Q&A with Saran Jith

Saran Jith is an actor, painter and musician. The Kerala, India native has been researching, exploring and working in theatre, music and visual arts since 2007.

A veritable veteran, with over 30 theatrical performances in his experience, Saran has acted in plays that have been staged in national and international theatre festivals, such as ITFOK, RANGAYANA Mysore and PRD Kerala.

In visual arts, Saran’s works have been exhibited in several state and national exhibitions in India and Singapore, and has been in collaborative installation works conducted by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy.

As a musician, he has performed with classical dancers in India and elsewhere. Saran is currently practising in mizhavu (Kerala traditional percussion instrument) under the reputed tutelage of Guru Kalamandalam VKK Hariharan.

 

Q: Just before ITI, you were…

I had just graduated with a Masters in Philosophy in theatre arts and philosophy in 2014. Before that, I had been studying and exploring different areas of art.

Q: So why cross the proverbial ocean?

I first heard about ITI from alumna Jyothirmayi Kurup [cohort 2014], my friend and colleague back home. I also happened to see The Water Station directed by TTRP (ITI’s former name) alumna Sankar Venkateswaran, and it really moved me. That was the first production of its kind in Kerala, a three-hour non-verbal show with the actors working in ultra-slow motion.

After that, I spoke to Sankar and other alumni like Mohamed Kunju Noushad and Sreejith Ramanan, and hearing how ITI had benefited them was what inspired me to make the leap to come here.

Q: In these three years of training, what stood out most for you?

It’s hard to pick out a particular lesson or experience, but the sessions with Sasi [in humanities and cultural/literary theory] were informative and explorative. I also have to mention our singing session with Robin Payne [former faculty] – learning a song from a completely different culture was such an experience for me, and she really made it enjoyable.

Q: How has what you learnt here shaped or changed you as an actor?

Coming from Kerala, the land of rituals and traditional art forms such as Kutiyattam, Kathakali and Theyyam, I understood what rasa* is. I came to ITI as an actor who expressed myself with my face and through internalisation of emotions. I’m not sure whether this joy of rasa is a limitation or a possibility.

However, having experienced the joy of rasa, I think I was limited by it, which affected my ability to perform in contemporary theatre or physical theatre. There was a conflict between what I had learnt previously and what I was learning at ITI, so at first I thought all this physical work here was unnecessary or ‘too much’. I still have that instinct, but after studying at ITI, I’m now aware of it and can work against it.

Studying here has given me the huge realisation that expression is not only conveyed with the face. So I would say that my culture gave me the ‘spirit of acting’, and ITI has given me the ‘body of acting’.

“Studying here has given me the huge realisation that expression is not only conveyed with the face. So I would say that my culture gave me the ‘spirit of acting’, and ITI has given me the ‘body of acting’.”

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

I plan to continue my academic studies and pursue a Ph.D. in Theatre back home. I also hope to have opportunities to perform my solo performance from the Final Year Individual Presentation [ed’s note: Saran’s solo piece, titled Urubhangam (The act of breaking the thigh), centred on the tale of Duryodhana from the Mahabharata]. I’ve already been invited to perform with some theatre practitioners and to train people back in Kerala. I’ll also be working on productions with a repertory theatre company.

Q: To someone thinking of making that same leap to ITI as you three years ago, you’d say…

Of course, you will get a certificate at the end of the three years, but you need to be passionate about acting to discover the hidden treasure of ITI. ITI is the one and only complete school for actors.

 

* In the Indian performing arts, a rasa is a sentiment or emotion evoked in each member of the audience by the art.

Photos by Bernie Ng

 

Q&A with Lim Chin Huat

Lim Chin Huat is a familiar name in Singapore’s dance scene; the former co-founder and artistic director of ECNAD (1996 – 2013) has an oeuvre of over 70 creative works, mainly full-length dance since 1993.

Chin Huat’s works have been part of the Singapore Arts Festival, Belgrade International Theatre Festival, Vienna Arts Festival’s Asia Village, Festival of Asia (New Zealand), Asia Interaction (Indonesia), Actor Studio at Kuala Lumpur, Beijing’s Chaoyang Cultural Centre, Esplanade Raw Series, Gardens by The Bay Opening, Mercedes-Benz Asia Fashion Award, Artwine Festival, Singapore River Festival, MediaCorp Star Awards, Asian Civilisation Museum and too many others.

