Sharda Harrison knows what addiction feels like. For a good many years, she found herself constantly craving some form of validation, a primal, irresistible need to make herself seen and heard, and wanting to find love. Today, the beloved actress has moved past that, and is now in a stable, committed relationship, is a series regular on Mediacorp’s Sunny Side Up, hosts shows on Channel News Asia, and still finds time to teach. In short, she seems to have it all put together.
But this month, Sharda is taking a break from filming to go back to her first love – the theatre, as she leads the cast of Pangdemonium’s first production of the year: Duncan Macmillan’s critically-acclaimed People, Places & Things.
Directed by Tracie Pang, People, Places & Things sees Sharda playing Emma, a professional actor with a problem – an addiction to drugs. Checking in to rehab, she struggles to detox and let go of her addiction and reliance on the drugs, while friends, families and fellow addicts watch on, morphing into figments of fantasy and imagination. Ultimately, Emma is forced to ask herself: who is she, really?
“I haven’t done theatre since maybe 2020, when I was in Pangdemonium’s The Son, switching over to television instead,” says Sharda. “Even though this show disrupts the filming schedule and I was quite worried about that, I’m really happy to have taken on this project, and really occupy a different character. I’ve experienced drug addiction before in the form of my ex, but the experience of an outsider looking in is very different from being the addict. It’s quite scary to get into her mind, but I’ve also grown to become more empathetic as to why people turn to substance abuse as their only option. Most times, the cause is trauma, and you just want a way to escape it. And by the time you’ve realised it’s sunk its hooks into you, it’s already too late to turn back.”
Sharda has never abused substances herself, but reflects on the parallels Emma has to her, in the form of how she’s running away from pain through harmful means. “I went through a depressive episode in 2017, and while it was horrible to actually go through, I’ve been thinking a lot about it and using it to drive my performance,” she says. “Not everyone copes through substance abuse, and sometimes you end up addicted to other, legal things like shopping or food. It’s more about the idea of trying to fill a void inside you. But you keep doing that instead of facing up to the truth and anger you’ve been denying this whole time, which is what happens in the show.”
As an actress herself, Sharda understands the fears that Emma faces, and how vulnerable she can be. “When an actress talks back or is unruly, they face the possibility of getting blacklisted and losing their entire career. There’s a part of her that’s addicted to playing many parts and leading different lives, and I relate to that. I realised I had gotten so used to playing so many parts over so many years, that I never had the chance to just play Sharda on a daily basis,” she says. “That’s why I had to step away for a while, as much as I loved being onstage, rather than doing back to back to back shows year on year. It was something that I loved but was killing me, because I wanted to say yes to everything, and it would leave me with nothing. That’s addiction too – you’re looking for love in something so temporary, and you come crashing down after the highs, looking again for more validation and for the next hit.”
Sharda is a professional, having been acting since the age of 10, and as much as she’s taken a break from full-time theatre, knows that she will always come back to it from time to time. “I have such a supportive cast around me, and it really feels like a homecoming,” she says. “It’s so important to have this environment, no one is competitive, and it’s important because it’s the first time I’m really playing a lead role like this. That is quite scary for me, and I from time to time, I wonder if I’m not doing a good job. But at the end of a run, my cast mates take it upon them to pat me on the back, and I feel loved, and I can be brave and confident onstage.”
“You know, theatre is fundamentally different from TV. Sometimes I have to break down crying for 2 scenes, and then clean up and get ready to shoot 8 more scenes before the end of the day,” she adds. “Theatre, we know that we all have to be there for each other, it’s a heavy play and we know we need time to enter and exit that headspace. If I can, I try to come in an hour earlier to prepare my body and mind, and take the time to switch off as well after rehearsals, and I’m really lucky that besides the cast, I also have a great partner who buys me food, and pours me a glass of wine when I get home. I think in my earlier years, I would always throw myself into work completely, to the extent I would fall in love with co-actors, stay till late for drinks, and now, I know that I just have to focus on the play and myself, from maintaining my energy with a good diet, or maintaining my gym routine.”
Considering the number of sacrifices Sharda had to make to join the cast, it is clear she finds something deeply compelling about the play. “Every actor has a different idea of what gives them meaning and purpose. I do want to do everything, but I also realise I’m getting older, and it’s important to be selective with work that gives me purpose and meaning. Besides creating my own work with Pink Gajah, and genuinely enjoying hosting and television, I think this is a play that does have meaning,” she says. “I’m excited to come back to theatre and share a compelling story that speaks a lot of truth, one we don’t often get to hear in Singapore.”
Sharda’s preparation process for the play, besides rehearsals, also involved speaking to ex-addicts and doing her own research into the effects of drugs on a person. “I have to know how each drug affects you, so I can layer my performance with more accurate physicality, whether pumping you up or as a downer,” she says. “There’s a lot I’ve learnt in the process of preparing for this, and I think the biggest realisation I’ve had is that it’s so hard to get help because drugs are illegal, and there are no actual rehab centres in Singapore. The moment you admit to it, you’re a criminal, and have to be put in jail, before finally meeting up with a group to help you detox and heal.”
“You hear stories of addicts, and how they want to get clean but just keeping failing. But rather than demonising them, it’s important to address the root cause of why they turn to drugs in the first place,” says Sharda. “I think this is a play that will cause Singaporeans to confront their own stigma, and hopefully think beyond ‘oh drugs are bad for you’, and remain open to being empathetic. I want people to empathise more. It’s not about feeling sorry for my character even, but just to see her and acknowledge that someone like her exists, and see that she has the space to grow, and give her time to grow into her true potential.”
Does Sharda believe that this is something that will happen in Singapore? “The draconian laws on drugs are likely to stay the same, but you have quite a few schemes in place already, for people reintegrating into society, from halfway houses to the Yellow Ribbon Project,” she says. “What we need to do is shift our mindset and no longer label them as dangerous people, but see them as people who’re been on the wrong side and trying to be better. The irony is that an addict needs to admit they’re addicted, but we also cannot keep labelling them as that. It’s cliché, but hope is sometimes the only thing that keeps you going, whether in the form of family, their partner, or even God. These are what give them the will to live, and people have to believe that they can change.”
“I think watching this play, you’ll realise that it’s human nature to have a part of you that’s addictive, and to think about how society deals with addiction. It’s a very deliberate choice to write Emma as an actress, because part of this play is about how many different masks we wear, in private or in public. Where is the balance between all these roles we’re playing, and where is the underlying trauma beneath those masks?” Sharda concludes. “The human ability to believe and hope is so powerful – why do we still put ourselves on a plane knowing there’s a risk that comes with it? We’re strong, we have hope. We fight back even when the odds are against us, and that’s the power of human will and faith.”
Photo Credit: Pangdemonium
People, Places & Things plays from 25th March to 9th April 2023 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, Esplanade. Tickets available here
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