#HelloTFP: Ellison Tan

by fingerplayers

#HelloTFP is a series of anecdotes where we introduce and share more about the members of the TFP family; from core team members to office interns. In this latest feature, Co-Artistic Director Ellison Tan tells us more about how she first got involved in theatre, her journey with The Finger Players from Apprentice to Co-Artistic Director, and transitioning into taking on other roles within the company.

I first became “involved” when I was in … Secondary three? Drama Box was holding a community event and it was a pretty large scale one that required lots of volunteers making rice balls and tea. A senior from my school’s drama club was working with them after she graduated and was recruiting volunteers, and so I signed up. I remember meeting Heng Leun for the first time at that event and him saying something really funny to me, but I forgot what exactly, haha. But I remember as a very young person encountering an event of that scale and being very impressed at how everything was run, and how invested and passionate everyone was. 

Then in NUS, one of my lecturers for a Theatre Studies module in NUS was Natalie Hennedige (Artistic Director of Cake and the next Festival Director of SIFA), and after I graduated she asked me to audition for an ensemble role for a piece she was creating for the Singapore Night Festival. I remember a rather long workshop-type audition which lasted almost two hours, not having to memorise monologues and not having to speak a certain way and I think that was a very important moment for me. I had previously been to several auditions which required me to do a Shakespearean monologue and I had never had that education, and frankly didn’t know where to begin. Those auditions would normally end very badly (in my opinion) and each upcoming one would demoralise me even further. 

That audition with Natalie was therefore in some sense formative, because it demonstrated possibilities that I never saw, not just within myself, but within the wider industry. Anyway after that I got through the audition and then started pursuing theatre. 

The Singapore Night Festival

When we first joined TFP, leadership was not on the cards. The apprenticeship programme was also not geared towards that. It was very structured, with very specific milestones and clear outcomes – to train these apprentices to become associate actors of the company. But everyone at TFP was so giving, so I got a very “total” sort of education – in puppeteering, performing, playwriting and even dabbled in props and puppet making, but my passion in the theatre will, and always will be, performing. 

After we graduated, we were still close to everyone at TFP, even going back annually to TFP for spring cleaning, and it was the sort of love where you don’t see each other often, but when you do a sort of warmth would just bubble up, but we were also I think charting out paths for ourselves. For myself, I was very fortunate to have started working with The Necessary Stage and Nine Years Theatre, and I was also investing a lot of energy in Theatre for Young Audience (TYA), and so because of schedules I didn’t get to work with TFP as much as I’d have liked to. One thing that I really appreciated though, was still getting the chance to do assembly shows, or what we call school shows with TFP. Doing school shows I think, is the most important and valuable training you can ever receive as an actor. School audiences never bullshit you, and because it’s typically a sizeable audience with very specific age groups, you have to adjust your energies and your pitching with every show. Myra and myself only stopped doing them this year because everything was cancelled, but otherwise it was something that we never foresaw we’d stop. 

So now the relationship is different but it still feels the same, because the people are the same, and it is these people who saw you “grow up” in that sense. They saw the ugliest, strongest, weakest, most rude (haha this is an insidey joke because I’m always told I’m rude) sides of me, and despite that have kept me cocooned in a sort of safe space. So now the relationship I guess has evolved in a way that Myra and I will try to make this space safe for everyone too.

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The Finger Players’ 15th anniversary!

I am extremely thankful at having had experience at producing/co-producing work at various stages in my life, because it is this experience that has allowed me to ease into this role with less difficulty. Because of this experience I am not unfamiliar with funding systems, funding cycles, and in some sense “government speak”, but I do remember that it was also this that drained me at the start of our term – this careful tip-toeing, constant tango-ing, and how loops become longer and more meandering and never seemed to close. I also realised that my brain was starting to be hardwired differently, and when I wanted to go back to the artistic side it became almost difficult. It was vastly different from what I was used to as an actor, where productions have a 3-4 month life span and after it’s over you cut the strings from the tether and move on. But I guess this was also the part where I realise I have been thoroughly spoiled as an actor, and so I do feel fortunate at being pushed so much out of my comfort zone. 

Ellison at a rehearsal for Peepbird (2020), as part of The Present/Future Season.

Something that might be unexpected for most people, but not for me is my going away for the whole of 2021. It was a decision that I had made for myself in 2017 actually. Tze Chien had invited me to come onboard Oiwa – The Ghost of Yotsuya as an actor, and I had said yes, and made plans that right after the completion of Oiwa I would do my Masters. The Core Team was also aware of this when I accepted the role of Co-AD in 2019. I think most people would have expected that I deferred my plans but it was important for me that I did it anyway, because this is also part of sustainability.