In my early 20’s when I explored a career in acting for 1.5 years, one of my significant stage performances was part of the ensemble for a musical with the Singapore Repertory Theatre.
As an ensemble cast, you play many different roles within the two-hour show, at times having only two minutes to change into the next outfit and get back on stage a completely different character than in the previous scene.
At the same time, in order to portray a character convincingly, even as an ensemble cast, you’d have to embody this character as much as possible, because that contributes to the authenticity of the scene, even if the audience’s attention isn’t directly on you. And it’s impossible to be convincing if you simply go through the motions of playing the role, just like it’s impossible for a singer to move their audience if they just go through the motions of singing the song.
One of the ensemble roles I really struggled with was that of a cabaret girl. I was 23, naturally shy and introverted, and as a devout Catholic I was also quite conservative and repressed when it came to expressing my sexuality. During our first rehearsal of the cabaret scene, the choreographers and the actors engaged in some improvisation activities in order to co-create this scene. The choreographers taught the women some dance moves, which required us to run our hands up and down our bodies seductively. I remember one of the actresses even laughed at me for not being able to touch my own body to execute some of the dance moves.
I was completely out of my element, and utterly embarrassed, having to act as somebody I wasn’t and to do it in front of everyone else. Plus the knowledge that I wasn’t doing as well as the other actresses got to my head, and I tried even harder, which only made me even more awkward that the choreographer had to come to my rescue. In my exasperation of trying so hard and being awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassed, I said, “I’m trying but I just can’t do it!”
After the rehearsal, the director had some words with me, and out of fear that I was going to be cut from the production, on top of my existing embarrassment and helplessness, I broke down and cried. I don’t remember how this conversation ended, but I wasn’t cut from the show, and when I went outside the studio to get ready to leave, some of the other actors tried to console me.
One in particular, who is one of the nicest and most down-to-earth actors I had ever met, said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a process of learning and sometimes it’s very difficult, but you just have to keep trying. But also don’t try too hard, otherwise it gets worse. Just relax and allow yourself to get into the role, and after a few more times of practice, you’ll get there.”
In that moment I couldn’t see how shy, introverted and sexually repressed Me could ever become a sexy and confident cabaret girl. But after a few more rehearsals, I discovered he was right. As I became more comfortable with being around this group and as the other actors got more into their roles as well, it became easier for me to express a sexy and confident side I didn’t even know I had.
In fact, I got so comfortable with this, that one evening when we went to a club after rehearsals, I found myself naturally expressing a sexy confident side of me (of course not to the extent of the cabaret girl in rehearsals, I was still a good Catholic girl haha), and I was the most confident I’d ever felt in a club.
Overall, during my 1.5 years as an actress, the more roles I played and the more rehearsals I attended, I became more confident, more outspoken, and less fearful of speaking in front of a group of people.
The performing arts are a great way for us to discover different parts of ourselves, even the ones we think don’t exist or have concluded: “it’s just not Me”. The truth is that we are equipped to play any role, and we’ve been doing that all our lives, mostly without realising.
Shakespeare once wrote: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (“Players” is synonymous with “actors” and “performers”.)
We are performing all the time. At work we act a certain way to fit into our workplace culture, or present a confident and assured front so we can support our clients in their needs. In our relationships we adjust ourselves according to the people we interact with. When we’re with our closest friends and loved ones, we are more open, more candid, more straightforward. With an acquaintance we may be more reserved. On a first date with someone really attractive, we put in more effort into our appearance and show the better sides of ourselves in the hopes of impressing them too. All the time, every single day we are acting out and unfolding the story of our lives.
Some roles come naturally to us, which is why we choose to study or work in certain professions, or take up certain hobbies, or befriend certain people. And over time as we stay in these roles and repeat them over and over again, we get used to them, and we begin to conclude that “This is who I am”. Slowly, it becomes harder and harder to allow ourselves to try something new, to explore other facets of our personalities, and to expand the range of the roles that we can play.
Especially now in this time of crisis, where a number of jobs are no longer essential, it’s scary to think that the skillset we thought was important may become unnecessary in the light of the new normal that’s just around the corner. These personalities and roles we’ve become so used to playing may suddenly become a limitation, and we need to learn how to embody something else.
And just like how this shy, introverted and conservative actress had to practice being confident and sexy in order to fully embody a cabaret girl on stage, it’s a process of learning, and sometimes it’s difficult, but we just have to allow ourselves the chance to keep trying something different and be okay with expanding our range of roles.
Thus singing isn’t just about improve your voice, or learning how to carry a tune. The practice of singing itself is a performance that allows you to awaken, explore and connect with different parts of yourself. It’s not that you can’t play different roles, it’s that you’re not used to them yet, and you simply need more practice to adjust to the new role that you want or need to play. This is why performance artists like actors, singers and dancers go through weeks of intense rehearsals before a show, because it’s the build up from a consistent practice of getting used to the new role that allows them to embody it, such that for those few minutes in their performance, they are the role and the role is them.
There’s no better time than now to start reinventing ourselves, to take stock of our strengths and further evolve them, and also to see how we can work around or improve our weaknesses. Maybe you wish to be more outspoken but you fear judgement from others. Maybe you wish to be more comfortable speaking to people through an online platform. Maybe you want to connect better with your family since we’re mostly working from home now. All these changes are going to be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but when we keep practicing that role, we’ll soon enough be able to embody it.
At the end of the day, if your life was your stage, are you playing the role of YOU to the best of your abilities, going through all the highs and lows and the depths and the widths of your life, transforming and evolving into the very best version of yourself? Or are you waiting for someone else to direct you and tell you which roles you ought to be? Or are you standing by the sidelines watching everyone else perform and wishing you had the guts to join in?
If you’d like to explore singing as a way to explore and connect with different parts of yourself, expand yourself, and discover new roles that you might like to embody, feel free chat with me or find out more here.