Elisabeth Ng is a young Singaporean actor with big dreams. After giving up a career in investment banking, she moved from Singapore to London and then to New York City to pursue acting. Her NY film debut Paper Dolls was an Asian American Film Festival 72Hour ShootOut 2014 Official Selection. Along the way, she founded Brooklyn Repertory Theater, with the aim of staging classic and contemporary plays with a multiracial cast. In a wide-ranging interview, Elisabeth Ng spoke with SP about Singapore, Strasberg, and stereotypes.
SP. How did you decide to become an actor? Was Singapore helpful or inimical to such an ambition?
EN. I’m a sensitive, awkward person. I wasn’t exposed to theater growing up, but films were a huge outlet and influence. I could live out my intense emotions and imagination through movies. And I just wanted to keep on doing that.
Artistically speaking … it was really tough growing up in Singapore in the noughties. There wasn’t a professional children’s drama program to apply to, nor was it something I dared to mention to my parents. Like the average Singaporean kid, my non-academic hours were wholly taken up by academic pursuits. I spent hours after school doing practice exam papers. My sole creative outlet was coming up with stories and characters with my sisters and acting them out in our house.
Singapore is a painful topic for me. I had a very difficult time growing up. Because I didn’t get good grades, I was swept aside and shut out of a lot of opportunities. You’re expected to accept this is who you are within the order of things. I was an imaginative kid and Singapore felt far away from where things happened. It felt like a place with few alternative options.
In the UK, I was exposed to a different system that valued idealism, dialogue between opposing ideas, and, most of all, independent action. I met so many young people my age who were founding charities, becoming entrepreneurs, taking the initiative to make movies despite having zero experience. People didn’t shut you down or tell you to be practical. If you needed advice or a helping hand, it was always given. And if you failed, no one judged you. You picked yourself up and tried again. That mindset has had a huge impact on me.
SP. You first trained at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts. What made you move to New York for your career?
EN. The truth is, I wasn’t good enough and I didn’t fit in. Unlike the rest of cosmopolitan London, English theater is quite homogenous. Most thespians had been training in repertory theaters since childhood. I’d never been to New York, but like all non-native New Yorkers, I ached for this idea of New York. And it hasn’t disappointed!
SP. In New York, you trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, famous for its Method Acting. What is your personal take on that style of acting?
EN. I studied Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in college, and was drawn to their work in particular. Through that, I discovered Elia Kazan’s movies. I love the intensity of actors from that era, so I read up on the Method and Strasberg and decided I wanted to be part of this American legacy.
The Method is controversial, but I personally value the work. There’s a lot of misconception about the Method, but it’s not at all about losing weight or living on a shipwreck. It’s about behaving truthfully in a given circumstance rather than acting out the idea of it.
At the end of the day, the Method is one school of acting and I don’t believe in limiting yourself to one tradition. I’ve since taken classes from other schools and done projects that taught me different skill sets. I like keeping an open mind.
SP. You act for both stage and screen. Do you have a preference? How are the two different?
EN. There are superficial differences, but at the end of the day there are good and bad projects in either. I love every opportunity I get because there’s always something to learn. My experience in each has helped my work in the other.
Film frees you up to be more intimate and naturalistic. The trend now among young independent filmmakers is to use minimal written dialogue, leaving it up to their actor to improv a naturalistic scene. For theater in general you have to use your physicality more knowingly and to pay attention to the playwright’s language. But that’s being pedantic, as skill sets often cross over depending on the project.
SP. What is your favorite role so far?
EN. Nothing specific, but I gravitate towards contemporary kitchen sink dramas. I love stories that portray the inner conflict and difficulties of normal, everyday lives and situations.
SP. You are the founder and Artistic Director of Brooklyn Repertory Theater, a theater company based in Bushwick. According to the website, you are committed to works that explore “racial diversity, colour-blind casting and humanness.” How did you come to such a commitment?
EN. When I lived in London, I was pleasantly surprised at how cosmopolitan and truly colour-blind society is over there. My friend groups were extremely diverse. It’s common and unremarkable to see interracial cliques and couples. It wasn’t a big deal, it was just matter of fact. This didn’t mean race wasn’t a concept. People celebrated their differences. There were no silly racial stereotypes to contend with. I was seen as a person first and people respected my Asian cultural background.
I had a huge culture shock when I moved to the States. This was the first time my skin color became my main defining characteristic, and I was shocked to see that despite the diversity in New York City, most racial groups were segregated and distrustful of one another. There’s also the problematic issue that, in theater, ‘white’ remains the neutral race. Therefore plays that feature Caucasian actors are free to explore a wide variety of issues and appeal to a broad audience. There’s a thriving scene of Asian, Hispanic and African-American theaters here but they could put up Death of a Salesman and it would be seen as an ‘Asian’ or ‘Latino’ or ‘Black’ play, not a human tragedy.
I founded Brooklyn Repertory with two aims. I want to move forward into a world where minority actors are given the same opportunities to be seen as ‘human’ and not just a colour. And most of all I hope to create an interracial community like the one I experienced in London. There’s so much interracial distrust going on, and what better way to foster communication than through theater?
SP. What can audiences expect from Brooklyn Rep?
EN. Although Brooklyn Rep is multiracial, I am deliberately avoiding dramas that talk about racial relations. We’ll be focusing on classic and contemporary works that address ‘life’: coming of age, relationships, family, ambition. With a multiracial cast.
SP. Who is your greatest inspiration as an actor?
EN. I look up to Elisabeth Moss. She’s made a career of playing intelligent, independent young women and performs on TV, independent cinema, and the stage. That’s the dream.
Brooklyn Repertory Theater’s production of Blue Surge (photograph by Miah Gonzalez)