanted to audition me for W!LD RICE’s upcoming season.
I went for a general audition for their 2013 season, and then they called me back for another two more auditions. I finally auditioned successfully for their year-end pantomime. And after that more doors opened because W!LD RICE is very established and a lot of people came to watch the musical.
In the first year I was back I also worked with I Theatre on The Enormous Turnip. Remember how I said I had sent out emails to all the theatre companies? Well of course nobody responded, but I Theatre sent a really nice email to say that they would keep me in mind. Months after that, I received a call from Brian, Artistic Director of I Theatre, to audition for a role because the actress they had originally intended for the role was no longer available. I will forever be grateful to him for giving me my first professional theatre role.
Q: What other resources would you mention to other actors starting out in the industry?
A: Well first I think you need to be really open to going to lots of different events and sharing sessions to meet other actors and directors. Other than Arts Community, there are a lot of organizations that are doing great work.
The Substation organizes the Directors’ Lab, the Esplanade has lots of big and small festivals that you can apply to with your original work/ideas, and then there’s the new playwriting centre, Centre 42. There’s also The Actor’s Gym (formerly WORD of the Actor). Nine Years Theatre also offers lots of various training classes and W!LD RICE, SRT, and I Theatre all have training ensembles that people can audition for.
Q: What are you doing right now?
A: Right now I’m working on a Chinese musical with The Theatre Practice. It’s the third staging of the musical. It’s really awesome because we’ve been performing to a sellout crowd – every night is a full house. I’ve never done a show where every night is a full house, and it’s a great feeling.
[At time of editing] I am currently working on a play called Dear Nora, staged by Our Company, an adaptation of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. The role of Nora is by far the most complex and challenging role I’ve had the privilege of tackling so far. Our Company’s adaptation of Ibsen’s much-loved play has been fantastic to work on. I’m really honoured to be taking on a role with such a rich performing heritage, and a role that means so much to many people all over the world. I hope to do it justice.
Q: How did you land the role?
A: I’m just an ensemble cast member in this show; I don’t have very many speaking lines but already it was a huge mountain to climb just memorizing the lyrics to all the songs.
I had to go through three rounds of auditions, and TTP had an open call for this musical so that’s how I found out about it. For the first audition I had to prepare a Mandarin song. It was really funny because I just memorize the hanyu pinyin and I was very happy with that. But in the second half of the audition they gave us this exercise where we had to introduce ourselves in Mandarin. All these other actors in the room with me were prattling on in Mandarin about themselves and when it came to my turn all I could say was my name in Mandarin. It was so embarrassing!
But for some reason, Jian Hong, the Artistic Director of TTP, liked me enough to call me back. For the second round of auditions we had to prepare a monologue, which was so hard for me on so many levels. I didn’t even know how to choose a monologue because I couldn’t even read the play in Mandarin! I finally settled on a play that Kuo Pao Kun – Jian Hong’s father – had written. The week that I took to memorize the monologue was hell for me, but I managed to pull it off… except I did another embarrassing thing. When I went in for auditions I actually pronounced the name of the play wrongly! So after that I figured I wouldn’t be called back anymore, but then they told me they wanted me to audition for the role of one of the leads. I didn’t get that role eventually but they gave me a part in the ensemble, which I’m very happy about because at the time, I felt it would have been too stressful having a lead role in a Mandarin production.
Q: How do you approach finding work now that things are looking up?
A: I think I still have the same philosophy, which is to keep exhausting all avenues to find work. I definitely do not think I’ve got it made – far from it! – so I’m always looking for ways to get more involved in the scene, and to stay humble. For instance, I do shows of various scales, including school assembly shows, which is something that some actors do only to plug the gaps in between productions.
Q: Ok, let’s talk about networking. We hate networking too and we try to avoid it as much as possible. Do you network now?
A: Every theatre production has a gala night, where companies invite reviewers, actor friends, and directors from other companies. After we perform the show I try my best to say hi to people. If I don’t know them it’s a bit hard, so if I really want to be introduced to someone I will ask a cast member who knows them to make the introduction.
Q: Everything we’ve talked about has been Singapore-based. Have you ever thought of moving out of Singapore?
A: I have, like when I was in London I wanted to stay in London. But when I came back I realized I was happy to be back because there is work here and if Singapore’s best talents leave the country, we’re never going to be able to develop anything of our own.
Q: How about the hard parts of being an actor? Do you have any negative experiences to share?
A: Well I guess the biggest issue is payment. In the theatre world you always have to sign contracts with companies, and most companies make payment on time. But sometimes people take advantage of freelancers because they know you don’t have a corporate entity to back you.
Another thing is people being disrespectful of your schedule. There were times when people wanted me to be in a performance but would be very wishy-washy about the rehearsal schedule just because they think you’re desperate for the work and willing to give up other things for them. When many entities all behave in that way, it’s hard as a performer to know which company you should be giving your time to.
Q: Did anyone teach you the ropes of negotiating fees?
A: Nobody did, so I think for a while I was accepting fees that were too low. I learnt how to price myself along the way by looking at factors like how long the production is, how big my role is, as well as speaking to my actor cousin because I really look up to him. Talking to people in the industry whom you trust and know have more experience than you is always a good gauge.
Q: Would you have done anything differently on hindsight?
A: I think if I had gone straight to LASALLE straight after A Levels it wouldn’t have been a bad thing. A lot of LASALLE grads get really good work because they’ve got great skills. Having said that, I do feel that everything in my life happened for a reason as well. I feel that I needed the time to grow into the realization that acting is what I want to do.
Q: Do you have any role models?
A: In terms of female role models, I really look up to Siti Khalijah and Karen Tan. I worked with both of them in the pantomime last year and I admire them because they’re amazing actresses, they’re very versatile, they’ve written their own material, done great work, and are the nicest people on earth.
For Siti – she’s so successful but so humble. It’s so easy to work with her because she has no airs about her whatsoever, and for someone so young she’s been wildly successful. If I do attain the success that she has I hope to be like her one day and not push my weight around.
Q: What does success mean to you and do you think you’ve achieved it?
A: I guess success to me is just doing what I love, but to be very honest, people still have benchmarks about what success is and that does affect me somewhat. In theatre, a benchmark of success is working with big directors or getting a nomination for the Theatre Awards. The Theatre Awards can be controversial because some feel it isn’t a fair system and that some people who do really good work still haven’t been recognized after many years. As a young actor in the industry I still sense that while people say this about the system they still crave the recognition. And I think that’s totally normal – you inevitably get sucked into wanting this recognition and I do admit that a part of me feels that that is a definition of success.
But another part of me knows that keeping my feet firmly planted on the ground and doing what I love is enough already. I hope that I will never be too hard on myself and think that I will never be happy until I get that sort of recognition. As long as I keep doing work that I enjoy and I get to work with people I admire, that is enough to keep me going. So to answer the second part of the question, no, I don’t think I’ve achieved success yet because there are still so many people I would love to work with.