WHEN the curtains go up on Singapore Repertory Theatre's Romeo & Juliet later this month, the legendary lovers will both be played by Malaysians, Thomas Pang and Cheryl Tan.
Though general audiences may be less familiar with them, these two young actors have been steadily chalking up lead roles in Singapore. Pang has done six plays in one year, four of which had him as the lead - a staggering feat. Tan has done six plays here in three years, five of which had her as the lead.
Pang, incidentally, had just come off a March production of Ophelia - a deconstructed take on Hamlet's heroine - by Cake Theatrical Productions. The two leads in that play were also Malaysian: Pang and Jo Kukathas, who has become a marquee name in Singapore theatre.
The list of Malaysian actors in lead roles does not stop there. Last month's production of Lord of the Flies had four Malaysians in the cast of 12, led by Ghafir Akbar who, like Pang, has an acting nomination at the upcoming Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards 2016. Ghafir has done five Singapore shows in under two years.
Coming up in June, The Necessary Stage (TNS) is staging Ghost Writer starring Sukania Venugopal who's appeared in five previous TNS shows. Later that month, Wild Rice is restaging its five-hour blockbuster Hotel (2015) with Ghafir, Kukathas and Moo Siew Keh in its 13-member cast. And in October, Pangdemonium is staging the hit musical Rent with Tan and Aaron Khaled, a Malaysian singer-actor who's made frequent appearances here since his debut in La Cage Aux Follies (2012).
The surge of Malaysian talents on Singapore stage is perhaps not surprising. Singapore theatre is a bastion of acceptance and diversity. Since the 1980s, leading Malaysian practitioners such as Krishen Jit, Zahim Albakri, Marion D'Cruz, Leow Puay Tin, Huzir Sulaiman and Anne James - as well as dozens of designers and crew members - have been collaborating with or working for companies here such as TheatreWorks and Action Theatre.
But in recent years, the presence of Malaysian actors in Singapore theatre has risen significantly. As the scene here grows in size and complexity, producers and directors are searching far and wide for actors with the requisite X-factor, humility and diligence to help turn their plays into hits. The talent pool in Singapore is perhaps not big or strong enough to cater to the artistic demands of some directors. Wild Rice's artistic director Ivan Heng, who often scouts for talent in Kuala Lumpur, says: "Although most of the talent we work with is Singaporean, there is a population of 30 million across the water and that's a huge and diverse talent pool. The fact that these actors share the same stage as the best talents from Singapore and around the world speaks for the high quality of their work."
Raw, spontaneous quality
Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, who directed four Malaysian actors in the recent Lord of the Flies - namely, Ghafir, Gavin Yap, Lian Sutton and Bright Ong - explains: "There's a certain raw and spontaneous quality about their performance styles, which I can't quite explain, but I love. They are very hard-working, completely committed and are not afraid to try any of the direction given to them."
The play's lead, Ghafir, describes his and his compatriots' techniques as "being a bit rojak. Our process varies from project to project, but we can adapt to whatever gets thrown at us. We also always want to be friends with everyone". But Ghafir is being modest, considering that many Malaysian actors working here have sterling credentials. Ghafir, 34, holds a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from Florida State University, one the world's leading acting schools. He was one of only 12 students selected for the 2007 batch after the university auditioned more than 1,000 actors from the US and around the world.
Pang, 25, is arguably the most sought-after young male theatre actor right now. He graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts (Acting) - as did Sutton. Meanwhile, Yap studied theatre for several years in California and London, and writes and directs films in Kuala Lumpur. Kukathas and Venugopal are respected figures in the KL scene with long practices.
Arguably, the new wave of acting talent from the North is led by Kukathas who started getting raves here for her work on Alfian Sa'at's Nadirah (2009), Cooling-Off Day (2011) and Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol 1 (2012), as well as Natalie Hennedige's Cuckoo Birds (2010).
ST Life! Theatre Awards, which honours the best in Singapore theatre, considers non-Singaporeans for the awards when they have clocked in at least three local productions. And soon enough, Kukathas had nabbed acting awards for Checkpoint Theatre's Occupation (2012) and Wild Rice's The House of Bernarda Alba (2014). Her triumphs are as good a welcome signal as any for Malaysian thespians.
