What's in... Karen Tan's bag

What's in... Karen Tan's bag

WHO: Singapore actress Karen Tan, 47, is as versatile as she is prolific. She has been nominated for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards 11 times in the annual Life! Theatre Awards, winning in 2004 for playing a woman jailed for 25 years for killing her husband in Action Theatre's Iron.

HER BAG: I always have a different bag for rehearsals. This is actually one of my more compact ones. It's made of oilcloth, so if you spill coffee on it, you can just wipe it off. My bag is much bigger if I'm working on two or three shows because I pack food.

Reminded that she has now been acting for 28 years, Karen Tan exclaimed: "Oh my gosh, more than half my life right? That's terrible!"

But the 47-year-old brightened up almost at once: "Okay lah, I took a couple of years off because I had children."

She is married to a gynaecologist and they have two daughters, Rachel, 18, and Olivia, nine.

The seasoned actress knew from Day One that theatre was the right fit for her.

"I just knew I could do it, as opposed to, you know, try and see how lah," she said of her stage debut in Pistachios And Whipped Cream when she was a student at the National University of Singapore.

Tan appears next in Pangdemonium's Frozen (not the Disney version), a dark piece of theatre that delves into the mind of a paedophile serial killer (played by Adrian Pang). She plays a mother whose 10-year-old daughter has gone missing. Frozen's other lead actress is former Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh.

"Although all three of us are parents, I'm the only one who plays a parent in the show," said Tan. She had to think about what if her child had gone missing and how people express their grief in different ways and not just being upset.

"Frozen is very much a piece about the human mind. How you are able to talk yourself into choosing to do certain things," she said. "My character chooses to see the killer in prison. What sort of mental strength - or perhaps, weakness - makes her do that?"

Before Frozen, she had not acted for four months, her first break from acting since the 1990s.

She said: "I have been thinking that I could actually sort of not do it any more for the rest of my life. It is hard, because it is so extreme. Acting is at one end and family is at the other end. I have to think very hard about what I want to do. Whether, you know, is it time to stop?"

Asked if she would consider directing instead, she said she felt that she would be "terrible" as she would try to show actors how to act. She also said that she lacks the vision to adapt a play.

"I think people will laugh and say 'Karen Tan got nothing to act already, then must be director.' It's probably true, but don't say that," she said in mock horror.

Over the years, she has supported a variety of charitable causes. She has had her head shaved for the Hair for Hope campaign in aid of the Children's Cancer Foundation, and she has also been an ambassador for Power Over Cervical Cancer.

"Perhaps I have not found the right thing that I really want to push for," she mused.

"I don't want to do a cause just for the sake of it. My so-called cause now is a day-to-day thing, basically to say 'hello' to strangers. Just be nicer to people."

Frozen, by Pangdemonium, runs from Oct 23 to Nov 9 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

Frozen script

The script is mainly monologue as the characters are not going to meet until later in the play. My script is very clean; I haven't written notes in my scripts for 20 years. Sometimes, I put it down to laziness but I don't have the kind of brain to filter notes.

WD My Passport Air

It has photos of myself and my family, archival pictures of past productions and research material, such as documentaries about serial killers (for Frozen).


I was born in the 1960s so I have always used a pen or pencil with my diary. I have never been able to use the calendar on my phone because I don't know how to.

Apple iPhone 4

I use the phone to make calls and SMS my children if there's no WhatsApp. I have Instagram and Facebook on it. I also post photos of the boring auntie things that I do, such as embroider on a chair that I bought.

This article was first published on Oct 15, 2014.
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