Chin Huat is also a cross-disciplinary artist, having worked in capacities from visual artist, performer, dancer, choreographer, costume designer, facilitator, to educator. His most recent work, as installation in collaboration with acclaimed photographer, Tan Ngiap Heng, for Soil (2017) at the Substation is just one of his ever-expanding artistic chapters.

At ITI, Lim Chin Huat has been guiding the students in Movement lessons since 2015.

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Q&A with Vanessa Wu

Born in Saigon, raised in Penang, training now in Singapore – Vanessa’s growing up years may have been multi-faceted, but her life goals were clear since young. Vanessa is one of the lucky ones who knew, since early on, what her singular calling is to be – and for this diminutive chilli-padi, it is to be an actor.

In the pursuit of her dreams, Vanessa gave up school at 13, worked odd jobs to lend a hand to her family, while trying to find her way into the professional performing arts. This, she did in 2012, when she interned for Shanthini Venugopal’s The Jumping Jellybeans, a children’s theatre company based in Kuala Lumpur. That year, Vanessa was also cast in Bites of Delights, a children’s musical theatre production directed by Ghafir Akbar.

In 2013 and 2014, Vanessa worked at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC) as a production assistant, and was also a stage manager for the opera, Carmen, as well as for the KLPAC orchestra. During her KL years, she also acted in Joe Hasham’s productions of Broken Bridges the Musical and Sinbad the Musical, as well as What If, Life Unscripted and Theatre in the Red for Short+Sweet Festival Malaysia (Theatre and Musical).

In Singapore, Vanessa performed in Speak Cryptic’s The Tribe, as part of Club Malam at SIFA The O.P.E.N. Festival 2016. She also collaborated with performance/sound art collective The UFO Project for Neon Lights Festival 2016.

At 22 now, Vanessa feels she is still in search of her essence as an actor and of the kind of theatre she hopes to pursue.

 

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Q&A with Tan Weiying

Weiying first encountered the magic of theatre through the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Arts & Cultural Troupe (SHHKACT), at age 5, when she watched the clan association’s teachers take to the stage for their annual performance. That same power drew her to pursue professional training in theatre. “Theatre has helped me open up to the people around me, and it keeps me grounded,” says the Bachelor of Science graduate.

ITI’s award-winning alumni – M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards winner Peter Sau, Golden Horse award recipient Yeo Yann Yann, former Theatre Practice resident artist Felix Hung Chit Wah and recent graduate (and fellow Tan Chay Bing Education Fund recipient) Lina Yu – helped seal Weiying’s decision to train at ITI, “I identified with them, and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Weiying.

In 2015, apart from training at ITI, Weiying also worked with and guided the Women’s Executive Committee of Bukit Timah Community Club to perform at Scenes – Drama Box’s forum theatre festival.

Post-graduation, Weiying hopes to continue work in devised theatre, aiming to use the approach to reach out to communities and the young.

Weiying’s training at ITI is generously supported by the Tan Chay Bing Education Fund.

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Q&A with Henrik Cheng

A native of New York City, Henrik has experienced the gamut of theatre roles – having been backstage crew while in Queens College in the City University of New York, as a technician working the light boards, and directing site-specific works in New Orleans (a passion he discovered while attending La MaMa’s symposium in Italy).

A chance encounter with Singaporean artists at La MaMa’s symposium led him to question the Asian American-centric approach, and limits, of his practice. From there, it has been a 9,521 miles journey to Singapore – one that will be a new jumping-off point when Henrik graduates later this year.

In his time here, Henrik has facilitated Speak Cryptic’s The Tribe at SIFA O.P.E.N. 2016, content creating and performing in Alamat Bahru with Wright Assembly, and performing in Pretty Butch at M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017.

Henrik gravitates towards performing work that provides hope, is healing, or encourages positive, proactive change.

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Q&A with Uma Katju

A working, experienced actor from New Delhi, Uma enjoys the challenges of traversing different theatre and performance forms, and is especially drawn to mask-work, realism and the traditional arts. Her study in mask began in 2013 through training in clowning under Reinhardt Horskotte and Michael Moritz. A classically trained singer, Uma hopes to explore the theatricality of music in the future. In Singapore,  she has performed in Chowk’s Pallavi and Space (2016), and co-created and performed The Moonlit Smile at the Esplanade Moonfest (2016).

