Art that Moves is an occasional series where we ask artists and other creative workers to reflect on artworks, performances or events that were personally important to them.
This week, actor Brendon Fernandez tells us about a production he saw as teenager that gave him the courage to become an actor. We caught up with Brendon as he prepares to play multiple roles in Tropicana, The Musical, written by Haresh Sharma, with music composed by Julian Wong, lyrics by Joel Tan and choreography by Jeffrey Tan. The musical, directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond and produced by Tan Keng Hua, is inspired by the real-life Tropicana, which opened its doors in 1968 on Orchard Road. In its day, Tropicana was the premier live entertainment venue in the region, known for its top international acts – Count Basie and his Orchestra performed there – and topless cabaret. Brendon plays several roles in Tropicana, including that of a radio DJ, Vernon G and Tyson, an entertainer at the club.
ArtsEquator: Hello Brendon and thanks for coming on ArtsEquator. Tell us, is there one piece of art – a song, a play, someone’s performance, a film, a photo or book – that is personally important to you?
Brendon: Is it ok if it’s from a long time back? Like 1998? It was the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman based on the novel by Manuel Puig. It starred Ivan Heng and Daniel York.
ArtsEquator: How old were you?
Brendon: I was 19. I must have been serving National Service. Not sure if I was already part of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) Young Company then.
ArtsEquator: What was special about this play?
Brendon: At the time, there weren’t many companies staging plays professionally in English. By “plays” I mean proscenium arch, narrative, etc. The “well made play” type, if that makes sense. It was SRT, or no one. This was pre-Wild Rice, Pangdemonium, etc. There just weren’t that many professional companies.
ArtsEquator: So, it was partly the context of local theatre that made this play stand out to you?
Brendon: It was an idea that I think today we call “representation”. So I’d just finished theatre studies at Victoria Junior College (VJC), and towards the end of it, I’d decided I wanted to be an actor. I told my theatre teacher, John Lofthouse (Lofty). And he sat me down and gave me a two-hour talk about the life of an actor – how he had a few friends in the scene who were doing much better than he was, and he had many friends who weren’t doing as well. And how as an actor, you’re only as good as your last show, or you’re only as good as your next show. Or you’re only as good as your agent. And how 85% of actors are unemployed at any given time. I remember all this very clearly.
ArtsEquator: How encouraging…
Brendon: But at the end of the two hours, he said “But Brendon, I think you have something.” And that was enough for me to want to try. I’m still not sure I believed it could happen, because why would anyone employ an Asian actor to perform in English? Up to that point, most the leads I’d seen in SRT shows were imports. This links to my earlier point about how SRT was the only game in town. So if I wanted to work professionally, in English, in a “well made play” – and I did want to – it had to be with them. That was my reasoning anyway. But it was only when I saw Kiss of the Spider Woman that I actually began to believe it was possible. A well-made play, professionally staged, relying on the actor’s craft, performed by two Asians in the lead. It was Kiss and The Glass Menagerie, also staged by SRT in 1996, with Emily Kuroda, Neo Swee Lin, Adrian Pang and Daniel York.
I remember thinking “I’ll never be at their level. But at least I know it’s possible.” Kiss of the Spider Woman demonstrated that it was possible to be what I wanted to be – a Singaporean actor, working in professional theatre, in Singapore, in English. So if I failed, it would be for lack of ability, not for lack of possibility. I guess this was the play that made me try.
ArtsEquator: Prior to that, SRT mainly used non-locals in their productions?
Brendon: The Glass Menagerie was 1996, and that was half local. And the two from overseas (Daniel York and Emily Kuroda) were also Asian. So it’s probably not fair to say that. I think it was probably my impression. I’d had two theatre teachers, Rey Buono, an American and Lofthouse, a British, at Victoria Junior College. There wasn’t much local theatre content in the syllabus at the time. It was more classic stuff – Greek theatre, Shakespeare.
ArtsEquator: Rey Buono has been in the news recently, with the revelation of historical sex abuse claims against him in the US. Did you see any hint or evidence of impropriety whilst Rey was your teacher?
Brendon: Nothing I can point to. He made me uncomfortable. But I think that’s partially because he was probably the first gay man I’d met. Or out gay man, at least. And I had come from a very Catholic upbringing. I was quite homophobic at 17.
ArtsEquator: Did having Rey as your teacher make you more accepting?
Brendon: I don’t think I can give Rey credit for that. It’s more the theatre community as a whole that did that.
ArtsEquator: Right. Coming back to SRT’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman’s casting of two Asian actors in the lead roles. You’re a professional actor now. Have you had a chance to work with either of them?
Brendon: When I saw Daniel York and Ivan Heng in 1998, I thought “I’ll never be as good as them. But at least I know it’s possible”. Then I got cast in The Importance of Being Earnest in 2009, playing opposite Daniel York and Ivan Heng. I still don’t think I’m as good as either of them. But I got to work with them. We ended up performing four runs of Earnest between 2009 and 2015. And now I can call Ivan and Daniel colleagues, and friends. I remember a point in the rehearsals in 2009. Glen Goei was directing. I remember being awed to be in the same rehearsal space as Daniel York. Working on a scene with me, Daniel and Ivan. And Ivan and Glen were having an extended discussion about blocking, I think. And at one point, Ivan and Glen turned to me and asked “Brendon, what do you think?” Mind. Blown! My 19-year-old self would never have believed that!
Tropicana, The Musical opens at The Capitol on 13 April 2017, and runs until 30 April 2017. For more information and tickets, go here.