The time Selena Tan went researching in the lorongs of Geylang

Not only is she one of Singapore’s funniest women, Selena Tan also directs, writes and owns local theater company Dream Academy. The effervescent actress just wrapped Kumar Stands Up for Singapore and is already knee-deep in rehearsals for the upcoming re-run of Dim Sum Dollies—The History of Singapore Part 1. Here, she tells us a bit about her journey.

Ever since I was very youngI wanted to be a lawyer. I was influenced by watching things like The Paper Chase and a lot of the courtroom dramas.

When I was in school, there was no law society to join but there were drama societies, and those took my fancy. I started acting from age 14.

I did eventually become a lawyer. By the time I reached 24 and graduated and was called to the bar, I had been acting and performing for many years. I started doing both at the same time and it was very tiring.

In the 90s, acting presented more possibilities because it was a new and fresh industry. Companies like Action Theater and Singapore Repertory Theater went from being amateur theater to professional theater. Of course the money was and even now still is meagre compared to being a lawyer. But at that age, it didn’t matter.

When we were researching for [2009 musical] Sing Dollar, there was this whole part about Geylang and the prostitutes there. I was looking for some people to talk to and in my naive thinking, I thought I could just go down and offer to pay a girl her hourly rate and go to a Hotel 81 and ask her questions about her life.
We were told off by the pimps and told to get out. I tried another lorong and we discovered that each lorong had a different nationality. It’s quite bizarre. There’s one lorong where they’re all in fur coats and they flash you. But they didn’t flash us.
I spent a few hours as a toilet cleaner, getting ready for [2002 play Ang Tau Mui]. It was at the Holland Village Shopping Center building.

Over the years, the audiences have grown. More people are coming to the theater now because they want to experience something local.

When I produce or direct a show and I sit in the audience, it really strikes a chord with me, seeing people from different walks of life and knowing that they’re willing to put money down to have an evening with you.

Kumar is my favorite local comedian. He really has no filter when he goes up on stage. That’s very laudable considering he was doing stand-up at a time when people could not really speak what was on their minds.

He always says he’s the minority of the minority and I believe it. There is something heartwarming about that. He has an honesty about him. Sometimes he’s very funny and there are times where he’s not as funny, but I still enjoy those moments.   

It’s really tough to [keep the jokes fresh] and it’s getting more difficult because we produce so much every year. It’s never funny in a brainstorming session.

My husband is very funny person and though you couldn’t tell just by looking at him, he comes up with the funny stuff, and I sort of steal from him.

I still get pre-show jitters all the time.

Recently, at Iskandar Ismail’s memorial, I was supposed to perform a song and when it was leading up to my turn, I realized I couldn’t remember the lyrics at all. I had no Internet on my phone because it was at Esplanade Concert Hall and everything was blocked. And I stupidly forgot to bring a hard copy of the lyrics with me because I was so confident. I ran backstage and nobody had the lyrics either. When they called my name, I walked out in a zombie-like state and the music started playing and… the words just came out. But it was truly terrifying.

I’m not a collector of my past but I remember moments like being on Under One Roof was exciting, it was my first big TV adventure. And my first one-woman show, Selena Exposed!—my friends and family were helping me make props, fold programs and sell tickets.

We adopted a baby boy last month. He’s five months old and is called James. I see him after work but he’s usually asleep. But I’ll see him in the mornings.

I probably fall quite squarely in the introverted-extrovert category. I enjoy spending time by myself, going out on a dingy and paddling on my own for hours.

Dim Sum Dollies—The History of Singapore Part 1 is showing at the Esplanade Theater from Jun 5-21. For more details, click here.