Uma holds a research degree in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  
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Q&A with Desmond Soh Jin Kai

First captured by the power of theatre in River Valley High where he was a student, Desmond went on eventually head the school’s Chinese Language Drama and Debate Society (CLDDS), participating in numerous performances.

From that start, Desmond deepened the drama connection as part of Drama Box’s youth wing, ARTivate, where he is a graduate of its second cohort in 2014. He has also served as the director’s assistant (movement) for Kopitiam (2016), a programme of the Esplanade’s “Feed Your Imagination” series.

After he graduates from ITI, Desmond plans to continue his work in acting, exploring theatrical structures and how they can create spaces for conversations in the community.

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Q&A with Teo Dawn

Like many Singaporean students, Teo Dawn found herself questioning her next steps after the completion of her junior college education. But instead of moving from one school to another after six years in Dunman High School’s IP programme, Dawn decided to take the time to deliberate. In a two-year break from the pursuit of education, Dawn worked on theatre productions, such as with Buds Theatre Company, contributed editorially to online platforms, gained some real-life experience with internships, before deciding to join ITI in 2015.

“I had read of ITI when The Straits Times wrote about the reboot of the programme [in 2011], and took interest. Subsequently, I did my own research about the training and really wanted to learn more about the traditional forms together with the contemporary. I think the rigour and the disciplines really attracted me,” Dawn recalls of her journey to her three-year professional theatre training, “but what sealed the deal was watching Cloud Messenger [in 2014] devised and performed by the graduating cohort of ITI students that year. The stories of sincerity and human spirit really touched me; I want to be able to do that with storytelling.”

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Q & A (Part II) with Denise Mordeno Aguilar

Denise graduated from ITI in 2014 and has been busy since her return to her home country, Philippines. ITI spoke with Denise last, then on the eve of her graduation, to ask of her thoughts of her three years training journey. In this short 1.5 years since, Denise has been active teaching, performing and directing in Manila, Dumaguete, Ozamiz city and in her hometown of Cagayan de Oro. Denise has always believed in the arts as a powerful way to share stories that reflect the complexities of society, and of using theatre as a creative pathway to peace and community engagement – directions she has pursued and are fulfilling even right now. Recently honoured with the inaugural Lambago Art Awards presented by Xavier Center for Culture and the Arts, Denise reflects on how ITI remains a part of her practice today.


What highlights have there been for you since you graduated?

After I graduated from ITI, I was busy preparing and rehearsing my 45-minute solo piece Hope Floats which took root from my Final-Year Individual Presentation back at ITI. I didn’t quite know where to get started right after graduation, but I had, thankfully, signed up early for the inaugural Fringe Manila Festival so I got a chance to perform this solo work in February to March 2015 at De La Salle University in Pasay, Metro Manila. When I went back to my hometown, I was invited to perform Hope Floats on World Theatre Day (March 27, 2015) at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City. All Hope Floats performances were by donations only, with all proceeds turned over to my former classmate and friend who is fighting end-stage renal disease. Continue reading

Q&A with ITI Class of 2016

Part II with Kady Cheung, Soti Ramapati D., Cerys Ong and Liz Sergeant Tan

This year’s graduating cohort from Brazil (Anildo), Hong Kong (Kady), Singapore (Catherine, Cerys and Liz) and India (Ram and Soti) are on their final leg of training before they graduate. Though they come from diverse theatre experiences – carnival/street theatre, traditional Cantonese opera, community theatre or straight from school – over the last two years they have found common cause here – through intense sharing and learning.

These years, have clarified the different paths as each must take after they finish in ITI.

In this second of a two-part interview with the class, we speak with the four performing in
Group 2 of the Final-Year Individual Project (FYiP) (26, 27 & 29 May 2016).


Hong Kong citizen Kady Cheung is trained in traditional Cantonese opera and is seeking ways to recast the discipline of the older art form as contemporary theatre. In 2007 she initiated a group – Artist Mission – that focuses on theatre of the absurd. An active drama teacher, Kady plans to return to Hong Kong to continue her work in acting and, applying her new training to continue collaborations with people from varied cultural backgrounds through theatre.

