The talented and effervescent performer candidly talks about the challenges and rewards that come with being a professional television and stage actor in Singapore these past six years.
From capturing the imaginations of four-year-old kids through puppetry to embodying different characters on stage and the television screen, the kind of work that Bright Ong loses himself in requires huge amounts of passion and an almost inhuman level of energy.
Here, the talented and effervescent 27-year-old talks about his journey to becoming a professional actor in Singapore and what motivates him to give his all for his craft these past six years.
When did you first develop an interest in acting?
I think that itch to perform started when I was at Pioneer Junior College. I wanted to try a different co-curricular activity, so I joined the Drama Club. We participated in the Singapore Youth Festival and became the first batch to get a Silver with Commendations for the school; it was quite the accomplishment.
I then went to the National University of Singapore (NUS) and pursued a Major in Geography and Minor in Theatre Studies. It just so happened that I was part of the Benjamin Sheares Hall which was known for its productions.
I was surrounded by seniors who were very capable; the sets and marketing for each production were spot on. By the time I was in my second year, I was convinced that I loved acting.
What motivated you to pursue acting as a full-time profession?
To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as graduation drew closer. My brother more or less coerced me into taking Geography because the NUS Geography Department was one of the best in the world; I think it was ranked number six about two years ago.
It was only during my grad trip to Mount Kinabalu in 2010 that I gained some clarity. As I was nearing the mountain peak in the blistering cold, it hit me that if I didn’t pursue something exciting that I felt strongly for and believed I had potential in, I was going to grow old and look back upon my life with regret. That was all the motivation I needed to pursue acting.
How did your parents react to your decision to be an actor?
Being the typical Southeast Asian Chinese parents, of course they hated it. They felt that it wasn’t a safe career choice; so, I made a pact with them. I told them to give me two years. If I wasn’t standing on my own two feet after two years, I would go look for a nine-to-five.
Anyways, they did promise that I could do whatever I wanted after graduation, so I held them to their word. Thankfully, I had a series of stable gigs coming in and was able to be fully-independent by the end of the first year.
How did you penetrate the acting industry?
I joined the Young Co. by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) during my last two years at NUS. The training sessions were held every Saturday so it didn’t really interfere with school.
It was a good experience that opened my eyes to how things work in the theatre industry. I was performing with a motley bunch of people and Daniel Jenkins – he’s actually directing a show I’m in right now – was my first student mentor and coach back then.
Looking back, the connections I made during that time did help to open doors a bit. Being part of the Young Co. led to my involvement in my first two productions with SRT.
I was the Assistant Stage Manager for “Blackbird” and the evil puppet master in “Pinocchio – The Musical”. Since then, I’ve had to rely on hard work, sheer grit and knocking on countless doors to get work.
How did you get involved with puppetry?
I first got involved with puppetry through “Pinocchio”, of course. It was my professional acting debut and I remember being fascinated by how the puppets were constructed and maintained.
Later on, I did PLAYtime! It’s theatre for young audiences, but it uses elements of puppetry. It’s a programme that I’ve been working very closely with The Esplanade on for almost five years now.
Learning how to make the puppets move in a beautiful way was challenging at first. It really is an extension of acting and puts a lot of strain on my fingers, forearms, shoulders and back; but, I love it.
Human actors have physical limitations that prevent them from connecting with people in a certain way; but, puppetry does a lot of good for kids, especially at that age where their imaginations have not been ruined yet.
Actors are required to express a spectrum of emotions on cue. Where do you draw all these different emotions from?
Everyone has a different method. I personally draw from my own life experiences. Being born and raised in Johor and now living in Singapore as a Permanent Resident, I know what it’s like to live in two societies.
I’ve seen the poor and the disgustingly rich, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to so many people on either extremes.
Those experiences and conversations help because I think acting is the ability to have a very good sense of what is neutral. Acting comes from a place of empathy, not judgement.
What has been your favourite production to be part of thus far?
