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Interview: Neo Swee Lin and Julia Abueva of Sing’theatre’s 8 Women

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Sing’theatre’s 8 Women is a murder mystery comedy set in France in the 1950s. Actresses from the play Neo Swee Lin and Julia Abueva answer some questions about the play, and the craft of acting.

How did you come to be involved in 8 Women?

Julia: Sing’theatre contacted us about the play. I researched it and was intrigued because the plot is so interesting. I was also curious because I’ve never done a straight play before. I went to audition and met Samantha (Scott-Blackhall) and Nathalie (Ribette) and after that they offered me the part.

Swee Lin: I was approached by Nathalie Ribette – we have been wanting to work together for some time but the right project never came up. When I heard that Samantha Scott-Blackhall was directing, I was doubly happy as Sam and I have also longed to work together in a ‘proper’ show. In the past we’ve only done little fleeting things together over the years.

Can you tell us a little about the character you’re playing?

Julia: I play Catherine, the youngest of the women, and she’s a feisty one! Very confident as a 15-year-old, but still clearly naive about a lot of things. She wants to be treated like a grown-up and is trying hard to project herself as one.

Swee Lin: Grandma Alice is a sweet old lady who knits. She has no malice in her bones at all. Well, maybe a bit. She’s an alcoholic and probably murdered her husband. But that was a long time ago – and nobody remembers it anyway. Especially not Grandma Alice. Her memory is not what it used to be. Especially when she’s had a few conversations with her sherry bottle.

This play examines a woman’s psyche. What do you think is the best thing about being a woman in today’s world?

Julia: A woman can achieve everything a man can :) We can ever wear guy clothes and that’s perfectly acceptable!

Swee Lin: In today’s world? Freedom. Women are so special, the way our brains work, it’s just quite magic, the ability to multi-task, most of us are super capable. Of course not all of the time. OK, I’m rambling. Freedom. Ya, freedom. Freedom to choose what life we want, how we want to dress, talk, think. It’s sad that in so many countries women are still second class citizens with no rights.

You’re probably best remembered as Ah Mah from Phua Chu Kang. Do you miss the series? What was your fondest memory of it? Do you still get recognized by the public as your former character?

Swee Lin: Yes I do miss it. Fondest memory is fooling around with my two sons. I do get recognized from time to time, but mostly only when I speak. And more in Malaysia these days, I think it’s more recent there. A lot of the younger generation here have forgotten Ahma already.

You have been in the industry for a long time. In what ways has the industry changed for the better and for the worse since the time you started out?

Swee Lin : When I first started out in the ‘80s, there was hardly any industry to speak of. Hardly anything in the English language was being produced – not on TV (except for news type programmes), a few films maybe, and there weren’t so many theatre companies like there are today. So it’s definitely changed, and for the better in most ways. There’s more work, a larger audience, I’ve been trying to think how it has changed for the worse but i can’t find anything to complain about!

You were in Anna and the King in 1999, with Jodie Foster. Did you have any scenes with her? 

Swee Lin: Yes I did!

How was it working with her?

Swee Lin: It was a wonderful experience. I feel truly blessed to have crossed paths with her. She’s a beautiful soul. And needless to say, an amazing actor.

In 1996, you were in a UK production A Secret Slave and in 1995, you acted in Detonator 2: Night Watch, which was a UK-USA production, and of course 1999’s Anna and the King was made by Fox Studios in Hollywood. Do you still have representation in Hollywood/USA and/or the UK?

Swee Lin: No.

Do you still hope to work in the UK/USA one day?

Swee Lin: Yes. :)

What would you say are the main differences between working on an international production and a local one?

Swee Lin: It’s not that different really. We’ve come so far in such a short time. It’s amazing.

8 Women is ultimately about love, relationships and deception. Being married, what would you say is the best thing about marriage? What’s the worst (if any)? Is marriage still relevant in today’s world?

Swee Lin: Best thing is having a best buddy around all the time. Someone to carry your shopping and luggage, someone to massage your shoulders every night to sleep, someone to write love songs to serenade you. I’m lucky! Relevant in today’s world? OK, I can write an essay on this—but I’d like to send this off today! So – “to each his own”.

Julia, you’ve been performing since you were eight, singing for President Barack Obama at APEC and even for Oprah Winfrey on her former talk show. How did you get those gigs?

Julia: I was offered the opportunity to sing for President Obama at APEC, and for the Oprah Winfrey show, she and her staff saw my video on YouTube.

And you’re still at the Singapore American School? How do you juggle school and your performances?

Julia: I’m a junior right now. It’s not easy to juggle but I do a lot of time management. I do homework during my breaks so I can sleep right after I get home. My typical day begins at 7 am and ends at midnight so I really have to fit in my schoolwork during breaks during the day.

8 Women isn’t a musical. How are you liking the experience of being in a non-musical, where it’s only your acting skills on display?

Julia: I’m loving it. It’s the same process, except we don’t sing. I love that it’s a different experience and the cast and crew are all amazing.

Why should theatregoers watch 8 Women?

Julia: Because there’s never a dull moment – its a good murder mystery unfolding right before their eyes!!

Swee Lin: It’s exciting, thrilling and funny. We have 8 Women and one man – because the ninth actor is our ‘musician-soundmaker’ Bani (Heykal) who will be playing live with us every night!

What are you future plans after 8 Women?

Julia: First I’m going on my summer break and then I’m going to start rehearsing for Next to Normal (a musical!) with Pangdemonium, opening this September 2013. Come watch that too!!

Swee Lin: I’ve started on a new play with Wild Rice and Alfian Sa’at. It’s called Cook a Pot of Curry and it’s verbatim theatre ala “Cooling Off Day”. That goes on in July.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.