"The Maid" - my Butterfly Lovers journey, a theatre love story
I started this entry a few months ago when I was recalling all my fondest theatre memories - and decided I should dedicate an essay to my experience in Butterfly Lovers. Writing this essay has enabled me to relived some of my pet memories as a performer. I started this piece in August and didn't finish it until today - two weeks over after our last performance on October 20th.
(all the pics in this post are from the 2013 production)
Seven years ago, I attended an audition for a Chinese musical in KL, under the encouragement of my then singing teacher Cha Seng Tiang. I prepared an old Chinese song after painstakingly looking up something simple that I could pull off singing a capella without making lots of mistake. Now thinking back, I really can't remember if I sang 我有一段情 or 一帘幽梦 but I think it's either one of these.
I was required to do a short reading too from the script of the musical. I remember some struggling to make my lines smooth, with some effort of acting. Then in 2006, I would have stopped speaking and writing Mandarin since I left high school in 1995 (or was it 1996?) for a decade... A decade.
So my script-reading was half-cooked, my singing of that oldie probably got me better score with the audition. Whatever happened that afternoon in the Dama Orchestra audition room, won me an offer from the company to play the role of YinXin, the personal maid to Zhu Ying-Tai, the oriental Yentl, or Juliette. The musical was Butterfly Lovers The Musical. It would run at KLPac Pentas 1 in October 2006.
Just fresh out of the production of Saidah Rastam's M! The Opera in April 2006, and previously at Pygmalion The Musical by KLPac (October 2005) - I was newly independent - just touching a year after I left my last day job as a booker in a modeling agency. I dived head in into the 4-month long rehearsal period for Dama Orchestra's first full length musical; and my first Mandarin theatre experience. Little did I know then that would be my major stepping stone, launching me into my first step of becoming what I am today - a bilingual cabaret performer of a sort.
The acting rehearsals were grueling, I worked very hard to reciprocate the private coaching sessions that were arranged for me. Though I spent almost all of my school life in Chinese medium school, the state of my Mandarin then needed lots of work. Thing was that YinXin doesn't have a lot of lines in this script, even though she is on stage all the time. I recorded all of my close to fifty odd lines that I have in the entire musical on a CD, and played that over and over again in my car so I could practice in the traffic.
It was quite close to a perfect place to be, for an inexperienced stage actor - I was cast to do a role that has just enough lines to be heard in the show; just a couple of singing lines to be noticed that I could carry a tune decently (in Mandarin); am on stage 80% of the time (YinXin is in ten scenes out of twelve scenes in the two act musical) - way enough air time for someone new like me to prove that I could deliver what I have learned during the tedious acting rehearsals.
I really could not thank Kai Loon and Seng Chew enough for having faith in me and trusted me with the role. In all of my cluelessness back then, I probably did not realise what important roles these little supporting roles like Yin Xin and Si Jiu play in an epic love tale such as Butterfly Lovers. I understand it much better now, in 2013.
Prior to the rehearsals from June 2006 to September 2006, I didn't have much exposure in acting. I played ensemble member and mostly and all my stage movements were choreographed by directors or choreographers. In Butterfly Lovers I had to move as a living, breathing individual, who goes through a myriad of dramatic emotions, with solo singing and speaking lines, to complement and support the leading actors and story.
I had to work from scratch to plan, workshop, choreograph my every movement on stage…step by step, with the help of Kai Loon. I wrote down every single stage blocking for all scenes, drew out the choreography that was given to me or fixed by me. Next to each of my dialogue I wrote down the accompanying emotion, mood, and intention, etc…on every page there are notes on my character's "B-M-E" (beginning, middle, end). I went from a green and clueless, a fidgeting figure, to a passable, half-decent actor by the time the show opened that October 2006.
Not forgetting at all the tremendous help I received from my stage counterpart, Jason Lai, who played Sijiu (the servant to the male lead, Liang Shanbo, played by Yang Wei Han in 2006) to a T. Jason was younger than me but a much more seasoned thespian who not only acts, but also work in different hats in the theatre. He was our assistant stage manager too in Butterfly Lovers, besides playing Sijiu. I learned a lot by watching Jason in action, through discussions about our scenes together, and through the massive amount of tips he generously offered to me on stage craft and acting.
Another reason why this role will always remain special in my heart was Justin's response to this role. After watching the show he became incredibly impressed and amused with my `guise' on stage. Right up to our last year together in 2010, he'd always tell me that his favorite role in all my (though limited) stage repertoire, was YinXin - because I was `so soft and gentile', playing the young maid.
So…..that was 2006.
