Stories > We Are The World

2014 • Issue 1

We Are The World



Ivan Heng, actor, playwright and director, reprises his role as Emily of Emerald Hill in 2011, a decade after his maiden apperance in 2001. The play which bears a distinct Singaporean cultural flavor was set in the 1940s and 1950s. It revolves around Emily, an influential matriarch in the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) household.

Ivan Heng, 2013 Cultural Medallion Winner and pioneering theatre director, explains why the theatre is not just a stage for nation building. Singapore’s unofficial cultural ambassador also sees it as a platform to showcase Singapore to the world.

By A J Leow


van Heng, the founding artistic director of the local theatre company, Wild Rice Production, counts himself lucky for not working in any industry other than theatre. Armed with a law degree from the National University of Singapore, but uncertain what to do next, he joined the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Music and Drama Company as Artistic Director from 1989 to 1990.

Those were the days, he recounts, when most of his acting peers often held jobs as accountants, lawyers, bankers and teachers, and had to rehearse from 7 pm to 2 am before heading to their real day jobs with bleary eyes.

“I was from the generation which was part of the nationbuilding narrative that said if you had half a brain or were a bit smarter than others, you had better become a doctor, lawyer, engineer or hold a professional job. Otherwise, people would ‘see you no up’ (local colloquialism for ‘looked down upon’). I was supposed to be a doctor, but when I saw the university prospectus, I thought it was better to study law as it gave me more time to act, sing and dance!” says Heng with a laugh.

Different Characters

Looking back, he points out that just as in the legal profession, every actor is an advocate; except that it’s for a stage character — be it a rebel, a mother or a transvestite Chinese spy.

“Just like in the courtroom, where you are presenting to a judge or jury, you begin by introducing your case — which would be the character — to the audience and take them through a journey, hopefully to a satisfying conclusion. That’s what actors do.”

It was while still studying for his law degree that he found time to attend theatre doyen and fellow Cultural Medallion winner Kuo Pao Kun’s directing workshops, act with the Singapore Theatre American Repertory Showcase (S*TARS), and even direct and design sets as one of the founding members of The Necessary Stage.


Heng is involved in almost every aspect of theatre from acting, directing and writing to designing.

Distinctively Singaporean

He also went on to act in the original cast of Army Daze (1987) as the character Malcolm Png, and as Frankie Wong in the musical, Beauty World (1987). Both plays, written by local playwright Michael Chiang, were among the first productions staged in Singapore with a distinct Singaporean flavour. Heng recalls that those were the days when it was more commonplace to find performances that were adaptations of British or American playwrights such as Noel Coward, Shakespeare or Sam Shepard.

“Being on stage during the Army Daze performances was a profound experience for me. There was a great sense of unity and identity with the audience. The character Malcolm Png was every Singaporean mother’s son. Then, there was Ah Beng, (a local term referring to a Chinese youth with a peculiar sense of fashion) and an Indian, as well as a Malay character. There was a sense of belonging and communion because of the electricity in the audience every night.”

Lessons from Overseas

When Dick Lee’s musical, Beauty World, toured Japan, Heng realised that, “when we performed overseas, we did so with an even stronger Singaporean accent. There was no compromise!”

“There was a greater sense of pride. It was to stake our claim in the world. Singaporeans in the audience would also laugh louder because it was a case of ‘this is our joke. We get it.’ You can say that the work in those early years had a lot to do with us trying to understand who we are as a people,” Heng adds.

In 1990, Heng won a scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow where he graduated with top honours including the Royal Lyceum Theatre Award for Best Shakespearean Performance as Richard III, no less.

He also made his UK directorial debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a Singaporean play — Ovidia Yu’s The Woman in a Tree on the Hill — before moving to London. Instead of meatier roles, he was confined to playing stereotypes such as Chinese gangsters, triad members or takeaway restaurant owners.


“… but I wanted more; to speak to a bigger sky. I wanted to do something bigger rather than just play to the fringe.”


Wild Rice’s latest production, Jack and the Bean-Sprout! is a comedy pantomine about dreams, a mother’s love, and the perils of gambling. About 30 children between four and 12 were cast in the play which was staged last November.

“On hindsight, of course, I understand it. It was not my country. Theatre always holds a mirror to the society it represents, which obviously in the UK, was English, and which meant at that time, I was always going to be at the fringes — like some exotic flower. It’s only when you are away that you realise what it means to be Singaporean. When you find out ‘you are not that, that’s when you realise this is who you are’.”

That was when Heng decided to take things into his own hands and write about something close to his heart, which was his experience as a minority in foreign land.

The result was Journey West, a play based in part on his own struggles and disillusionment as an actor; encounters with racism, and also optimism and personal enlightenment.

“I played a Singaporean boy who did not belong, but who eventually found his voice,” says Heng of the play that went on to tour 12 cities around the world. During one of these performances, he experienced an epiphany.

“I looked out one night with my actor’s third eye — performing, but still conscious of the audience and the general feeling amongst them — and I spotted some people I knew. There was the Dean of Oriental studies; the Curator of the Oriental collection at the museum or the Head of the British-Chinese Association.”

