14th The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards 2014: Tough acts to beat

Best Actor and Best Actress nominees: (clockwise from left) Tay Kong Hui, Najid Soiman, Adrian Pang, Jeffrey Low, Jean Ng, Janice Koh, Noorlinah Mohamed, and Edith Podesta.

They have thrown themselves into gruelling roles, putting themselves in the shoes of those who have lost a loved one or playing characters of the opposite sex. This is how the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees on how they prepared for their roles.

Tay Kong Hui, 48


Nominated for: His gut-wrenching turn as the most intransigent juror in Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin adaptation of the American play, Twelve Angry Men. He plays the owner of a messenger service company who is estranged from his son, and who has a bone to pickwith a non-guilty verdict because he sees parallels between the murder trial at hand (a son allegedly kills his father) and his relationship with his boy. He capitulates to the "not guilty" verdict at the end of the play.

Previous nomination: Best Actor for House Of Sins (2008)

Tan says: "The first obstacle was I've never been a father. But I was always a mischievous son. So for the preparation, I had to have a conversation with my father - not literally because he's already died, but to try to understand his frustrations and hopes, and to get that weight of the father upon the son.

"Nelson Chia, the director, is very deliberate. He really trusts the actors - he gives direction such as goals for us to achieve and then he lets us do what we want.

"For this play, it was also an experiment in how to apply the Suzuki method of theatre training. We had to seek our centre of gravity, the core of the body... it's the weight and energy for the whole group of people that we needed to search for.

"The very scary thing for my role was the ending - it's just me on stage. I was really freaked out. I knew I had to hold it until the very last second of it, otherwise it would destroy the whole show. That was the most scary part for me."Najib Soiman, 36


Nominated for: The gender-bending role of Maslindah Selamat in Teater Ekamatra's Malay-language play Kakak Kau Punya Laki (Your Sister's Husband). She is an eccentric spinster who is cornered by her four upwardly-mobile sisters when she finally finds a mysterious fiance. The oddball Maslindah was an allegorical reimagination of the detained and former Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari.

Previous win: Best Actor for Gemuk Girls (2008)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Temple (2008); Best Actor for The Comedy Of The Tragic Goats (2009)

Najib says: "At first, I thought Alfian Sa'at, the playwright, wanted to cast me as Mas Selamat. I thought, no problem, should be okay, because I know the story.

"He said, 'Najib, this is slightly different. I want you to play a woman.' I thought, okay - because of the whole thing about how Mas Selamat wore the tudung (headscarf) to escape. Then he said, 'No, you must really be a woman.'

"I didn't understand him at that point. He explained that there was a parallel that he wanted to do, on the issues around Mas Selamat. I thought, this is hard. Because usually if you play a woman, you'll be in drag. But he didn't want to see a man playing a woman.

"Frankly, this was one of the hardest roles that I've played. Alfian and Fared Jainal, the director, were very particular about going overboard or overacting. The masculinity is there, but they didn't want to see a man. They didn't want to see 'Najib'.

"I grew up with my mum and three sisters. So the experience of being brought up with women around me helped me - I remember how they cook, how they carry their handbag to the market, how they talk and how they share their sarcasm."Adrian Pang, 48

Actor and co-artistic director of theatre company Pangdemonium

Nominated for: Two roles in Pangdemonium productions. One as Howie, a grieving father trying to move forward after the loss of his young son in the family drama Rabbit Hole; the other as devoted husband Dan in Next To Normal. Dan is caregiver to his wife Diana, who has bipolar disorder.

Previous wins: Best Actor for The Dresser (2006) and Much Ado About Nothing (2009)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Forbidden City (2002) and Twelfth Night (2012); Best Actor for The Odd Couple (2004), The Pillowman (2007), The Full Monty (2010), Dealer's Choice (2011) and Swimming With Sharks (2012)

Pang says: "As a dad, one's experience as a parent will inform a role like Howie. We did a lot of research and spoke to parents who had been through that experience.

"The script by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is so incredibly well-written, it was a matter of immersing yourself in telling the story. We knew that this story was one that needed to be told.

"Increasingly, as the process went on, we found that this story was not just a play any more - it sat with us in a very unique way.