A year later the show went to Genting Highlands for a two-weekend performance, before we flew to Perth to perform at the His Majesty's Theatre for a weekend. The trip was a truly memorable one because of the company of the people involved in the production. By then many friendships were formed and it was a tight team to shake.
Yup, so that was 2007.
When the offer and confirmation finally came for me to reprise my role in the show early this year, the first thing I did was to look up Jason's phone number. I wanted to know if he would be coming back on board as Sijiu again, knowing that the producers made him an offer to come back - I know I needed him on stage for me, despite me having grown as a performer after 2007.
Expectations were high for this re-staging, the stakes are higher too this time round. Rehearsal period had been cut to just 6 weeks from 4-months back in 2006. Back then all I needed to do was to learn how to play YinXin well, I hardly have any conflict dates. This time is different, I was going through a dry spell in my gig bookings in July and August. When booking calls came in for me for gigs in late September, I had to say no. Then more bookings came knocking for October but the musical had started its run already. Oh well, now you know money can buy you happiness - my loss of income from other gigs bought me a special reward in staying in this production.
On board this time to play the male lead Liang Shanbo was Jun Yi, a Chinese karaoke (numerous times) champion who trains classically, also a music student in Malaysian Institute of Arts. Jun Yi played a supporting role in Dama Orchestrea's 2009's production of I Have A Date With Spring. It was clear at the beginning of the rehearsals that Jun Yi is a winner in singing with very little stage craft or acting knowledge and skills.
The vocabulary for stagecraft and acting is so frightening wide and bottomless. While looking at how Jun Yi struggled in the rehearsal room for his lack of experience and skills in the said department, I couldn't help but wonder how we could bridge the gap between not-ready to being ready for the show to open on October 5th. Soon enough it became clear to me that watching how Jun Yi and colleagues work together to close that gap is the single-most precious experience for me in this re-staging.
You see theatre will always hold a soft spot in my heart for exactly that - the exposure to others' vulnerabilities and their journeys. I remember in vivid colors those magic moments and incidents from my various rehearsal room experience when I discovered I have fallen in love with theatre. The first time was during one of the my long-waits at the sitzprobe for Tosca back in 2003, I was in the chorus of Tosca, incredibly little stage time. I was listening half-heartedly to Lily Zhang (a Chinese soprano who sang Tosca, the other Tosca in the same staging was Nancy Yuen from Singapora/HK) rehearsing with the orchestra for one of her arias, her long sustained pianissimo notes, the string sawing away with her, as if tearing Tosca's heart apart as she laments about her cursed life as an artiste.. suddenly it hits me that that Puccini music was pulling my heart strings and the sound of Tosca soaring admits the strings were madly beautiful…I fell in love being surrounded by theatre and opera.
The second time was that afternoon on the cold cold floor of that Vision Four warehouse space that we used for rehearsal for M! The Opera, I was lying on the floor listening to Khir Rahman (who played M, the lead of this contemporary opera by Saidah Rastam & and Jit Murad) rehearsing a haunting solo, his hauntingly soulful cries made my toes curled, my heart cried along with M - the tortured artiste but my soul was smiling from inside out because the words and the music were too beautiful to bear...in a good way. I thought to myself, what a swell life this is, to be surrounded by magic in the making, day in day out.
From then on, the rehearsal period for theatre productions remain my favorite part of being involved in theatre. This time in Butterfly Lovers, I was privileged to be able to witness how Jun Yi grew from that timid person at rehearsals to a tall, handsome and divine-sounding leading man - I call this the 'Zero To Hero' story. I treasure those precious mamak sessions after rehearsals at night where we would discuss work, vent frustrations and prep-talk, encouraged each other for the next day's work.
It feels like it all ended too soon before I could barely bid farewell to all that is special to me in this production. I was juggling being focused and being sick during the run of this show, like a few other actors in the show. There were exciting episodes of mishaps here and there, sick stomachs, blood, knocked bones, etc. Jason and I had a scary fell from the high set on the day of full dress rehearsal and I still shudder at the thought of "what-ifs".
The cast party took place last week, cheques were collected, goodbyes and 'till we meet again' were exchanged, stories and jokes shared. And yet it still feel like the chapter has not properly closed for me. I was too distracted to find my own closure in this story - I was too sick and stressed out with other things on my mind. Other projects gotta take place, my focus has shifted to other urgent tasks and work at hand. I don't really have time to lament over the end of this beautiful journey. I know that I had started saying my goodbye to the musical during the production - thought it still didn't prepare me for the real goodbye…ah well!
Until I could rest YinXin in peace properly...I hope your eyes are still inside your socket if you managed to read this far. Haha!
more photos taken during the 2013 production HERE.
for photos taken during the 2006/2007 production, click HERE.