Sonia is a Singaporean performer and theatre practitioner. Collaboration, experimentation and movement are central to her practice.
Her theatre journey began as a production intern at The Necessary Stage in 2009. She then pursued studies in interdisciplinary practice at Queensland University of Technology, while working actively in Brisbane’s independent theatre scene.
Upon returning to Singapore, Sonia worked full-time as a research editor at social enterprise, The Thought Collective, and as a facilitator at Singapore Creations, a non-profit that works with young people, before joining ITI in 2015.
What led you to study at ITI?
Timing. Then, I was trying to find my way back into theatre again, re-questioning why I wanted to do it and what to focus on. I realised I wanted more training to build my foundation in performing. I sought out workshops, and two of these - Butoh intensive with Sankai Juku and neutral/larval masks workshop with Daniela and Adriano - were held at ITI.
The learning atmosphere and sense of community drew me in. The vision and mission of ITI already resonated with me deeply, but still, I never thought of applying for school. The final push came when I spoke to alumnus Peter Sau during the mask workshop. When he shared with me about how the immersion was essential in transforming him as an artist and person, I knew that it was what I was looking for and I had to come.
I had known about Kuo Pao Kun since my secondary school days - it is impossible not to trace the roots of Singapore theatre back to this visionary man. I knew of TTRP too [editor’s note: ITI was formerly known as Theatre Training & Research Programme (TTRP) until 2011], and I remember watching Hamletmachine in 2008. I had always held the school in high regard; for the way it looked to the traditional Asian forms while forging contemporary theatre artists, for its belief that theatre must have social impact, and for its practice to continually work across cultures and diversity. These are all values I aspire to in my own work.
Do you recall your first day here?
I remember we all sat in a circle on the floor in the studio - including all the teachers and office staff too. I remember feeling how communal and cosy it was, everyone sharing on the same level - literally. Everyone had to answer ‘Why are you here?’ as part of their introduction. It was so interesting to hear the varying reasons. I remember thinking about how everyone’s journey was so diverse, yet we all converged here in this time and space and believed in the same ideals about theatre. It was very exciting and re-affirming for me.
What has ITI training been like?
The days are long, and you have to continually give your attention and focus your energies, which gets difficult. It will be uncomfortable - you have to constantly observe and confront yourself, while also navigating and connecting with things and people outside yourself.
Our acting teacher, Beto, once said acting is being a monk and a clown - at the same time. I feel this is also an accurate metaphor for the ITI experience. It is often a balancing act of contradictions: to stick to the discipline of the routine while always staying open to throw away what you know, seek everything anew and just play. It really is about finding yourself and losing yourself, again and again. But it takes time. When you start to allow the flow of the work to happen, there is indescribable joy and magic.
"Our acting teacher, Beto, once said acting is being a monk and a clown - at the same time. I feel this is also an accurate metaphor for the ITI experience. It is often a balancing act of contradictions."
Any observations from working with classmates from various countries?
We are all shaped by our different personal histories, cultural norms and socio-political-economic backgrounds. And our differences are precisely what make our collisions beautiful. I've learnt not to be too quick to judge or dismiss something I don't comprehend, to choose compassion over righteousness. Also, spoken language is but a tool, and a very, very flawed one. Even more so when everyone's first language (and the language in which they think) is different! I am still learning to listen more, beyond what is said. And ultimately, to be generous and have faith in one another.
What are the most memorable classes you’ve had?
There are so many! What I most enjoy are the moments in class when the energy of the ensemble really comes together. Our singing sessions were particularly special. The exchanges went beyond sharing tune and lyrics, but something specific and personal for the individual. A gift that then became a bond for the entire group.
Learning the traditional Asian forms was also absolutely unforgettable. It's not just what the masters taught, but how they live and carry themselves that truly opened my eyes to new worlds. I will always treasure the privilege to interact with them directly. However, as our Kutiyattam teacher once wisely said, “Learning is easy, practising is difficult.” Moving forward to incorporate the training in life is the real challenge.
How have you changed as an actor since joining ITI?
I have become more confident in myself as an actor. Not just in terms of feeling more equipped with technique on how to act, but also the confidence to know what I want and go after it.
ITI has indelibly shaped my attitudes in theatre-making. I definitely think acting is about transforming the other, going outside and beyond oneself. But to give of yourself you need to first possess yourself, and continually return to yourself to stand firm.
And your experience of ITI - has it changed from what you initially expected on Day 1?
I knew it was going to be tough - especially physically - but the type of tough still went beyond my expectations. Emotionally and spiritually as a person, the experience really tested me in ways I did not see coming. You start to interrogate your values, beliefs and assumptions. It’s really in the little things.
But one thing that hasn't changed since Day 1 for me is that I expected to be awed, surprised and excited by what I learnt. And I still am!
"ITI has indelibly shaped my attitudes in theatre-making. I definitely think acting is about transforming the other, going outside and beyond oneself. But to give of yourself you need to first possess yourself, and continually return to yourself to stand firm."
Any post-graduation plans?
I plan to work in the Singapore theatre scene. It is time for me to give back! I want to respond to the increasing challenges and changes we are facing. I still believe theatre has the power to transform lives, even if it is shaking one desensitised soul at a time… I hope to continue honing my craft in acting, to work and learn alongside many in the local artistic community whom I respect.
I also want to make my own theatre and performance/art work. I have an interest in working in non-traditional theatre spaces; I think that we need to find new ways of engaging more varied audiences, to disrupt their ways of seeing. I want to make work that engages diverse communities, but not the stereotype of ‘community theatre’ as prescribed by government bodies.
I also hope to continue intercultural collaboration with my fellow schoolmates into professional work. Eventually, I hope to continue training with some masters overseas and work internationally.
What would you say to someone thinking of coming to ITI?
You will know it in your gut if you want to be here or not. Follow that voice and don’t give yourself any other excuse to deny the learning. You owe it to your own self to be accountable to fulfil your potential. If this is there, everything else is external and can be figured out.
Is there anyone you would like to thank: teachers, family, friends?
There are too many people I owe my thanks and gratitude to! I am especially thankful to all the masters, directors, teachers, office staff and fellow schoolmates at ITI. It is comforting to realise there are others like you out there. Also thankful, of course, to my parents, who may not understand what I do but have never disapproved and always provided support in their own ways. I’m also thankful to all the people I have met in these three years; whether it was just a passing acquaintance or a sustained relationship, you have all become part of my ITI journey.