"For Next To Normal, we were speaking with people who live with mental illness - it's an elephant in the room, it's all around us. Playing Dan was about channelling that. His life was about Diana, almost at the expense of his daughter... He was functioning day to day as an automaton.

"The plays were out of my realm of understanding, of my normal life. If nothing else, it makes you realise good health, happiness and a loving family - these things are so easy to take for granted. It makes yo so appreciative of these things."

Jeffrey Low, 40

Actor and presenter of Channel 8's infotainment show Good Morning Singapore

Nominated for: Playing a charismatic juror in Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin adaptation of the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men. His character, an architect with a quiet but steely presence, questions the status quo and turns the tables on what was initially a clear-cut "guilty" verdict in a murder case, in which a son allegedly stabs his father, and sways the convictions of his 11 colleagues.

Previous wins: Best Supporting Actor for December Rains (2010) and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (2012)

Previous nominations: Best Actor for Oleanna (2002) and Big Fool Lee (2007)

Low says: "We all loved the play because no matter whether it's from the director or the actors' point of view, different combinations will come up with different dynamics. That's the power of this play.

"The discussion of the themes is also universal, even in modern times. What is the system of democracy and who decides? Especially now with social media, anyone can comment on anything, anywhere and at any time. Comments are cheap. So who are you going to listen to? I guess, to some extent, you have to fall back on yourself: Who are you, who are you to judge, who are you to decide someone's life and death?

"We nailed down the script in two weeks. That gave us ample time to do a lot of practice runs before the show and allowed different rehearsal processes to sink in. For me, especially, when I work on a script repeatedly, I can choose to listen to different individuals when they speak. That made it come alive because every day, although the script was already structured and written as such, I tasked myself to listen more to Juror 5, or pay more attention to Juror 6, for example.

"That gave me more information about this character I'm playing - how does someone else's reaction affect my decision? A lot of 'live' factors contributed to the rehearsal process and that made it really fun."Jean Ng, 44

Actress and arts educator

Nominated for: The role of a long- suffering wife with a penchant for gambling in Checkpoint Theatre's family drama For Better Or For Worse. Her character of Swen grapples with a decades-long marriage that is unravelling and paints a poignant portrait of a Singaporean housewife dedicated to her family.

Previous nomination: This is her first nomination as Best Actress

Ng says: People felt it was very refreshing to see something on stage which was very realistic and text- based. It was about going back to the basics in terms of staging as well - the actors were very much the main drivers of the production. "There were minimal props and set and, actually, that was the most challenging thing for me about this two-hander - we had to portray a whole range of things.

"Some people felt some of the issues were close to home. And the text of course - a lot of people commented that it was very Singaporean, very real and familiar. And that was one of the reasons I said yes. Because I was very busy during that period and when Claire Wong, the director, asked me to do it, I wasn't sure. It took me a little while and I was asking Julius Foo, my co-actor, should I, should I?

"So I thought, let's look at the script by Faith Ng first. Usually, I don't ask for scripts, because if it's the people I want to work with, that's enough. But because of my tight schedule, I asked and then I said, okay, I really wanted to do this.

"It really was something that any actor would love to bite into, which is why it was hard for me to say no."

Janice Koh, 39

Actress and Nominated Member of Parliament for the arts

Nominated for: Two roles. One was as a grieving mother, Becca, trying to come to terms with the loss of her young and only son in Rabbit Hole by theatre company Pangdemonium. The other was for Wild Rice's The Optic Trilogy, in which she played three very different parts - an intellectual young woman struggling with her relationship with Singapore, a blind woman who models for a photographer and a woman who proposes marriage to a gay man.

Previous win: Best Actress for Proof (2002)

Previous nomination: Best Actress for Hitting (On) Women (2007)

Koh says: "Rabbit Hole was challenging insofar as the situation which Becca is in is a challenging one. At the same time, because Adrian Pang, my co-star, and I are parents, it was also easy to connect with the feelings and emotions of being in such a situation, both as a parent of young children and also as a married person, to understand the complexity of what a crisis can do to a relationship.

