Profile: Ellison Tan

Published on 29 March 2016

Multi-hyphenate Ellison Tan shares why her relentless pursuit of self-improvement ranges from puppet-making to piano classes.


“I have been writing Inheritance for a year and seven months now, but I wouldn’t say the script is ready.
I never think any of my scripts will ever be ready,” says playwright Ellison Tan, who already has three professionally-performed scripts to her name at the tender age of 26. “There will always be something you can add or change as you get more life experience, even after the play has opened.”

Indeed, the saying ‘you can never be ready enough’ could well be the actress/playwright/director/deejay’s personal catchphrase. Other than completing three lengthy back-to-back training programmes — the National University of Singapore’s Theatre Studies programme; In A Decade (Cake Theatre’s exclusive youth-training arm); and the apprenticeship programme of The Finger Players (TFP) — which gave her practical experience in everything from producing to prop-making to puppetry, she’s currently juggling numerous acting and writing jobs with ballet classes and piano lessons.

“I recently started piano classes with musician Serene Tan [aka Stan of soundscape artists Stan & Soap] and I’m one of her oldest students. I performed for her student recital where I was the only adult. I’m sure parents were wondering what I was doing there, but it’s okay. The kids were really cute,” she recalls with a smile.

She adds, “At TFP, a senior shared with me his definition of a theatre practitioner. He said they should know everything about the theatre — lights, sound, set, playwriting, acting, directing. I really want to be that kind of theatre practitioner, so I need to prepare my body as well as my mind. I may never professionally perform ballet, but it makes my body more disciplined, so I don’t get tired too easily as I get older. Piano trains my sensitivity to music and sounds.”

She emphasises that relentless pursuit of excellence notwithstanding, she does have a social life. “My friends understand that to ask me out, we have to make a date two months in advance.” Even then, leisure hours are partly about work, too. “Theatre-makers get useful new perspectives when spending time with people outside the industry.”

What is it that drives Tan to go that extra mile? “The most important thing to me is staying in the theatre industry, in whatever capacity it takes. Employment of freelance actors is very insecure and I still can’t believe I’m getting work. Theatre makes me a much better person — it makes me more willing to listen, look at different perspectives, really dig deep into issues I wouldn’t have understood before immersing in certain characters.”

Theatre also helps her examine herself, as evidenced by multilingual play Inheritance. Says Tan, “It came from me thinking about how there are some traits you inherit from your parents — some traits you really like, and some traits you really wish you didn’t have.” If the industrious Tan has any of the latter, there’s no doubt she’s working hard on them.

Inheritance is on at the Drama Centre from 14-17 April.

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