One of Singapore’s boldest actor-directors shares his story of striking out to pursue his passion for theater.
Contributed By Nathan Calvert
The stage is his playing field, and envelope-pushing is how he likes to play the game. One of Singapore’s most recognizable names in theater, Ivan Heng addressed the audience of National University of Singapore alumni and students at the monthly U@live forum held at the Shaw Foundation House on Nov. 30, sharing the roots of his passion for the arts.
As the artistic founding director of theater company W!LD RICE, set up in 2000, Heng is recognized for his contributions to modern theater, having overseen acclaimed productions including The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ, Second Link, and Oi! Sleeping Beauty!! His works have played in festivals and theaters in more than 20 cities around the world, and have won numerous awards.
“You will forget your geography lessons, your mathematical formulas, but you will not forget the moment you get on stage to act in a play. Something happens—your molecules are rearranged. You feel the fear, and yet you do it. I think this was what I got addicted to—to go for it despite feeling the fear,” said the NUS alumnus from the class of 1988.
An animated and energetic speaker, Heng shared about the successes and challenges he experienced throughout a 20-year-long career, including rejections, of which he has faced more than one—from talent scouts, directors, and even his own mother. When Heng recognized his love for the stage in primary school, he started taking part in every production he could. “I was in secondary school, and I remember winning a drama prize… and I walked with my mother up to meet my form teacher. She asked, ‘Mrs. Heng, aren’t you proud of your son?’ My mother replied, ‘What nonsense is this? He’s supposed to be a lawyer, Mrs. Shu. Why are you encouraging this behavior?’”
To please his mother, Heng spent four years in law school, studying a subject he was not interested in to graduate with a degree he knew he would not use. Looking back, however, he does not regret the four years, as it helped him develop a sense of justice and fairness. He made the best of the situation by getting involved in theater productions at every level, from design to acting. He skipped classes to rehearse, and by the time he had graduated, he had decided that theater was his calling. In spite of his mother’s dreams for him, he became the first recipient of a scholarship to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It was a decision he has never regretted.
One of Heng’s most famous performances is as the lead in Emily Of Emerald Hill. It is a monologue of a Perankan matriarch who very much resembles his mother. Emily wants her son Richard to study law. Unwilling to disappoint her but unable to meet her expectations, he tragically brings his own life to an end. Heng made the connection explicit to the crowd: “Richard hanged himself. I’m lucky that I was strong enough to follow my dream.”
The adversity that Heng faced in his early life helped to prepare him for the challenges he would face later on. From coordinating hundreds of actors in the 2009 National Day Parade to being the mastermind behind the 2010 Youth Olympics Games opening ceremony, Heng has faced challenges with an insurmountable resolve to showcase the value that the arts bring to Singaporean culture.
The greatest disappointment in Heng’s career came in April this year when the National Arts Council pulled the plug on funding W!ld Rice’s Singapore Theatre Festival just four months before the festival.
“When I started the Singapore Theatre Festival I felt that there had to be another way of celebrating being Singaporean other than the National Day Parade. I want us to be able to tell our own stories too. We decided to continue.”
Fortunately, British investment company Man Investments decided to back Heng’s vision, and the Man Singapore Theatre Festival 2011 became the most successful festival to date.
Heng does not see acting as a way to fame or fortune, but as his way of giving to the community. “You’re not doing this for yourself. You’re doing it for an audience. Remember them. You’re a public servant. You’re serving them. You’re not using this art form for yourself.”
He left his audience with this exhortation: “Have amazing adventures! Believe to see!”
U@live is a monthly forum showcasing members of the NUS community, be they students, faculty or alumni, who are championing causes for the betterment of society. www.nus.edu.sg/ualive.