“2 Houses” – absolute favourite. It was directed by Lim Yu Beng and produced specially for the Georgetown Festival in Penang. I was playing a servant in a Chinese household just a couple of days before the Japanese Occupation and bombing of Penang in 1941.
We had rehearsals from 6pm to 3am every night and it totally flipped my bodyclock; but, it was an incredible experience because it built my endurance and helped prepare me for evening shows. I also liked how intimate it felt because the audience had to walk with you from room to room as the scenes played out.
What challenges have you faced as an actor in Singapore?
Stable employment, needless to say. There will definitely be dry spells and millions of rejections when you choose acting as a profession.
My advice is to just do your best and always be ready because you never know when you’ll get lucky and meet that right person who needs you at the right time. Until that day comes, you’ll just have to learn to be professional and know how to handle your ego and pride.
Being typecast and pigeon-holed when it comes to the kind of roles you can play is another challenge. Once, I told a casting director how funny it was that he got me to play this spoilt son of a rich man because I usually play much rougher roles like the tough gangster or the buff bad boy; but, I was lucky that he had an imagination and was willing to give me a try.
Is acting a financially-sustainable career in Singapore?
It depends on your definition of financially-sustainable. If you’re an actor in Singapore, chances are you’re probably doing something else on the side to sustain yourself.
Most of my friends earn a steady income by teaching on a part-time basis. I’ve personally gotten to where I’m at now in my career through sheer passion for acting, not by being a celebrity or social media influencer.
I share an apartment with my girlfriend and I’m able to pay rent every month, which is saying a lot considering how expensive rent in Singapore can be. Plus, I’ve delivered my end of the bargain after making that pact with my parents.
I’m not pencil-thin, have a roof over my head and clothes on my back, so I think I’m doing pretty good. I can’t say that I can retire now, but I’m well and alive.
What are your plans for the future? Any acting gigs lined up?
I’ll be working on a grant project with Young Artist Award winner Ian Loy, and you’ll see me next in The Pillowman with Pangdemonium, next year.
I constantly want to get myself into roles that actors dream about. Something insane and powerful like what Tatiana Maslany does for Orphan Black. Star wars is still a big dream, as is to perform with Cirque du Soleil.
But in all seriousness, being able to practice my craft either on stage or in film is already a blessing on its own, and I just want to keep doing that all day and all year round.
What changes do you want to see in the local theatre and television production scene in the next couple of years?
For TV, I’d like to see the Media Development Authority give scriptwriters more leeway to write creatively. Right now, there are so many rules to abide by.
Singlish, for example, has been banned from national television, and that to me is a travesty. You want to talk about racial harmony, it’s right there, illustrated through our usage of Singlish. It’s part of our culture and binds us together as an island.
For stage, I’d like to see more funding that will lead to a change in mindset. The audience for local theatre is small because people have this mentality that it’s only meant for the upper class; it’s not!
Back in the day, Shakespeare wrote for the lower classes, not for the wealthy. I think GoLi by Drama Box is an excellent initiative that’s helping to eradicate this stigma.
It’s a mobile theatre that travels across Singapore, so people in the heartlands get to connect with theatre in a very real way. More funding needs to be pumped into such initiatives.
What is the best piece of advice that you received about acting?
The funniest advice that I ever got was from fellow actor Tan Kheng Hua. She told me that I’m only allowed eight prostitution jobs in a year.
By that, she meant jobs that are not necessarily beneficial to my craft but will pay me nonetheless. These jobs will keep me clothed, fed and housed so that I will have the stability and peace of mind to pursue other projects that will feed my soul.
Another great piece of advice – one which I will stick to until the day I die – is gratitude. A mentor of mine once told me that the people of today, especially the younger ones, lack gratitude.
They think that they’re entitled to work and that they deserve to be in a particular production, but they really don’t. As actors, we have to stop complaining so much and remind ourselves to be thankful for the opportunities that come our way every day.
Interview by: Arman Shah