The Making of an Actor: Reflections from an attendee (II)

15 April 2020 | Journal

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Tivona Low, an educator at CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh), reflects on her experience attending The Making of an Actor. Below is an excerpt from her reflection on the short course:  


“Theatre allows you to – for a brief moment – to understand the truth of other people. You can never be that person but there is something inside of you that can resonate with something inside of the character.”

It was truly a privilege to hear from Mr T. Sasitharan, the Director of ITI, about the visions and goals that he has for ITI. One of the messages that deeply resonated with me is how he committedly sources for practitioners all over the world to bring life to the traditional theatre forms in Singapore. The importance of exposing students to the essence of the art forms without dilution, and giving them the tools to create unique performance pieces for themselves, clearly reveals a rare and hard to come by contribution that he is making to the theatre in Singapore. 

The little knowledge that I have of traditional theatre comes from my grandmother’s love for Beijing Opera. As a child, I would spend many hours at the temple next to my grandmother’s block, sitting down on a red-coloured worn out chair and admire the vocalisations, elaborate contrasts in the make-up, and the shiny costumes put on by these actors. My grandmother used to share that in every story, there is a villain to overcome and a moral to learn. Those nuggets of wisdom that were thoughtfully conveyed through a traditional form such as Beijing Opera were, truthfully, remarkably vivid in my memory because of the all-encompassing discipline required of a performer to carry out on stage. However, it also occurred to me that the only access that I had to traditional forms as a child was through a readily free (in all meaning of the word) space – and a simple willingness on my grandmother’s part to bring a little one like me to a new world so different from my own. With that, I stepped into my first course with ITI. 


Lesson Observations 

“Journey” — that would be the word to encapsulate my experience, and what I had observed of the student-actors who were present in that lesson. The mind and the body were engaged as one as they collaboratively recalled the routines for the performance, to tell a story. 

In my first session, I was introduced to a warm-up that focused on the facial expressions. The warm-ups were focused and intentional in waking up every facial feature in the face while the rest of the body (neck-down) was in neutral (cross-legged, back straight). It occurred to me that it had been some time since I had brought this awakening to the face because I had been putting most of the consciousness of my warm-ups into my body — perceiving the head as a whole to the upper body to the fingers, then to the legs and eventually one’s toes. The warm-up that took place in the first session was an hour long, and the emphasis on the facial features — first the brows, then to the eyes, and then to the contortion of the cheeks and lips to emote an array of emotions — has indeed brought me to a new realisation that our bodies are instruments of expression onstage. As I witnessed beads of perspiration fall down the students’ faces, that (for me) was a true mark of the high level of discipline and focus expected to bring the actor’s face, body, headspace and body awareness to embark on a “journey” through that lesson. 

“Journey” — that would be the word to encapsulate my experience, and what I had observed of the student-actors who were present in that lesson. The mind and the body were engaged as one as they collaboratively recalled the routines for the performance, to tell a story. Truthfully, I was initially detached from the performance as I could not comprehend what the story was about. However, it eventually occurred to me that there was a repetition in the movements, as if the actors were re-telling the story over and over through the same words, gestures, movements and expressions. They were going on a “journey”, and there was no doubt that I quickly fell into my place as an audience member going on this journey along with them, leaning closer to comprehend each moment played out on stage. It was euphoric because despite the repetition, the new understanding that I gained at each point was a surprise — a transcendental experience that broke away from the practical reality of this world.

In my second session, I was blessed to meet [fellow participant in The Making of an Actor] Asha as she gave me context to what I was observing in the classroom. In that lesson, I was watching the actors committing to the exploration of Navarasa: the nine emotions – love, laughter, courage, terror, disgust, surprise, peace, compassion and anger. The intensity of each emotion being performed constantly shifted the atmosphere in the room, revealing the power of emotional expression. Many questions suffused my mind at that point of time: How did they do it? What was going through their minds? Was there a consciousness to what they were doing while they were expressing the emotion – or was it a detached connection between body and mind? At the end of the session, it was… cathartic.

The disciplined body is beautiful to watch – one that evolves as the actor commits to the training, and comes to the space prepared and ready for the rigour of the work. These sessions have inspired me to discipline my body in ways that are malleable and adaptable to growing self-expectations as a teacher-artist.