“That’s when I realised that I was performing myself into the very box I was trying to break out of in the first place. It was OK for a while to just preach to the choir, but I wanted more; to speak to a bigger sky. I wanted to do something bigger rather than just play to the fringe.”

Local Arts Scene

So, in 1998, after an extensive European tour, Heng decided to head home to make his own mark on the arts scene in Singapore.

He founded Wild Rice two years later and moved local theatre from the fringe to a main event, opting for larger venues and more lavish productions. This was perhaps his single most significant move to translate his experiences as an artist who’d performed in a variety of countries into tangible initiatives that would influence the way an entire nation views itself.

“Theatre is a mirror of who we are as a community through shared experiences — whether it is to overcome differences, embrace diversity, speak for the marginalised or those without a voice, as well as mourn our losses and celebrate our triumphs.”

New National Narrative

The inauguration of Wild Rice signaled the birth of a new national narrative. “At Wild Rice, we make people laugh first, then think, and perhaps even cry. Tickle them at both ends. It is done in an open way, not in a covert manner, in an open space. It is the equivalent of our town hall.”

“I feel that we need a new narrative in Singapore; one that explores how we can contribute to an open discussion rather than a one-sided national monologue. The theatre here, in particular, resonates with audiences because our press is so regulated. Theatre carves out a safe place to discuss the issues that affect us.”

That’s why Wild Rice reprised The Importance of Being Earnest in 2013, an homage to Oscar Wilde’s idea of the need for individualism and tolerance in society.

Theatre is about courage in our imagination, and so is nationhood, says Heng who notes, “It allows us to observe snapshots of life and see beyond our prejudices and imagine other possibilities beyond our own limited perspectives. It calls us out on these prejudices. Re-sensitises us. I don’t want people to come to theatre and be calmed down. There must be an emotional response.”

He continues, “At one level, Singapore has become so Victorian! We are so concerned with appearances and propriety. The result is that individuals are subsuming their true selves to fit particular roles that society assigns, like being a good student.”

Wild Rice also staged the satirical Cooling-Off Day in 2011 which was written by Alfian Sa’at. It featured an ensemble that portrayed an admixture of characters from cab drivers to Teochew-speaking housewives, incarcerated politicians to 18-year-old students.

Says Heng, “Our identity is changing so rapidly that theatre gives us an opportunity to reflect on this crisis of unhappiness we are having — such as from the sudden influx of foreigners. To many Singaporeans, it’s a case of ‘It’s not the Singapore that we know. It’s shifting too fast’ and that we have been fighting and building for it and now suddenly these people have come into our space.”

“Theatre gives us an opportunity to explore what’s going on. The basis of drama is conflict resolution. You have two people disagreeing. They exist in the same space and will need to work out their problems. I think that we will all be better off if we can agree to disagree. There’s space for all of us.”

International Standards

Asked if Singapore theatre has what it takes to appeal to a global audience, Heng points to the expatriates that throng to Wild Rice performances, and asserts that our local productions rank with the best in the world.

“Contrary to the national narrative, we didn’t move from mangrove swamps to a modern metropolis suddenly in the ‘50s or ‘60s. We have been and will always be a port,” he says, referring to the confluence of cultures, languages and ways of life here. Then there is Emily of Emerald Hill by Stella Kon, in which Heng took on the lead role in 2001 and 2011, which has had an incr edible impact on audiences because the play spoke volumes about what it means to be a woman in society.

“The ladies — Germans, Australians, Koreans and Japanese — would come to me and say ‘That’s my mother and grandmother’. It also shows how cosmopolitan and multi-faceted we are: Emily in a Malay dress, a kebaya (Straits Chinese dress) and a ball gown. She goes to market in a cheongsam; cooks babi buah keluak (a local pork speciality of the Straits Chinese); dances to Fred Astaire and listens to Dizzy Gillespie,” explains Heng.

He took on the production and cross-dressing role after watching the play for the first time in 1999.

“I have never had anyone object to me playing Emily. There is a history of cross-dressing, for example in Teochew and Beijing opera; it’s part of our wayang (local theatre) heritage.” Heng goes on to explain that cross-dressing as part of artistic expression and is not about lifestyle choices; rather it’s about delivering a performance in the skin of the character.

As for opting for theatre over law, he offers this unsolicited comment. “Many people have said that Ivan Heng gave up a lot be an artist. Well, I like to say I also know a lot of people who gave up a lot, if not more, to be lawyers!”

Global Influencer

When congratulated on his recent Cultural Medallion award and asked how it feels to be a global influencer in Singapore, Heng is almost bashful.

“Being in theatre is like a calling. It’s not a career path for the faint-hearted. Those of us in this indus try have never changed course. There are also many people and organisations that continue to contribute and support us. They buy our tickets; contribute as Wild Rice angels and sponsors. Ministers, NAC (National Arts Council) CEOs come and go. But I have my job to do. It is also m y calling — just like a doctor or a lawyer. My relationship is with the audience. We are the People’s Acting Party.”

With a twinkle in his e ye, he says, “If an alien wants to know what’s going on in Singapore in 2013, all he needs to do is to capture a member of audience who has watched all the Wild Rice shows. He will get to know all our concerns — our hopes, dreams and disappointments and the way we envision our future. The world is here and Singapore is in the world.”


Heng was creative director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

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