As a child, Mina Ellen Kaye already knew her answer to the customary question: What do you want to be when you grow up? She wanted to be an actress, and it was an answer she stuck by. On the morning of our interview we found Mina doing exactly what she said she would — in Pangdemonium’s rehearsal studio, prepping for her latest production Urinetown: The Musical. Now a professional musical theatre actress, Mina warmed up her voice, danced vivaciously and delivered part of her script. Her riveting focus, ease and command of the space divulged a vivid passion and years of experience.
Ten, to be exact.
It all began on home soil for Mina, who started her extensive career with a degree in Musical Theatre from LASALLE College. Since then, she has built an impressive resume of over 20 professional productions, distinguished awards and highly-acclaimed international performances. Now 34 years old, and having just completed her Master’s in Musical Theatre in Boston, Mina sat down for a candid conversation on her homecoming, the nitty-gritties of pursuing a professional musical theatre career and the biggest challenge she is facing yet.
Her Musical Theatre Career So Far.
You just returned to Singapore, where were you before and what have you been up to since coming back?
I’m currently a full-time mum and Urinetown: The Musical is my homecoming project in the Singapore theatre scene. Before this, I was away doing my Master’s in Musical Theatre at the Boston Conservatory. Then I had a baby, so I guess this is like my “comeback” performance! I’m still taking it one step at a time because it’s been tough with the baby — I have an 18-month old son!
Tell us when and how you discovered that musical theatre was your passion!
I’ve always known I wanted to be an actress since I was six. It was one of those things in kindergarten when the teacher asks what do you want to be when you grow up, and I wanted to be so many different things. A chef, a flight attendant, singer, tour guide, doctor…everything. I figured the best way to do all that was to become an actress, so I can be everything!
Then throughout my childhood and school years it was more about navigating what form of performance I liked best. I realised I loved entertaining, singing and acting, and musical theatre is just the perfect art form for that. Then…I enrolled in LASALLE!
The Life Of A Musical Theatre Actress.
Tell us more about what your daily schedule leading up to a big production! What would a typical work week look like?
Before we start a production we would come together as one, and the creative team (directors, choreographers etc.) would introduce everyone else such as the set designers, costume designers, backstage crew and the cast members. Then we do a script read, then there would be vocal calls with the musical director. We would also do choreography with the choreographer, followed by blocking. Then you piece everything together as one and it’s just a matter of rehearsing over and over again!
In the midst of all this we also do costuming and other fun things in different slots. There is a lot of coordination involved, and the stage manager — she’s amazing — is the one who coordinates everyone’s schedules.
How many hours do you spend at rehearsals?
For now we come in at 1P.M. and rehearse till 10P.M. everyday, over a 5 week period. Sometimes we come in from 10A.M.!
What is your favourite part of the whole process? (Perhaps the actual performance?)
I honestly prefer the process more than the product.
The product is like the fruits of your labour, if you will. The process is where you get to play! It’s a lot of fun, you laugh a lot and screw up a lot, and that’s the time to do it. Everyone is so forgiving, and the director (Tracie Pang) is amazing as well — she lets us play, she lets us bring what we like to this.
Choosing To Pursue Musical Theatre In Singapore.
Why did you choose to study musical theatre in Singapore? Would it have been better if you had studied in perhaps, the UK or the U.S.?
I have experience studying both in Singapore and the U.S. because I did my Master’s degree at the Boston Conservatory and my Bachelor’s at LASALLE.
I initially wasn’t planning on going to LASALLE and applied to Ryerson University in Canada, but got rejected. My tap teacher here at that time told me she was also teaching dance at LASALLE and said, “You know it’s a really good programme.” But at that time I was thinking: Singapore? There is musical theatre in Singapore? So I auditioned and got into the programme at LASALLE, and I was thoroughly surprised. I had world-class instructors — we get teachers and resident directors from all over the world, like from Broadway, the West End…and it was a very, very well-rounded programme. From doing my Master’s at the Boston Conservatory, I would say the quality of education at LASALLE is on par.
