Q&A with Shirley Tan

10 November 2017 | Journal

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Shirley has always wanted to be on the stage, but did not venture near theatre till she was in her 20s. The turnabout came when she watched Jacob Rajan in The Guru of Chai, and Oliver Chong in Roots. Prior to ITI, Shirley was working as an administrator, but made the game-changing, mid-career switch so that she would not regret a life of missed choices.

Shirley believes that good theatre is like magic, for the surprises and immersive experience it can bring to the audience. She is also a champion of the storytelling might of theatre, to touch people’s hearts and minds.

A bilingual theatre-maker, Shirley hopes, after graduation, to create works that involve movement, as well as to include the traditional art forms that she has learned at ITI into puppetry. She also has an interest in scriptwriting and hopes for opportunities to pursue it.


You made a mid-career switch to pursue full-time acting. What motivated that?  

When I was a child, I wanted to be an TV actress. This was not surprising for someone who grew up watching TV dramas, but I didn’t choose to pursue it. About six years ago, I started to watch theatre and fell in love with it! I was captivated by the power of live performance and wanted to be like the person onstage. I asked myself what the difference was between that person and me: if what I lacked were skills and training, then I would seek out training.

I found out about ITI at an exhibition about Kuo Pao Kun in 2012, and I was excited to know that there was such a school in Singapore. Though I didn’t have the chance to know Kuo Pao Kun in person, I am very inspired by him through his plays and what people have said about him. The alumni and Kuo Pao Kun’s former students have showed me, in one way or another, the values he passed on. There was no doubt that ITI was the school that I had been looking for.

On stepping into the ITI studio three years ago, on your first day here, what were your initial thoughts?

It was like a dream to me. Even up till now, I can’t believe it is true. It is a luxury to be a full-time student studying what you want, and I feel very blessed. On my first day, I was overwhelmed to see so many students from different countries and backgrounds. I felt that I had so much to catch up on and would never be able to finish catching up with what I didn’t know, even by the time I graduated.

How has everyday training here been like?

It is very fulfilling. You never get the same experience each day, so you have to challenge yourself each time to break through every obstacle that comes your way. But with it, you are growing stronger and becoming even surer if this is what you want.

What have you learnt from working with your classmates from various countries?

Their openness and generosity in performance, their exposure and their creativity. I feel that Singaporeans in general (including myself) lack life experiences unless they have immersed themselves in other countries or cultures. All this will be reflected in performance.

Which classes will be etched in your memory of ITI?  

Once, our acting teacher Bert van Dijk, got all 14 of us in my cohort to close our eyes and move a long bamboo stick around the studio with one hand. I was amazed at how we could move together without communicating and without hitting the wall. He had showed us how powerful we were when we were connected and ‘listened’ to each other closely.

Another time, in a different acting class with Head of Acting Beto (Alberto Ruiz Lopez), he’d asked us to lie down on the floor and imagine ourselves as a baby, to ‘rediscover’ our bodies as if for the first time, and to try moving without the knowledge we had gained through life. I realised how much I had taken my body parts for granted, and had never taken such close notice of how they move or thought of any other ways of moving them.

"To be a good actor, you must be precise and be very sure with everything you do onstage. The audience can see how much you know and how you have trained your body; you can’t trick them. It is about how you conduct yourself, how you live your life: everyday counts, not just the time you spend onstage."

How has your training here shaped your perspective as an actor?

I learnt how important it is to have a foundation. To be a good actor, you must be precise and be very sure with everything you do onstage. The audience can see how much you know and how you have trained your body; you can’t trick them. It is about how you conduct yourself, how you live your life: everyday counts, not just the time you spend onstage. A good actor must have discipline.

How do you feel about your ITI experience now that you’re about to graduate?

I still feel that I am very blessed and very privileged to be in ITI, with all the knowledge and skills that have been passed down to me. I cannot ask for more. I am grateful beyond words to the school.

Any plans for after graduation?

I will continue to learn from different teachers and look for opportunities to expand myself. I will keep experimenting and would like to have one original showcase of my work each year.  

What would you say to someone about to start at ITI?

Come in with openness, throw away what you already know and start afresh. If you believe in the school, you must also trust your teachers, learn and apply the skills first, and then question them. If you already have doubts and judgements at the beginning, you will not able to learn and discover new things. Come in with a humble and teachable spirit. Enjoy and play!

Is there anyone you’d like to thank?

My first movement teacher, Chin Huat, who also taught me body conditioning and contemporary dance a few months before I came to ITI. My body would have more difficulty coping with the training in ITI if I didn’t have this basic knowledge. He also spent many hours outside school coaching us with our movement presentations.

Tan Beng Tian, the Artistic Director of The Finger Players, who I regard as my first acting teacher. She shared her skills with a group of youngsters who had volunteered for The Finger Players and allowed me to join them. She had taught us how to make and operate puppets, and basic acting.

The Finger Players, who allowed me to help during their productions before I joined ITI. I learnt so much from everyone of you - you are and will always be my role models.


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Photos by Bernie Ng