Kalaiselvi Grace is a versatile bilingual actress with stage, television, radio and film acting experience who is also involved in theatre and storytelling education in various schools in Singapore. Some of her acting credits include Macbeth in Tamil for RDG (2001), An Inspector Calls in Tamil for RDG (2004), Above Us Only Sky for M1 Singapore Fringe Festival (2008), Rhinoceros for Singapore Arts Festival (2008) and My Magic – an Eric Khoo film featured in Cannes Film Festival (2008).
Kalai Grace feels that training at ITI has deepened the roots and widened the spectrum of her craft. After graduation, she plans to stage Woman and Womb, her first solo exploration piece. She also plans to explore other acting opportunities in Singapore, collaborate with fellow ITI actors in creating intercultural art for both Singapore and the international audience, and also continue theatre education in schools.
Q: How has ITI shaped your identity as an actress?
Pre ITI, people told me that I could act. Their encouragement and appreciation along with my interest made me act. I tried all roles offered to me – housewife, mother, gangster, witch, lesbian, prostitute etc. Even when they were minor ones, I still took the role. I was an active and eager actress whose acting knowledge came mostly from observation and trying. My interest made me further my knowledge through reading books; that’s where I realised the need and the depths of acting, but was unable to apply what I read about. Honestly, I loved acting and just wanted to act and was not really carving an identity for myself.
ITI has given me lots of positive changes to shape me as an actress. I know the importance of and am able to do a variety of voice and physical warm ups. I have changed in my speech and acting delivery styles. From only preferring fast paced worked, I have learned to appreciate the slow and still forms and need for variety and balance of range. I am also equipped with introductions to more acting knowledge in different forms and techniques.
When it comes to my identity as an actress, I am still in the process of discovering it. I am not sure if I want to, need to or can immediately craft out a specific identity after the full three years in ITI. For the moment it is a path for wholesome discovery.
Q: Prior to ITI, you had 14 years of acting experience. So when you came to ITI, did you feel that you had to ‘empty’ yourself?
Oh yes. It was very tough to empty, unlearn and relearn especially since a number of things that I had been doing over 14 years was purely practical knowledge that made sense and had successfully worked for me as an actress. I had neither any formal theatre education nor a degree in other fields. Also, I’m not a very critical person who analyses the processes or anything and everything in an academic manner. So, when I see some of them do it, I’m like, ‘Why do they go so deep? Am I supposed to do so as well?’ It disturbed me, because I had a preset concept of what acting is.
It was also especially hard when old habits which were hard to completely delete from my system crept in. My voice teacher, Robin, and movement teacher, Leela, always pointed out when an old bad habit had kicked in. But the corruption of the old and new often confused me further and made me retreat into defence or denial mode thus making learning difficult at times.
Then I kept telling myself, I came here to learn. Part of learning is emptying and changing and what’s the point of being here if I don’t attempt it at all. So I tried. I have yet to perfect it, but will continue the learning. I still have at least 30-50 years of my life to offer to the arts, there will always be room for improvement.
Q: Tell us a little about learning the traditional art forms.
I’ve learnt four beautiful and unique traditional forms – Kutiyattam, Beijing Opera, Noh and Wayang Wong. A rather one way of see, listen, follow and do type of learning, unlike other forms which allow a two way communicative learning process. There were moments when I wished there was a guide on how to approach the learning and deepen it.
Honestly, as a person who grew up in Singapore, a city, I am used to doing anything and everything fast and economically. I was used to swift movements and fast delivery of lines. Always had no time to stop and smell the roses. As such, I found the forms too slow to watch and perform. But learning the forms was a good change of adjustment for me as an actress. I have better control and balance of myself in many aspects. I now appreciate things better and have cut lots of assumptive and taking for granted behaviour.
Also, I have a habit of preferring new and contemporary stuff than traditional stuff. Over time, my appreciation and respect for the forms and other’s cultures developed. I used to shun topics on my background but now I am eager to search and know more of my own roots and history.
One definitely needs dedication, discipline, consistent practice, focus and respect for culture and each other when learning the form. I have yet to but would soon start incorporating the practice of the learned form as a warm up for not losing the knowledge gained. However, it has always been a challenge and question for me on how to apply the traditional forms when creating work. I know for sure I won’t be replicating the forms which are learnt in just two months. My concept was that the leg movements, gestures and voice can be used for character work. I truly appreciate the way Aarne - one of our acting teachers and the director of our first public performance piece, Shakespeare’s Pericles - explained the parallels between Pericles with Beijing Opera by drawing a lot of similarities and conventions between a traditional form and how it can be applied to Shakespeare. It made me realise in what direction I can take the forms that I learnt.
Q: What is your most rewarding experience so far?
The Intercultural Symposium at Berlin, Germany. It was something that wasn’t in the curriculum when we came in. It was not a reward, but it definitely was a rewarding learning experience. I’m very grateful, very thankful to ITI for enabling us to go for it.
I always had a different concept of how important one’s roots are. Whenever Robin talks about one’s roots in voice class, I hated it. I mean, how important are roots for making theatre? But the amount of admiration and appreciation showed on the Asians forms by the participants at the symposium suddenly made me think “Am I valuing my own roots?” When learning the traditional forms in school, part of me was learning them for the sake of learning. I heard, observed and realised a different view in looking at Asian arts.
Even Berlin itself, the choice of the gloomy and grey architecture for the restoration after the war, made me wonder why? With some explanation from various people, I realised the need for strength, reminders and pride about one’s roots, past, history and everything. Reflections on myself allowed me to discover who I am, why I am such, my family, my past, my present and my future and my journey. These were questions I was working through the two years and it was at Berlin I discovered some answers and made some decisions.
Q: What do you feel about graduation?
Scared and excited about surviving in the world. Since one is graduating from a theatre institute, I am not sure what the (mine / others) expectations are. One would be subjected to judgement in the competitive world.
ITI is a safe zone for explorations. How would it be in the world? School was like a 3 year vacation from work life. An enriching and tiring but well paced vacation.
But now I would need to switch again to Singapore’s fast paced creative world. But this time round, I will stop and smell the roses along the way. At the same time, I am looking forward to it as I need to pay off accumulated debts ASAP and be back on my feet. I am excited that I can finally confidently create work of my own.
I won’t say I will miss people and things because I will be in touch and connected to ITI, classmates and all as a collaborator, contributor and friend.
Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of Cloud Messenger, your second of three graduation shows?
For me the most challenging aspect was retelling personal stories which are actually close to the heart. And being a softie, it was challenging to hold back tears and not choke when delivering the lines which speak to me. The other was identifying who I am at which moment in the play.
Q: What’s next after graduation?
One of the things I want to do would be to explore theatre in my culture, roots and language on a deeper level. Prior to ITI, my knowledge of theatre in my language was narrow and within Singapore’s context. But there is plenty out there to identify, acknowledge, appreciate and work on/with it.
My other small dreams include: Some work in theatre education in schools, acting opportunities in two or three local productions bilingually, a solo piece and one collaborative project with my international classmates on a yearly basis.
Q: One last question – any advice for current students?
For current students, follow Sasi’s advice, keep a journal! Very important! There are months when I did not do this and I do regret it. Sometimes recalling from memory what had happened can be difficult. Now and then, or where possible, incorporate as part of a warm up, forms that have been learnt so that they become part of you. There have been moments when I don’t keep something in practice and I do feel that form has faded away from me. I need to revisit my notes and refresh learnt stuff. Lastly, relax, enjoy and play.
Photo: © The Pond Photography