Siti Khalijah: How a Shy Girl From ITE Found Her Passion and Calling in Acting and Theatre

Considering a career in theatre? Siti Khalijah’s humble beginnings before she became the award-winning actor she is today will inspire you.

“I’m currently working on a play called Three Years in the Life and Death of Land. It’s by The Necessary Stage and commissioned by Esplanade. It will be my first time performing at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre. It only opened late last year, so it’s pretty new!

Mentally, I’m okay. I’m glad that my previous production ended cleanly before I jumped into this one. Because there were times in the past where things got quite manic. I would be rehearsing for one production in the day, and performing in another production at night.

You have to snap out of one thing – chuck it aside – and then enter a different headspace to perform later that evening. The next day, you go back into rehearsal mode and repeat the entire cycle. It can get confusing and physically tiring; but, I love what I do.

I was first exposed to the arts in primary school. I was that kid who always looked forward to the weekly assembly programme, whether it’s about recycling or saving water. I was just amazed by how the stage transformed, and in awe of the whole live theatrical performance.

But when I went to secondary school, everyone’s attitude towards assembly programmes changed. My friends would say things like, ‘Haiyah, what’s the point? Waste time only.’ Was the school assembly uncool? And if I secretly enjoyed it, what did that make me?!

Back then, I was much bigger than I am now. I had very low self-esteem and was very insecure. When you’re a teenager, you don’t want to be looked at as different, so I pretended to not like theatre to blend in with everyone else.

Joining a musical in ITE was the turning point in my journey towards becoming an actor. In secondary school, I didn’t perform well academically. So it was suggested that I attend ITE where the learning pace would be slower; supposedly better for someone like me.

But there was so much stigma around ITE. If you’re stupid, you go to ITE. If you’re a bad and naughty student, you go to ITE. Your future is basically over if you went to ITE. My mum encouraged me nonetheless, and I went because my intention was to learn.

Being a part of the musical felt amazing, because as ITE students, we were already looked at as the black sheep of society. So there was this genuine sense of unity; this sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. Everyone in the production really looked out for one another.

I had more fun in my two years of ITE than my four years of secondary school because I finally felt free to be myself. I wasn’t laughed at for my size, or judged for my love of the stage. And being part of the musical made me realise that I truly wanted to be an actor.

But I didn’t want to burden my parents by sending me to an expensive arts college. So I got my sister to help me apply for a scholarship that will cover a one-year programme by The Necessary Stage. This programme invites youths to learn the basics of theatre.

The Necessary Stage was upset when my first application was rejected because the scholarship was for all students in the East. But unlike certain JCs and unis, my ITE was not recognised. They told me to reapply, and with their backing, I had a spot in the programme!

Of course, my parents were not 100 percent certain when I told them I wanted a career in acting. To them, a proper job is one that pays a consistent monthly income. But instead of taking the poly route after ITE, I told them to give me one year to try and make it in theatre.

While auditioning for acting roles, I did everything, from wardrobe assistant to front of house usher. I worked hard, and I’m so proud to say that I was getting jobs and giving my parents money. They saw me coming home late and leaving home early, but I never complained.

One day, I came home and saw my late dad going around the house collecting newspaper articles of shows that I was in. My mom cut them out and filed them in a folder. It was so sweet. I guess that was their silent way of showing approval and giving me their blessings.

If I had any advice for aspiring actors in Singapore, it’s that you really need to have a high level of patience and endurance. At the end of the day, to be an actor is to be a full-time freelancer. There will be periods of time where you’re jobless, especially during off seasons.

It’s easy to give up, but find other things that can help you survive while still focusing on your passion. Personally, I do a lot of school assembly programmes, which is a full circle moment for me, because that’s how my love for the stage and theatre started.

And it’s not as glamorous as one may think. While others are enjoying their weekends and public holidays, you’ll be sacrificing your time for shows and rehearsals. If you’re in it for the glamour, this job may not be for you. It’s a lot of hard work, commitment and sacrifice.

But at the end of the day, it’s all worth it because I get to tell stories, especially with a theatre company like The Necessary Stage that addresses a lot of local issues. If we don’t create work and talk about our own lives and stories, who will?

And I’m not the best at writing. There are many things on my mind that I just don’t know how to articulate. But when I’m presented with a script, everything I want to express is right there on paper, and as an actor, I get to give life to the text. That’s why I do what I do.”

Interview by Arman Shah


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1 Comment

  1. Such a heart warming story about finding ones place in the world – about not giving up on a true passion – about having the courage to step into the fullness of who one is. Thank you Siti for helping to remind us about the beauty of living an authentic life. And thank you Aman, for sharing such soul stirring stories with us. Sending warmest of wishes. Justine and Michael.

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