Act of balance

SINGAPORE - If you have watched a play in Singapore at some point in the past 20 years, it is highly likely that Karen Tan was in it.

Blockbuster musical, sidesplitting comedy, intense family drama or genre-bending experimental work - she has done them all.

Tan, 46, is one of Singapore's most prolific stage actresses and continues to act in at least five or six shows a year.

Case in point: She is starring in two vastly different works within the next month.

Checkpoint Theatre's laugh-a-minute political satire Atomic Jaya opens on Thursday and Cake Theatrical Production's One Point Six One Eight begins on Nov 8.

She tells Life! with a warm guffaw: "I like to joke and sometimes, I think it's half true, when I tell people that actually, my career is more reputation than actual performance."

But judging from the avalanche of scripts she has in her possession, many of them yellowed and well-thumbed, her reputation seems to go hand in hand with her numerous performances.

She sent a self-deprecating text message to this reporter prior to the interview at her two-storey home, saying: "Typically, I have nothing to wear. So I thought I could lie on my couch covered with all the scripts that I have worked on?"

And so she did, gamely allowing this reporter and a photographer to bury her in dusty folders and programme booklets on her lime-green couch.

Tan lives with her gynaecologist husband and their two daughters, aged 17 and eight, in a terrace house off Upper Thomson Road, an inviting space brimming with quirkily mismatched vintage furniture and vibrant splashes of paintings from across South-east Asia.

While some actors tend to stick to the same theatre company and others hold the fort as character actors, Tan has tackled a gamut of roles and worked across companies with a variety of different directors and playwrights.

To her, the most important guideline for selecting a role is to try something she has never done before. She adds: "I can't speak for other actors, but my role as an actor is to be the voice for a writer, a theatre company or the director.

"If a writer has a new play that's being put on and I'm asked to do it, I would do it. Because this writer will never know if the play works until it's actually performed.

Hearing it in your head is one thing, typing it out is one thing, saying it to yourself is one thing... But when you perform it, it's really there."

She chuckles: "Then you think, oh, actually that line is quite bad."

Some of her memorable roles include a hysterical caricature of an evil wizard in Wild Rice's Aladdin (2010) and a struggling transsexual in TheatreWorks' Private Parts (1992). She has picked up 11 nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the annual Life! Theatre Awards, winning once for Best Actress in Action Theatre's Iron (2003) as a woman jailed for killing her husband.

All the same, Tan, who has no formal theatre training, regards her repertoire of roles as "the most natural thing in the world", moving from one play to the next whenever an opportunity presents itself.

With her strong sense of comic timing and screwball humour, she seems a natural choice for many of the light-hearted roles on stage. But she also struggles with depression, something less visible to audience members. She first spoke about her battle with depression in public in 2007 in an interview with The Straits Times' Mind Your Body and is quietly frank about her experiences.

When her elder daughter, Rachel, was born in London, Tan hit a low with a difficult pregnancy and without a strong network of family support. She did not quite understand the illness at first. While she cried constantly and harboured suicidal thoughts, her house was well kept and her daughter well cared for, not quite fitting the stereotype of a depressed person.

She says: "I was ashamed of having to take medication at first. I thought it made you a zombie floating around."

She hit another low after the birth of her second daughter, Olivia, despite being back home and surrounded by family and friends. She realised she needed help. It was her husband, Dr Quek Swee Chong, 49, who convinced her to start treatment. "He said, look, you have to see your medication as if you're having hypertension or diabetes. You just take it because you have to control the illness.

And it made perfect sense."

It took her some time to get the dose right. She tried a pill that made her feel fine but curtailed her ability to act. Another made her very drowsy. After some consultation with her doctor, she has found a balance with her current prescription, where she takes half a pill every night.

Not everything was smooth-sailing.

When Rachel was in primary school, shortly after Tan did her first media interview about depression, two of her schoolmates approached her and said: "You made your mother sick." Rachel went home in tears. Tan had a heart-to-heart talk with her, apologising and explaining what depression meant.

These days, she says she has a good handle on her emotions and can tell when a low point might hit and so she takes preventive measures, such as seeing her doctor every few months to talk and iron out any challenges she might be facing.

She says with a smile: "I think the more I talk about it, the easier it will be for other women to talk about it with people who need to know."

The youngest of three children, Tan grew up in a close-knit family. She recalls being read to by her father, now 84, who worked in telecommunications. Her mother, 81, is a retired nurse. Her eldest brother, Kenneth, is in corporate communications.

Her other brother, Kelvin, is a prolific solo musician who also plays for local band The Oddfellows.

Tan attended St Anthony's Convent Primary and Secondary schools (now St Anthony's Canossian Primary and Secondary schools). She did her A levels at Dunearn Pre-University Centre and went to the National University of Singapore (NUS) where she majored in English.

It was at NUS that she landed her first stage role through a friend, writer Theresa Tan. In 1987, Theresa won a playwriting contest with the comedy Pistachios And Whipped Cream, which went on to be staged at the former Shell Theatrette in Raffles Place. She asked Tan to be a part of the show and she agreed.