Soti Ramapati Dvivid (a.k.a. Soti Rpd) from Uttar Pradesh, India has been working as an actor and director before pursuing training at ITI. This M.A. in Theatre Arts graduate from the University of Hyderabad, hopes, after graduation, to explore the intercultural, psychophysical, acrobatic and physical aspects in theatre-making, and to create a platform/space for those who share his interests in the performing arts.

Cerys Ong’s love for the stage was kindled in her kindergarten days. Through the school years, she has participated in numerous performances, as well as national storytelling and drama competitions. A former Theatre Studies and Drama humanities scholar at Victoria Junior College, Cerys is a bilingual performer, who has hosted events for schools and companies.

As a little girl, Liz Sergeant Tan was so full of energy, her only quiet time was when she was an enraptured, like everyone else, by her late mother’s [Christina Sergeant’s] mime shows. She’s been hooked on theatre since. Liz believes in the power of theatre, and hopes to devise works worthy shows of substance and magical spirit for both children and adults. A School of the Arts (SOTA) alumna, Liz has also performed in Manifest (January 2014) and Floating Bones (July 2014), and has acted in short films produced by Tisch Asia students.


Q: Why did you choose to come to ITI over three years ago and what has the experience been like?

Kady: After these years of training, I feel that I have moved closer to my goal – being a well-trained actor. I feel I’m ready, finally, to start work properly in theatre. In my third and final year, I will hardly spend any time in the “classroom” but I’m excited about this – to see how I might at last bring what I know to the stage.

Cerys: My time here has expanded my horizons – I now see that theatre can be so diverse and rewarding. My perspective on what an actor could be has changed, now that I know the range of skills sets and different modes of performances that exist. What we go through in training here is far wider and deeper than what I can find usually on stages in Singapore.

Soti: My time at ITI has been a search for my own identity – both physical and emotional. Sometimes it’s been a pleasure, sometimes it’s not been so.

Liz: The training here uncovers ourselves – it can be surprising what you find out about yourself. You also get a good taste of what it’s like out there in the professional [theatre] world.

Q: What have been the greatest or most memorable rewards in your three years here?

Cerys: The hardest I’ve laughed and cried in my entire life have been here in the ITI studios – it emerges from how the training has stretched me, both as an individual and as an actor. It’s hard to pick a single encounter that is the most memorable – I will probably have that answer in five years’ time!

Soti: My most memorable lessons here have been in Clowning, because I have found those skills the hardest. But the difficulties in learning can bring out the deepest emotions.

Liz: It’s truly surprising how many experiences one can have from this single building [ITI studios]. One of my most memorable is the Wind Dance [taught by Guillermo Angelelli], it was so immensely hard to master and so physically demanding, but also rewarding once you’ve gotten it. Another rewarding experience was when I felt, for the first time in my life, something larger than myself while performing.

Q: What are your plans after graduation and any advice for those looking to begin their journey with ITI?

Kady: After graduation, I will continue to work on scripting, collaborating and applying what I’ve learnt here; I would also like to share what I’ve learnt. For those thinking of joining ITI, I’ll say: it will be difficult, but don’t wait a minute more.

Cerys: I will probably pursue a degree after ITI. Having trained my body here, I would like to train my mind academically. Hopefully, I will be able to continue performing during term breaks. Eventually, I want to work in a cross-disciplinary field. For future students, my advice is: “Think carefully”. The commitment is tough and you will need guts and drive to keep going for three years here. ITI is the place where you’ll discover who you really are and what drives you.

Soti: First, I hope to develop and tour my FYiP (Final Year Individual Presentation) to different cities in India. It is about history, trauma and memory. To those coming to ITI, know this: ITI takes you out of your comfort zone, but if you keep focussed and work hard, you’ll be fine.

Liz: I realise how far I have to go yet to be an artist. After graduation, I will stay and work in Singapore for a year; in puppetry, children’s theatre and mask work. Then, I hope to get more training. ITI has opened my body and mind so that I can pursue many things. ITI is about serious, hard training, so if you’re enrolling, have lots of energy and the spiritual commitment to do it. Be prepared to have your definition of theatre challenged and changed! When you’re finally here, open your heart, begin a journal and always reflect.