Artistic Voyages: Janice Koh

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December 15, 2014 | BY Melissa Gail Sing

The vocal actress speaks to Melissa Gail Sing about her early influencers, what keeps her passionate about acting, and her dream for the local arts scene.

Janice Koh | Photo courtesy of Fly Entertainment

Constantly pushing boundaries as an actress and as an individual, Janice Koh left the comfort and security of a full-time job as assistant director for grants at the National Arts Council for a career as an actress. It was a life-changing move for the NUS alumnus who holds a Master’s degree in Theatre; and one that led to awards such as the DBS Life! Theatre Award for Best Actress for her role in David Auburn's Proof (2003) as well as a Best Actress nomination in Life! Theatre Awards (2008).  She also scored an Asian Television Awards nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in 2010. As an ex-Nominated Member of Parliament, this mother of two boys, aged nine and seven, advocates a more dynamic arts scene in Singapore, and one with greater freedom of expression. 

Who were your early influencers, and how did they help you through your artistic voyage to find your own voice? 

I had two important teacher-mentors when I started acting. 

The first was my acting teacher, Rey Buono, who taught Theatre Studies and Drama at Victoria Junior College. He nurtured in me a love for all kinds of performance – from Greek theatre, to Shakespeare, to Beckett. He was a great actor’s director. He instilled in me the importance of being “in-the-moment” on stage, to be emotionally honest, and to always be generous and giving to my co-actors. As a young acting student, I remember a quote he shared with us by Constantin Stanislavsky: “There are no small parts, only small actors”.

The other person who has greatly influenced my work and artistic development is Ong Keng Sen, the Artistic Director of Theatreworks, one of the leading contemporary theatre companies in Singapore. Over the past 20 years, I’ve performed and collaborated with Theatreworks in many productions, some of which have toured internationally. Keng Sen always challenged and stretched me as a performer, physically, emotionally and intellectually. From him, I learnt to approach my work with academic rigour, to keep asking questions, to listen, and to be fearless in taking artistic risks. 

Many of the lessons I’ve learnt through the rehearsal process with these teachers, I’ve found them relevant and applicable to real life as well, and that is why they were important influencers.

What keeps you passionate about your craft?

It’s simple – the audience, and their responses to the show. Every so often, I have the fortune of being involved in a production that resonates deeply with audiences. Last year in Rabbit Hole, a play about a couple who had lost their young son in a traffic accident, I heard sobs in the theatre every night. On the other hand, it was exhilarating to work on Cooling Off Day, about the 2011 General Elections, where audiences would sometimes holler or shout back, as if they were at an election rally. This ability to entertain and affect others – whether it’s moving them to tears, or challenging their view of the world – is the power of theatre, and I find pure pleasure in being part of that process.

Many artists undergo journeys of resilience and transformation as they mature in their craft. What’s the most significant challenge you faced and how has your journey transformed you? 

1. Artistically, a number of projects have transformed me in different ways. One of them was early on in my career – Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, directed by Ong Keng Sen. To date, it is still the most physically demanding piece of theatre I’ve ever performed.  I was in my early 20s and in the midst of my Theatre degree, and my involvement in the play dramatically changed I the way I viewed performance. It was an important introduction to the power of the physical body. Throughout my 7 ½-minute monologue, the entire cast was spinning. It was so demanding on the actors yet it was the very reason why the show was so memorable. The kind of physical demands it entailed was not only eye opening, it showed me that it wasn’t just about words on a background but the whole body transmitting the message of the play. It was about the body becoming the physical manifestation of the play.

2. The decision to quit my day job about 10 years ago to make a living full-time as an actress. I took a few years to realise that it was actually all right to make money from my craft, that it was okay to choose work that may not always be artistically fulfilling but could support me financially. During the first few years, I was quite purist in that I eschewed anything I felt was not meaningful as an actress. I would only perform in plays that really interested me, but it soon dawned upon me that there are not very many good scripts out there, and that in Singapore, you can’t fully make a living on performing alone. I eventually softened my approach to making acting a full-time career. I began hosting shows and doing voice overs, things that weren’t always artistically fulfilling but helped make acting a fully-sustainable career. I learnt that both types of work could coexist. 

3. The challenge to do one thing each year that really scares me. It started with a contemporary dance performance I was invited to be a part of shortly after my second son was born in 2006. I had never done anything like that before and it was the first time I actually had stage fright. But I did it. As they say, whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. From a contemporary dance performance one year, I went on to do my first Chinese play in another, then my first Chinese drama series, then becoming Nominated Member of Parliament in 2012. Overcoming the fear of failure, the fear of a bad press review, is very liberating for an artist.  The more you put yourself in a new or “dangerous” situation, the more courage you find. And it can be addictive. You stop being concerned about whether you’re able to do something or not. Instead, you build up all this courage to keep taking on bigger things.

What’s your biggest, boldest dream for the local arts scene?

Freedom of expression. I wish for a Singapore that attracts artists like flies; that we will be seen as a hub for fresh ideas and creativity, a place where new things are constantly happening both within and outside the arts arena. People should want to be here because of that vibe, and the endless opportunities to watch performances and be involved in the arts, just like in New York or London. For that to happen, we need more freedom to explore and to express ourselves without being afraid. We also need a lot of support . Over the years, a lot more funding has been given to the arts in Singapore. Society must have a greater appreciation for all things creative and artistic. I wish for the kind of city where the arts becomes the every day and we cannot live without it.  

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