Photos: Tammi Tan
Video: Tan Shi Qi
Adrian Pang didn't even need to hesitate for a second when we posed him this question: was it more daunting playing Singapore’s founding father Mr. Lee Kuan Yew in The LKY Musical, or gearing up to speak Mandarin on stage for the first time in upcoming play Chinglish?
He chose the latter without missing a beat. “Chinglish has been giving me nightmares – I’ve started to dream in Mandarin!” he said with a laugh during an interview with Toggle on Monday. “The LKY musical was really tough, but speaking Mandarin on stage is definitely [worse].”
In the Pangdemonium adaptation of the award-winning Broadway production, the former MediaCorp artiste plays a politician from Mainland China. This presented an even bigger challenge for Adrian, who was based in the UK for a few years and has never exactly been renowned for his fluency in the language, despite starring in numerous Channel 8 dramas.
“I’ve had to unlearn all the wrong Mandarin I’ve been speaking all these years which, at best, could pass off as Singapore style Mandarin,” he told us. “I need to speak it properly for the first time in my life, and it’s really tiring and it gives me a headache every time I’m rehearsing!”
The complicated tongue twisters Audrey Luo, his Chinglish co-star and on-set Mandarin coach, has been giving him, such as the famous Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den (with 92 "shi" characters in varying tones), haven't really been helping either, he admitted. “But I'm not making excuses, this is my problem,” Adrian emphasised. “It’s my retribution for not learning Mandarin properly all those years ago and for torturing my Chinese teachers.”
So why take on a part with so many difficulties in the first place when he could easily give it to another actor?
“My angmoh wife [and Pangdemonium co-artistic director Tracie], who obviously has no conception of how bad my Mandarin is, assumed I was going to play the role, so what to do? I have to listen to her, she’s the boss,” he shrugged, before adding on a more serious note, “It's good to be able to find a new challenge in every role that I do – if it’s scary, then it’s worth doing. So I’m quite glad that my boss forced me into this. (laughs)”
However, don’t take this as a sign that Adrian will return to Chinese television dramas. “I've put those days behind me. [Theatre] is my life now and although it is frustrating at times, I absolutely love it.” But if producers are still extremely keen to have him back on a Channel 8 show, an extremely fat pay cheque might just do the trick. But just how much, exactly? “A lot lah! (laughs)”
Guo Liang is taking on his theatre debut with “a learning attitude”
Chinglish also presents a first for another veteran thespian, China-born host Guo Liang, who, despite his training as a theatre actor, is making his stage debut in this production.
Unlike Adrian, however, he seemed to be a lot more confident about his latest gig. “I have nothing to worry about – I just want to do a good job and for everyone to enjoy every aspect of the show from start to finish,” he said.
When asked what he foresees will be his biggest challenge, Guo Liang voiced his concerns about sharing a scene with someone who doesn’t understand Mandarin and who wouldn’t be able to respond correctly to improvised lines (and vice versa for him with someone delivering English dialogue).
He added, “There’s also no room for bloopers unlike with dramas and movies – you can’t stop filming halfway to check your script between takes!”
That said, Guo Liang is pleased that Adrian, whom he has known since their days in SPH MediaWorks before being transferred to MediaCorp, invited him on board, and is going forward with “a learning attitude”.
Adrian has “no right” to stop his sons from pursuing acting
With both Adrian and Guo Liang being dads to teenage boys (Adrian to 16-year-old Zack and 15-year-old Xander, and Guo Liang to 15-year-old Marcus), we asked them if they would ever let them follow in their footsteps to become entertainers.
“I’ve thought about it, and my answer is 100 percent no’,” said Guo Liang, before clarifying, “What I mean is that I won’t encourage him nor deliberately create opportunities for him to enter showbiz, but at the end of the day, who’s to say I can actually stop him? He needs to carve out his own path in life.”
Although Adrian feels “exactly the same”, that has not caused him to forbid his boys from enrolling in theatre studies at School of the Arts. “As a parent, I worry about their future but I want them to be happy, so if this is what makes them happy, then fine, but they have to know that it’s really hard work and it will break your heart, so they have to find their future.”
Guo Liang could not resist cutting in, “He trained in theatre after studying law. He has no right to stop them!” to which Adrian conceded, “I am a terrible example.”
Guo Liang dives into his first rehearsal with Audrey Luo, Daniel Jenkins and Oon Shu An.
Catch Chinglish, which also stars Daniel Jenkins, Oon Shu An, Audrey Luo and Matt Grey, at the Drama Centre Theatre from October 9 to 25. Tickets are priced from $25 to $70 (excluding booking fees) and are available on SISTIC.