Many of us aren’t just actors. We explore artistically as writers, directors, painters, photographers…the list is endless. In this series of guest posts, we’ve invited librarian, actor, spoken word writer and performer, Varshini, to pen her thoughts on her writing journey.
As an actor, Varshini has numerous stage and film credits to her name, including True Love, a feature film directed by S Viknesh which was selected for the Queens World Film Festival in 2013, Neil Simon’s play The Star Spangled Girl, Tan Suet Lee’s play A Second Life, Hum Theatre’s Nagamandala and Seventy Shades of Play by the Stageclub Singapore. Her commercial credits include Julie’s Biscuits’ “The Best of You” advertorial campaign across TV, cinema and billboard. She is currently performing in Phenix Arts’ The Immortal Bard, a showcase of Shakespeare’s famous works being shown across the libraries in Singapore. She will also be presenting her poems as part of Gnossem Nights in end April. One of her poems will be published by Coffee Stained Press in their first poetry anthology, Words: Lost and Found.
As an actor, you must have asked yourself, once, twice, three times, all the time, “Why am I doing this?” I know I have bombarded my brain and soul about this – sometimes fallen so far down into the abyss that I find myself sitting on my bed, staring at my “bruised and battered from running around all day” feet, wondering, why? It is probably the most important question you have to ask yourself before you decide to be an actor, and long after you become one, to give yourself a reality check. The answer varies from person to person, season to season even, ever so slightly. The core of the answer though, will still have to tug at your heartstrings each time. This is simply because it is a job that can, at times, suck the life out of you (to put it plainly). Every performance is a life lived, whether on stage or on screen. You have to bring life to life, regardless.
Some of us do it because being on stage or in front of the camera makes us feel alive; some of us want to feel adored and some want to be famous. Some of us want to tell stories – to create compelling stories and to use our bodies to tell them; some want to make a connection, to share a passion and to discover more about themselves and humanity while the rest of the world is being sucked into a whirlwind of lies and deceit; some of us are searching for an authentic way of living. Some of us want to live in a bewildered state, lingering between dream and reality, constantly searching for truth because we have had enough of lying to ourselves.
To be an actor is madness. But to live life without passion is stupidity; it is dangerous and it is death. So we find whatever artistic endeavour feeds our souls and we pursue it. To keep fanning the flames inside. Although all that work, sometimes with no tangible or monetary rewards, does get tiring and becomes a drag at times. That’s when we forget why we do it, and need to remind ourselves.
Being an actor sometimes reduces us to the roles that we play, both on stage/screen and in life. At times, we pander to these roles and exaggerate them in public. We wear masks. We pretend. If we are not mindful, the lines between these roles become blurred and we can no longer differentiate. We lose ourselves, cease to be true to who we are. And that is a scary thing. Especially since we got into the business in the first place to “find ourselves”.
This is why being aware is a state that is so profound and so paramount to an actor’s daily existence. In her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou says, “Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant, to being aware of being aware.” I believe that is essentially what acting should be about, and really, what life should be about.
Even while acting, almost every acting coach I have worked with has said something that bears semblance to “being aware of being aware”. Do it consciously, awaken your senses and become a sponge for all sorts of sensorial information. Then, use it for your creative work. As an actor, you want to be engaged fully, to be “in the moment”; to seem like you’re trapped in a sea of chaos and yet have the tools to alter the situation and remain calm, like in the eye of the storm. To be an actor and the character, working hand in hand, creating magic.
Being aware of being aware has spawned moments of creative inspiration, compelling me to put to paper what I see or feel. Lending that awareness to my work as an actor, I have seen and felt the difference it makes, felt it in my body – letting go, absorbing the madness of the text, inspiring my physical body to take over. When that happens, the mask comes off. You are bringing truth to your experience on stage as the character you are portraying. And if you let it, it can extend into real life. You start being constantly aware of being aware, aware of when you have your mask on (let’s face it, sometimes we have to wear them just to protect our sanity against those who drain our energy) and how you can slowly peel it off, little by little, towards living a truly authentic life.
