Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares

by Alfian Sa'at
Singapore Writers Festival 2016
Play Den, The Arts House, Singapore

Siti Khalijah has played many roles in her time. One of the most talented and versatile actors of her generation, she burst onto the scene in 2003 when, as a shy ITE student, she participated in the year-long Theatre For Youth Ensemble (TFY) programme run by The Necessary Stage. She found her calling, decided to make a career out of acting and has never looked back since.

Now she gets to spend a whole hour playing no one but herself. It's not something she finds easy, being so used to slipping into the psyche of another character like diffident mental patient Saloma in Off Centre, trilingual political aspirant Juliana in Gemuk Girls or hapless Indonesian maid Melly in Model Citizens.

Photo Credit: Singapore Writers Festival

This special commission of the Singapore Writers Festival, penned by Alfian Sa'at and directed by veteran thespian Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, gives us an intimate glimpse at the person behind the actress and her journey towards becoming the well-known theatre and television personality she is today. Drawing its inspiration from Konstantin Stanislavsky's iconic book An Actor Prepares, we are treated to a cosy confessional as Siti applies make-up, does stretching exercises and dresses in a shimmering gown before our watchful eyes.

Siti starts by reading out excerpts from Stanislavsky's book on the craft of an actor, contrasting acting by 'method' (from inside out) versus acting by 'technique' (from outside in). This is juxtaposed with stirring anecdotes from her past. Theatre in Singapore is a largely upper middle-class activity, she candidly remarks. It's something few people from her background would have been a part of. She takes us back to her days as an eager but gauche student, keen to try new things but never quite fitting in with the cool crowd. Her foray into the performing arts through Chinese dance and cheesy pop songs finally reaches fruition when she is selected for the TFY programme under the mentorship of respected practitioners such as director Alvin Tan and  playwright Haresh Sharma.

Even then, she cannot help but feel like a fish out of water. With a characteristic blend of humour and honesty, she describes her experience in the programme as akin to a minah from the ghetto being thrown into a ballet academy. Yet, looking past this world that seemed full of upper-class people with a fancy arts education, she persevered and the fruits of her labour paid off. Her work on stage has allowed her to travel the world and earned her a place on hit television programmes such as The Noose. She is a two-time-winner of the Life! Theatre Award for Best Actress and was a recipient of The Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council in 2014.

One is struck by the incredible humility and discipline Siti displays in the face of such an impressive resume. Rather than feeling typecast as a Malay-Muslim woman, she relishes the opportunity to act as a voice for her people and to tell their stories on stage. In a memorable sequence, Siti ponders what her life would have been like had she not gone into theatre. In this alternate world, she would have continued her studies, married a nice Malay boy and had three kids. She would have led a simple and generally contented life but perhaps, in her spare moments while watching television, she would wonder if she could do a better job than the actress on the screen.

It's a testament to Siti's skill as a performer that one remains enraptured throughout the piece. An Actress Prepares is a heartfelt, engaging and ultimately heartwarming celebration of a life well spent in the theatre, one that will only be filled with brighter tomorrows. As Siti finally stands centre stage, all dolled up, and belts out a song dedicated to those who have left the local arts community, we understand what all the fuss is about: she is every inch the star.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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