Tan says: "I don't remember thinking very much about it. In fact, I don't even remember struggling to remember lines or anything. How strange, right?"

The accidental actress was then spotted by actor-director Ivan Heng, founder of Wild Rice, who asked her to audition for playwright Michael Chiang's romance, Mixed Signals (1989). She got the part, playing multiple roles.

But when she graduated from NUS in 1990, becoming a full-time actress was out of the question because it would not pay enough. So she took up a post in corporate communications at the Economic Development Board and then moved to Tangs, where she handled public relations. Then, it was not unusual for rehearsals to end at two in the morning and for actors to haul themselves out of bed to go to their day jobs just a few hours later.

"But it was a great thing," she says, "because after work, you knew that you were going to do something completely different and it was fun."

Her 21/2-year foray into the marketing world ended when she married her husband and they moved to London in the same week. Dr Quek had to relocate there for his specialist's degree in obstetrics and gynaecology. They lived there for several years, visiting Singapore in between, before returning home in 2000.

The couple met in 1990, when he acted in a musical organised by a Christian group. He laughs as he recalls: "In the middle of the rehearsal, this girl emerged and she started bossing people around.

She started to give us pointers, what people should do and she started sort of directing us. I thought, should I be listening to this girl, or what?"

The two began to talk and eventually started dating. He says he deeply appreciates her honesty and that he found it endearing that she had stepped in, taken charge and spoken her mind that day.

Tan's piercing candour can be discomfiting - she once told off a stranger who was scolding her son in public. But this blunt honesty is also a trait that her fellow theatre practitioners embrace.

Playwright-director Chong Tze Chien, 37, is one of them. He has directed her in several works and she has also starred in many of his plays. The two first met while Chong was with The Necessary Stage for his play, Spoilt (2001), but he had watched many of her performances from the stalls before that encounter.

He says: "One of my favourite pieces was The Necessary Stage's Still Building in which she acted. So I had a little fanboy moment when she agreed to come on board for Spoilt."

In Still Building (1992), which was inspired by the Hotel New World tragedy, Tan gave a powerful performance as a woman clutching to stability, trying to cope with her sister's decision to move away - and also as a person trapped in a collapsed building in the play's subplot.

Chong says: "I'm appreciative when an actor is communicative, so I'll know how to work from there, as opposed to some people who may keep their thoughts to themselves - and then 10 years down the road, you hear that they had an unpleasant experience.

"She's so willing to throw herself into the deep end of the pool. She'll put aside her ego and say, this isn't working for me but I'm willing to put it aside and try to communicate what the writer wants."

Some of Tan's stage challenges included having to kiss fellow actress Serene Chen in Wong Kar Wai Dreams at the 2007 Singapore Arts Festival and stripping down to her underwear for a scene in Kuo Pao Kun's Spirits Play (2000).

Director Ong Keng Sen had wanted her to go topless, but she talked him out of it.

She says: "I still try to choose roles which do not require swearing and nudity.

But I also understand it's all part of the character, so I will never say 'no' straightaway, but I will need to understand why it's that way."

She channels her emotions to flesh out the downtrodden and the marginalised on stage, including playing a prostitute in TheatreWorks' Broken Birds (1993) at Fort Canning and a lesbian lawyer in Mergers & Wills (2004).

One of her favourite characters is the transsexual Edward from Private Parts.

She says: "It was playing Edward that made me realise the responsibility I had as an actor. Every night, when I removed my costume, I thought, there are still loads of Edwards all over. They live whatever life they have to live. Once you put the costume on, everything you say has to mean something to you."

While the stage is her first love, her romance with television has not gone half as smoothly. Tan was a host on the illfated variety programme The Ra Ra Show for a short period in 1993 with actors Kumar and Rani Moorthy before she left for London. She says of the rambunctious sketch show: "Some sketches worked, some didn't and a lot of it was very silly."

The former Singapore Broadcasting Corporation abruptly canned The Ra Ra Show following complaints from the public that it was too rude and racy.

It was her second foray into TV that made her decide never to do it again, when she was retrenched from the now-defunct and loss-making English language TV station MediaWorks.

She threw herself into theatre after that, taking up well-received roles in Wild Rice's Animal Farm (2002), Action Theatre's Autumn Tomyam (2002) and luna-id's Agnes Of God (2003). In recent years, she has also become a familiar face in shows by the experimental theatre group Cake Theatrical Productions.

But despite her busy schedule with two upcoming shows and 12-hour rehearsals, her daughters remain her top priorities.

She makes sure to have breakfast with them and send them to school. Both of them seem to have inherited her talent for performing (her daughter Rachel performed with her in the revue Crazy Christmas last year), but she is leaving it to them to decide what they want to pursue.

A large oil painting of her daughters features prominently in the living room.

Tan says: "If you ask me to choose, I would really rather be remembered as a good mother than an amazing actor - because my career will end one day or I'll stop acting. But I have to be a mother for the rest of my life. With acting, you finish one project after the other, but you never 'finish' your children, do you?"

She chuckles: "They could be done with you! But they will always be there."

She pauses, then adds: "I think that's a lot more important."

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