As actors, we are students of life, the stage our classroom and our fellow actors, our classmates. Everything you smell, taste, touch, see or hear can enrich your performance. Writing does that for me, especially during seasons when I am not involved in some kind of acting endeavour. Sometimes on my days off, I grab my pen and notebook and venture out to places where I can sit and observe. My favourite al fresco cafe with french decor tucked away in a corner in Orchard Road or another one at Arab street where perfumes infuse my being as I idle away. Or a place as random as a bus stop – I have gotten inspired by many scenes I have observed while sitting at bus stops. I watch and learn and then I write, sometimes about nothing at all, sometimes about particular things. Some of those become spoken word pieces that I perform.
A mentor of mine gave me the best advice. He said, “Be specific and observe without the clouding of judgement and assumption. Then things will reveal themselves. You will begin then to see the remarkable in the mundane.” What a beautiful line – to see “the remarkable in the mundane”. In order to do that, we first have to let go of ego; our ego which causes us to judge before learning and accepting. This is what Art does, any kind of it. It awakens us and asks us to investigate our perceptions, our judgments and preconceived notions. We see a piece of theatre and we think, this could be me. It creates within us this compassion for life, for ourselves.
Writing has created in me this sense of compassion for myself – I am learning to quieten my own ego. It has added more depth to my work on stage and helped me achieve that resonance I seek so compulsively with each thing I do in life. I write words to the best of my ability, I try to convey the message in the best possible way that feels true for me and finally, I put it out there and learn how not to compare. The same goes for acting – we are each unique individuals that bring something so precious, so contrasting, unconventional even, to the stage, so why compare and kill ourselves? Why not have more compassion for ourselves, boost our strengths and focus on them?
That is the journey that I am taking. Creating opportunities for myself. Writing to find and discover myself. Bringing the tools I cultivate through this to the stage and to the screen. And also, making a difference.
In an acting world, many are fighting to change the fact that, women are underrepresented. They are presented with roles that have fewer screen/stage time, roles that carry no significant substance, and also offered lower salaries. Speaking from my experience as a woman and a woman from an ethnic minority here, we as women have to step up, take charge and create the works for ourselves. We have a voice that is a loud and so it must be heard. So let us speak up. Easier said than done but I have been blessed to know so many indelibly intelligent, confident, strong and talented women doing just that here. And I am excited about the future.
Another limitation that is often slapped onto our faces as women is time. With time we age, and as we age, we apparently can’t be entrusted with major roles because people would not want to watch us. When half the world is made up of women, it does not make sense to not cater to this group. I am not going to dive into a discussion of the industry standards here but it is imperative to point this out, being female myself and having faced similar criticism and having been casted or not casted in roles simply because of age, or the colour of my skin. Equality is not just women’s business, it is for everyone to address. To my fellow strong women, if you feel a need to tell a story, do it. You owe it to yourself; the rest of humanity will take its cue from you and then we can start making changes, heck, start a revolution. It has already begun.
And do not fear time.
Avid readers would have heard the phrase, “Reading gives time”. Being a librarian surrounded by books, this speaks volumes to me. Writing, watching a play, being in a play, painting, sculpting, all of these give us time. As Arnold Weinstein says in Don’t turn away from the art of life, “It may sound paradoxical, but they [forms of art] are, in the last analysis, scientific, for they trace the far-flung route by which we come to understand our world and ourselves. They take our measure. And we are never through discovering who we are.” It is a Universal search.
So do whatever creative work your heart and brain fancies and through it, enjoy this journey of self-discovery. Though painful at times, it is well worth it, trust me. Because you will know that you are alive. And what better way is there to exist in this world, than to be truly alive and living authentically?
Because I give, truly and wholeheartedly, I will live a truer life than one who doesn’t.
Maya Angelou has my heart when she says, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” So I write, because I feel I have a truth that needs to be spoken and I lend my voice to the words I have created; to breathe life into them, beating the drums to the rhythms of my heart and in doing so, bring myself to life. So go on, make your own rules, create what you want and bring yourself to life.