"The script is so amazingly written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Every word and punctuation that he puts in his script already informs the actor what the character is going through. In very good writing, the playwright has already walked in these shoes for you and gives you the words that tell you at what point of that emotional state this character is in.

"The characters in The Optic Trilogy are really extraordinary. They're not painted like a man on the street you would identify with just off the bat.

"They look like that, but as they begin to speak more, you're like, oh, this is very bizarre. The kind of memories that they have and the choices they've made - you don't automatically identify with them.

"But once we worked through the whys, it was smooth. Because the changes were so fast, there was no time to switch off.

"There was no need to get into character - you snapped into it when the lights came on, and there was no choice but to then go on the roller coaster that Alfian Sa'at, the playwright, took us on.

"When his poetry comes out of the mouths of ordinary people, it can be very, very powerful. And that was how I connect with it, because I love Alfian's poetry and the images he conjures."

Noorlinah Mohamed, 45

Actress and arts educator

Nominated for: Her role in Cake Theatrical Productions' psychedelic Illogic, in which she plays an enigmatic and melancholic actress and muse for which a work is being created as part of a larger love story framing the piece. She also plays different characters in various episodes riffing on love and creation, wandering through an Escher-esque landscape of staircases.

Previous win: Best Actress for Temple (2008)

Previous nominations: Best Actress for y grec (2007) and Queen Ping (2006)

Noorlinah says: "Honestly, we didn't know what the part would be. I've worked with Natalie Hennedige, the work's creator, quite a lot and it's always never clear what it is because it's an evolving process.

"This one took a long time - I was away doing my PhD and I did it only when I came back for breaks. During the times when I was back, she would organise rehearsal sessions to work out the in-progress work and scripts that she had created and was writing.

"Illogic is a complex and very, very difficult piece. Not only is it difficult in terms of the text, because the text is open-ended with no specific directions, but it is also very difficult because the set only came in at the last part. So we played with a very minuscule scale of climbing up and down. The last process, before we went to the stage, was when we saw the set and that was a whole new ballgame.

"It was a challenging process but an exciting one, nevertheless. I like challenging plays. I like things that are complex, things that are not straightforward and that are emotionally complex, and that you do it in the course of the two hours. And it does happen in Illogic, you investigate so many perspectives.

"Physically, because I'm much smaller than Edith Podesta, my co-star, it was harder to climb up stairs. Because of the size of those steps, you develop strong leg muscles. And at the same time, it has to look effortless."

Edith Podesta, in her 30s

Actress and head of the bachelor of arts (honours) acting programme at Lasalle College of the Arts

Nominated for: A highly physical role in Cake Theatrical Productions' experimental Illogic, in which she cycled through multiple characters in various vignettes in the first half of the show, but also played a male playwright-director in an overarching love story in which he creates a piece of work to present to his muse, an actress. All through the piece, the actresses wander up and down stairs.

Previous nomination: This is her first nomination for Best Actress

Podesta says: "I knew it was going to be really physical.

"First off, it was about becoming stronger. I started going back to what I usually did when I was training as a young girl for sports.

"I ran every morning and literally ran up stairs. I would go to Fort Canning and run up stairs and go back down and run up again and go back down and run up again. Every day.

"And then after the first section, I was like, I'm really glad I did that and I needed to keep it up - because the show was just about running up and down stairs, rolling down stairs, walking backwards up stairs - there was never any respite.

"Because my costume changes were my only time off stage, and they were 20 seconds to a minute long, I needed to be able to drop one character and get into another character very quickly...

"It became a rehearsal not just on what to do on stage, but also what to do off stage. Because there were times I couldn't even take a sip of water.

"Early in the first section, for one of the characters who's a Mother Superior, Natalie Hennedige, the director, said, 'Can this character have a more bovine feel to it?'

"And I said, 'Cow. You want me to be a cow.' What did that mean? Was it my voice, what was it?

"So I did it and she said, 'Yes, that's what I want.' So I think she wanted me to be more grounded and voluminous in weight.

"All of my characters I loved and I loved playing them. And I felt so lucky to be able to play men and women and older characters and younger characters.

"It was like going through a playground every night - or an obstacle course."

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