There have also been more cross-border collaborations between the countries. CausewayEXchange, for instance, is a biennial arts festival featuring artists from both sides of the Causeway sharing their art and experience. Last year, Wild Rice staged Another Country in KL and Singapore, which saw five Singapore actors and five Malaysian actors performing iconic literary texts of each other's countries.
More challenges here
But there are also very practical reasons why Malaysian actors choose to work here. Kukathas, 52, notes: "In the 1980s, there was more parity between the Malaysian and Singapore theatre scene. Malaysians would come here to perform, and Singaporeans would go to Malaysia. But since the 1990s, when Singapore established the National Arts Council and later the Esplanade, we've seen the arts scene here grow quickly, creating many more opportunities for English-language performers, compared to what's available in Malaysia."
Tan, 27, whose last lead role before Romeo and Juliet was Ivy in Beauty World (2015), points out: "Most of the companies in Malaysia don't stage more than one show a year. They lack the funding and resources to grow. The scene here and the Singapore dollar are stronger. So for an English language performer, it makes more sense to be based here - which I hope to do permanently."
Currently, most Malaysian actors stay with friends, relatives or lovers when they're doing a show here. A few theatre companies - not all - make housing arrangements for their actors. But the actors say they don't mind the inconvenience in exchange for the chance to do good theatre.
Yap, for one, credits his stage work in Singapore for re-igniting his passion for acting. The 38-year-old has been performing in TV commercials and dramas since he was eight. He says: "If it wasn't for the work I do in Singapore, I probably wouldn't be doing theatre at all. In KL, I had stopped acting to focus on writing and directing films ... But here, I'm attracted to the high quality of the theatre scripts, the characters I'm offered to play, and the teams I get to work with.
"I love the work ethic here: everybody pulls their weight. And I love the way you guys market shows. Singapore theatre markets its shows as if to say: 'If you don't watch this, it's your loss!' Malaysian theatre goes a different route. Marketing is more like 'Eh, come lah, see my show lah, support a bit lah.'"
No cultural barrier
In Hollywood, white American roles have often gone to Brits (Christian Bale, Kate Winslet, Daniel Day-Lewis), Australians (Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts), Canadians (Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Seth Rogen) and white actors of other countries. Directors look at talent and not nationality - though a controversy did erupt in the acting community there when 2014's Selma, a film about Martin Luther King, Jr, saw black British actors clinching the key roles.
Singapore theatre practitioners have welcomed their Malaysian counterparts - and vice versa. Heng says: "As theatre seeks to hold up a mirror to society, it's very natural to look to Malaysia for talent because of our shared history, culture and languages - and accents!"
Malaysian stage actors have no trouble playing Singapore characters. Witness Kukathas playing a Singapore makcik to a T in Cooling-Off Day (2011), or Ghafir and Kee Thuan Chye blending seamlessly with the Singaporean cast of Public Enemy (2015).
Even more impressively, the new wave of skilled Malaysian actors has helped boost the pool of actors here who can play Shakespeare well. Shakespeare is a challenge for most actors everywhere. But in the recently-staged Ophelia, for instance, Pang and Kukathas spoke the Bard's lines so lucidly, their meaning instantly registered. They will do so again later this month when Pang plays Romeo while Kukathas plays the Nurse to Juliet, who is played by Tan. Pang, for one, has been reciting Shakespearean verses since he was seven because he enjoys the "musicality" of it.
Tracie Pang, the co-artistic director of Pangdemonium, gave Thomas Pang (they're not related to each other) his first big break as the lead in Tribes (2015) which earned him an ST Life! Theatre Awards nomination for Best Actor. Tracie says: "As a Singapore company, we always try to cast Singapore actors first and foremost. But many Malaysian (and Indonesian, Filipino, Australian, etc) actors are seeking us out because Singapore is leading the way in Asia with English language theatre, and these actors want the opportunity to perform in professional English language productions. The actors go through the audition process and get the roles if they're the best candidate for them.
"Our October production of Rent has two Malaysians, one Australian, one Indonesian and the rest of the cast are mostly Singaporean. I look forward to working with such a diverse, multicultural team."
Romeo & Juliet starring Thomas Pang and Cheryl Tan will play from April 27-May 22 at Fort Canning Park. Hotel starring Ghafir Akbar, Jo Kukathas and Moo Siew Kim will play from June 30-July 24 at Lasalle College of the Arts. Ghost Writer starring Sukania Venugopal will play at Esplanade Theatre Studio from June 9-12. All tickets available from Sistic