Popular local play Emily of Emerald Hill is returning for another run, from 4 to 28 September. Written by Stella Kon, this Singapore theatre classic tells the story of a young underprivileged girl who eventually becomes the matriarch of a prominent Peranakan family. Staged by Wild Rice a number of times over the past 20 years, the production’s leading lady will once again be played by talented Singaporean actor and director Ivan Heng. Here, he tells us about the show and why he loves what he does.
How did you first get into theatre?
When I was seven, my parents bought me a magician’s box of tricks. I performed a magic show with my sister as my assistant. We passed around a hat, made lots of money and the rest is history. (We’re still passing around the hat these days, except now it’s for donations to run our theatre!)
Why did you decide to set up Wild Rice and what challenges have you faced?
Having lived and worked in the UK, I saw the potential for theatre to be part of public space and national conversation, and I wanted to do that for Singapore theatre. So I set up Wild Rice to tell our stories.
Making theatre in Singapore is challenging because it’s a society that’s quite regulated and rigid. We have experienced difficulties because theatre often asks hard questions, challenges the status quo and speaks truth to power. Nonetheless, we have continued to make theatre in good faith – believing that it inspires empathy and creates a space for diverse views.
What do you love about performing and directing?
Performing affords me the privilege of walking in another person’s shoes, exploring and understanding worlds beyond my own. I think we should do that more often. I love directing as it’s about inspiring and leading a company to tell a story through one of the world’s most collaborative art forms.
What are some of your favourite Wild Rice productions?
Emily of Emerald Hill was our very first show so it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. Another show that comes to mind is Hotel – a four-hour epic production spanning a hundred years of Singapore’s history – as it gives viewers a better understanding of who we are and how we came to be.
What can we expect from this year’s production of Emily of Emerald Hill?
After more than a hundred performances, this is the first time I will be performing Emily of Emerald Hill on a thrust stage. It will be a unique and intimate experience, and I’m looking forward to making a connection with our audiences. I’m also close to two decades older compared to when I first played Emily. I’ve experienced more of life and I’ve no doubt that this will inspire and inform my performance.
Do you have a favourite part of the story?
I love that fact that Emily of Emerald Hill spans an entire lifetime. I will play Emily from the ages of 14 to 84. As she grows from a girl to a woman, the play makes us to think about the different roles Emily plays throughout that lifetime: a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother. Playing the role has helped me better understand my own mother and sister!
What do you like the most about performing as Emily?
The dresses, darling! My costumes will be haute couture, created by some of the best designers in Singapore, from kebayas by Raymond Wong to cheongsams and gowns by Goh Lai Chan and a fabulous fur coat by Frederick Lee.
What is the main message of the play?
Emily of Emerald Hill is a play about a woman’s struggle to survive in a man’s world. This still resonates today. Of course, the coup de théâtre in our production is that I am a man playing this role: it’s a conscious irony that brings the play’s ideas to the fore, while provoking thought and inspiring debate.
Any encouragement for those venturing into the theatre scene?
Working in the theatre is not like any other job. It’s a profession and a calling. If you’re lucky enough to make the decision to work in theatre and the arts, be aware that your rewards cannot always be measured by conventional yardsticks of success. You might not make lots of money. But I believe the rewards are immense and in their own way, invaluable – you learn to become a better human being.
Catch the show!
When: 4 to 28 September
Where: The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice, Funan Level 4
How much: From $20
Get your tickets now!
Looking for more things to do in Singapore?