Arts Comedy Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

Full Steam Ahead: An Interview with Dim Sum Dollies Pam Oei and Jo Tan, and Music Director Elaine Chan

With the short run most productions have and few restagings, the longevity of any theatre show or concept in Singapore is never guaranteed. Which is why for local company Dream Academy, the continued success of their signature characters and IPs is a net positive all around.

Amidst these, cabaret trio the Dim Sum Dollies remain a perennial favourite, having first making their claim to fame in 2002 with the show A Single Woman at the opening of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Now, 20 years on, amidst several core cast changes, a pandemic and 7 years since last starring in a full show, the Dollies are back to celebrate this milestone anniversary with their brand new show Still Steam, playing for two weeks at the Capitol Theatre.

Known as a comedic cabaret act, the Dollies lineup comprise of Selena Tan and Pam Oei, both founding members of the original trio, as well as Jo Tan, who will mark her first full Dollies show appearance with Still Steam. The trio will also be joined by their loyal ‘Chopstick’, Hossan Leong, 6 sexy “Low Mai Guys”, and a 5-piece band led by music director and composer Elaine Chan, who has been working with the Dollies since the very beginning. Speaking to Pam, Jo and Elaine, we talk about how the Dollies have evolved over the years, what to expect from this year’s show, and what keeps them going strong.

“We never set out to become a mainstay in the local theatre scene, but back in 2002, Selena just wanted to try it out, Elaine wrote some amazing songs, and we somehow just kept going,” says Pam. “It’s special being able to celebrate our 20th anniversary, but it’s also much harder – it’s been 7 years since our last full show and I’m 50 years old now, so it’s taken extra brain cells to get the choreography down. But it’s wonderful to be back – we can’t predict what will happen in future, so we have to enjoy the present.”

As one of the longer-running cabaret acts in Singapore, the Dollies play an important role in the ecosystem – to use their art as a way to raise important issues and make them accessible and understandable through, song, dance and sketches. This time around, they’ll be focusing on issues women face, bringing back favourite sketches from the past, such as transforming into giggling schoolgirls from MGS, RGS, SCGS and CHIJ; tackling fairy tale princesses, and even women in the political arena like Rosmah, Imelda, Aung San Suu Kyi and Ho Ching.

“Even though we started 20 years ago, I think the younger generation should absolutely watch what we have to show, because our skits and sketches have something to say about society and the people around us, and the world we live in,” says Pam, on their relevance to new audiences. “The theatre scenes these days is more vibrant now than it used to be, and remains one of the most progressive of the art forms in Singapore, where we get the least censorship compared to say television and films. It’s just that we say our messages with feathers and sequins, and the kids these days can check us out and see what these ‘aunties’ can do.”

For the Dollies, the past few years of COVID has been tough on them as artists, with the scene coming to a complete standstill, and for all of them, it’s been a blessing to have made it through still intact and doing alright. “To remain relevant, it’s important to keep creating shows that people want to watch,” says Pam. “It’s hard, and you can see how Selena is constantly thinking up new ways to get people into the theatre, or Dream Academy has to fall back on reliable acts like Broadway Beng and the Dollies.”

“We’re all still alive and kicking, and we keep doing it because we just love the work, and people still want to watch us,” says Pam. “And we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all the people who work behind the scenes to get it all off the ground – backstage is always a war zone, and you wouldn’t believe the number of people it takes to get us dressed, alongside staff in marketing, and support staff and crew.”

And to make sure they get the time they need to change costumes, that’s a job for people like the Lor Mai Guys to perform extended choreography in between scenes, as well as Elaine Chan to lead the band and keep playing music. “I may write the songs, but the final product is ultimately a collaborative one,” she says. “I was introduced to theatre through Iskandar Ismail, and I never set out to actively do music for theatre, but the more I did, the more I found wonderful friendships along the way, and so many opportunities to create work alongside like-minded people who loved the arts too. And even during COVID, I was blessed to do shows like Quasimodo or work with Wild Rice. In the scene, we always create work when we can, and create more opportunity for others.”

“Since working with the Dollies back when they first started, I’ve learnt a lot. I did everything from arrangement to composition, and it was all this very ad hoc, very fun hobby, and I never thought of it as coming to work,” adds Elaine. “Dream Academy is all about the humour. And if you’re a Dollies fan, you’ll know how sensitive Dream Academy is to audience feedback. After the show, we have a one hour plus meeting and run through our notes, and because the show is modular, we might decide to change song 1 to song 6 in the line-up, and you learn to adapt to make things funny, or take things out that aren’t. If you come for a show at the end of the run, it might be completely different from a show you come for at the beginning, because we understand that change is a constant.”

For Jo, the newest of the Dollies, being able to perform in a full show is both a dream and a little nerve-wracking, considering the high expectations people come into the show with, and inevitably comparing the current trio with previous versions. “For me, when I first watched Dollies, it was a celebration of everything feminine, and a celebration of all these women onstage,” says Jo. “And as an actor, it’s amazing to be able to perform this show, because we tend to think of female performers and artists as limited by their gender, or just talking about certain issues. But we can do anything and everything, and still celebrate femininity. It’s crazy how I’m here now, considering I even used to write press releases for them at one point!”

Jo Tan joined the Dollies during the COVID period, and made her debut with them in the Christmas of 2020, during a segment in that year’s edition of Crazy Christmas. Jo also marks the second time a member of the Dollies has been replaced, after Denise Tan, who replaced founding member Emma Yong some years after she passed. “There is pressure on me of course, with 20 years of history behind the act,” says Jo. “At first I was afraid of being compared to Emma, but then I realised that I’m not here to ‘replace’ her, but to be myself, trying to find a new dynamic with Pam and Selena. I had to be true to myself, and push further into consciously being myself, and doing my best to keep up with the choreography and learn along the way.”

Both Pam and Selena, having been part of the original Dollies with Emma, still feel the loss. “The grief expresses itself still in small ways offstage, but has changed its form over the years,” says Pam. “And at first when she passed, it wasn’t long before people began to ask us ‘when are the Dollies coming back?’ At first, it felt like they were being insensitive. But in a few years when we had enough time to grieve, we realise that they really just wanted to see the Dollies back onstage again, and the only form they can take is as a trio. They missed the humour and the fun we brought, and that’s why we eventually decided to bring the Dollies back and give it another shot.”

Which explains why Still Steam is unabashedly, absolutely a celebration. “Dream Academy’s aim is to make people laugh, and with this show being all about women’s issues from a female perspective, it’s funny, it’s relatable, and finding the diversity in women all around us, all these hats and shoes they wear to survive in the world, and the challenges they face,” says Jo.

“The Dollies come with a message of joy,” adds Elaine. “People are here to have a good laugh, and come out of the theatre feeling good, especially in such a gloomy climate.”

“The Dollies are 20 years old already, and I think that speaks for itself,” concludes Pam. “We’re all artists and actors and theatremakers in our own rights, and ultimately being a member of the Dim Sum Dollies is one of the many roles we play in our life, and not something we’ll be inscribing on our epitaphs. But it’s been 7 long years without a Dollies show, and with 20 years, we do have a kind of legacy, and all I can hope for is that Dollies continue to stick around for a very long time.”

Dim Sum Dollies: Still Steam runs from 26th August to 10th September 2022 at Capitol Theatre. Tickets available from BookMyShow

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