Theatre Stars of the Future: An Interview with Erwin Shah Ismail and Kimberly Chan of GenerAsia’s Journeys

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There’s been a spate of large scale productions and festivals that seem to endlessly hit Singapore each month clamouring for attention. So perhaps there’s a kind of comfort in getting away from the madness of it all and finding something altogether different. This February, one show arises to buck the trend and showcase two actors, each just finding the space to tell a story. That show is Journeys, part of GenerAsia’s new Platform Series, and stars young, rising actors Erwin Shah Ismail and Kimberly Chan as they take to the stage and present personally penned monologues.

In the first half of the show, Erwin will be presenting Kulit On The Go, a heartfelt monologue that will have him performing various characters involved in the independent leathercrafting trade attempting to survive in an increasingly consumerist world. First shown as part of Teater Ekamatra’s Projek Suitcase two years ago as a twenty minute monologue, the show has since gone on to be presented at a shophouse, the Gateway Theatre Opening Festival, and even pitched as part of a festival in Kuala Lumpur. Each time, Erwin has been directed by theatre director Baba Richard Tan, and the dynamic duo return in an all new version this February. Says Erwin: “We hit upon the idea of leathercrafting because it was one of my hobbies. I took inspiration from edutainment shows like Sesame Street and Art Attack, because there’s just something very satisfying about watching people do DIY things. And the aim of the monologue was simply to make sure people of all ages could watch it and feel good at the end.”

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This year, the monologue has now been expanded to more than double its original length, introducing several new characters and adding an all new layer of meaning and global perspective. Says Erwin: “Even if you watched it the first time, this time around, it’ll feel like a new show. We wanted to find the conflict beneath the monologue, and hit upon the idea of global warming. I know, leathercrafting and global warming? But in fact, one of the greatest contributors to the problem is cattle farming, yet it’s also the livelihood of millions of people out there. Our problem then lay in how were we going to present it tastefully without sounding preachy or telling people what to do.”

Says Baba Rich on working with Erwin: “His confidence in playwriting has really grown and become so much more defined. As a 62 year old director, even though I’ve done musicals and National Day Parades, this is the first time in a long time I’ve felt so riveted and hungry to do this, and learning so much each day in becoming determined to make it work. I’m the kind of director who gives my actors multiple actions to try out, and what impressed me about Erwin was his ability to just pick up on those actions, add a certain nuance and make them feel completely new again.”

Meanwhile, in the second half of the double bill, triple threat actress-singer-dancer Kimberly Chan has recently recovered from a foot injury, and will be making a triumphant return to the stage in an all new monologue titled In Her Shoes. Penned by Kimberly herself, In Her Shoes will have her performing as four different women, representing various personality types and characters growing up and living in Singapore. Says Kimberly on why she wrote this play: “I started writing when someone asked me what I loved. And I said ‘uh, well I love shoes.’ Somehow, that led to us creating different characters and personality types based on shoes, and I wrote these stories inspired by research pooled from friends’ and my own experiences.”

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Watching a short snippet of the first segment of the show, we already see Kimberly kick into full gear as an ‘ang moh pai’ girl painfully singing ‘Mo Li Hua’ in her childhood before shifting into a Sondheim-style medley, all while donning a pair of blue suede heels. She’s expressive, she’s fiery fierce, and it feels like she’ll dominate the stage with her presence and personality. On whether it started as a means to showcase her talents, Kimberly says: “Initially, we wanted it to be like a cabaret style piece, but eventually moved away from that. For me, music is a key part of telling stories, and it brings you a completely different feeling when you really pay attention to the lyrics and play with the nuances, and that helped with showing what I wanted as an artist and a writer.”

In Her Shoes is being directed by veteran director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, while the musical arrangements will be done by Aloysius Foong. Says Kimberly on working together with them: “Samantha was at the top of my list of who I wanted to direct me, and when we first sat down at Costa, the more we talked the more I was sure she was the right person. Even though we did a corporate piece together once, this is the first time we’ve done such an intimate piece, and she really understands what I’m trying to say, and really respects me on all levels whether in my writing or my performance. Same thing with Aloysius – I’d bring him these two songs to mash together and he’d go ‘are you crazy?’ and I tell him to just try, and he comes back to me, runs with the idea and makes it work. Somehow, the three of us have found this great synergy in working on this together.”

Says Samantha: “Credit really goes to Kim for being so open and not precious about her work, so we’ve been able to quickly work on edits and really make it a true collaboration. Even though we only started rehearsals for about 20 days, we’re so proud of what she’s been able to achieve in such a short time, and we’re very much on the same page when it comes to knowing what we mean to do by when. Towards the end of the monologue, you’ll even get to see Kim really put her heart out there, sharing some very personal lines as herself, and I think that’s incredibly courageous of her to do that.”

Baba Rich perhaps best sums up the sheer joy of working on the Platform Series with such promising young talents: “Ultimately, what are we contributing to the local arts scene? It’s really about me passing my legacy on to the next generation. I’m convinced that years from now, I’m going to have such a good time looking back and thinking wow, we were part of the mouth of the river that started this whole process, and from there, this young man is going to take it on and make it even better, and own the oceans and seas this river leads into. And that’s exactly what GenerAsia is all about.”

Platform Series: Journeys plays at the SOTA Studio Theatre from 2nd – 3rd February. Tickets available from SISTIC

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