Has living in Singapore made it easier or harder for you to excel in your line of work?
I have personally been very fortunate, and so grateful to have had the opportunity to go from show to show. But it is tough, it is still very tough. Although, in terms of whether or not it is easier in Singapore, yes, only because in Singapore I’ve noticed it’s more about the talent and what you can offer. If you’ve done your training and know what you’re doing, you will likely be cast in something. So if your heart is really into this and it is something you really want to do, you just have to keep trying.
Some people still consider the Arts to be a less viable career option in Singapore. As someone who has decided to pursue a career in musical theatre, what are your thoughts towards this perception?
It’s not just in Singapore, worldwide!
First of all, I think people are entitled to their opinion. But again, speaking personally, it has been the most stable work/job for me, if you will. It is something that I have been able to do continuously, save money from and pay my bills. I would tell people it’s like any other job except that I get paid to play and have fun — that’s the only difference. However, once again, I speak from personal experience because I’ve just been very lucky to go from show to show.
Dealing With Rejection And Her Biggest Challenge Yet.
You must face a lot of rejection in your work (with that many auditions), how does one cope with rejection/being rejected?
Oh, hell yeah! You have to keep looking forward and go, “What’s next? I’m done with this, let’s go.” Don’t even think if they are going to call you back, how you did…there is no point mulling over that. If you’re talking about musical theatre in general, there are plenty of auditions out there. You just have to keep going for different ones over and over. If you screw up in one audition, do it differently in the next one!
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Definitely juggling motherhood and my career! It is not easy, and it is a universal problem that people need to know about!
How did I prepare for it? A lot of planning, a lot of pre-planning and a lot of work! I needed to figure out how on earth I was going to wean my child off breastfeeding because I was still breastfeeding him 3 days before I started work. So I was a bit nervous when we were doing choreography, because you get engorged when you don’t breastfeed for long periods of time. It worked out just fine in the end though! There is also a lot of coordination with my husband’s schedule for who is going to do bedtimes/breakfasts with my child too. Of course there’s coordinating with childcare as well…we are still in the process!
On Kick Starting A Career In Musical Theatre.
Having graduated with a degree in Musical Theatre, how did that prepare you for the real working world of musical theatre? Has it given you an edge?
It has definitely helped me in pursuing a career in musical theatre. It helped me get my foot in the door.
This industry is all about connections and on top of that, LASALLE prepares you for what to expect working with professionals, your work ethic, how to show up prepared, how to do your character studies and all that. There are very valuable skills you learn at theatre school that you can’t really get unless you’re in a show. So another way to go around it, is to get cast in shows and build up experience. But you don’t get that many opportunities if you’re brand new and don’t know anyone. So yes, LASALLE definitely helped me open up doors.
What are the career options for someone who has graduated with a degree in Musical Theatre?
Oh, plenty! If you graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Musical Theatre you can be a musical theatre actor, you can be a singer, a singing teacher, choreographer, director, dance teacher…there are many different options. You can even be a stage manager! You can be all these things because you are basically trained for every possible option in the performing art form.
What are the options for someone who has not studied musical theatre, but would like to pursue a career in the industry?
Hone your skills! Go for dance classes, take singing lessons, acting classes and then audition, because you’ll be auditioning 90% of the time anyway. By auditioning you’ll be preparing yourself and honing your skills at the same time.
It’s also not just about acting, singing and dancing (the talent part). Since there are no agents in Singapore, you are basically your own sales person and you have to market yourself. What I’ve done for myself is that I’ve given myself a brand. For example, I am the go-to musical theatre person. Or, you could market yourself as the musical theatre choreographer who knows how to choreograph a dance to a story…that sort of thing. Find your brand, find your niche and market that to other people! It’s all about networking, about knowing people in the industry and seeing whether they can recommend you to someone, or for an audition…get the ball rolling. Once you’re in people will know you, remember you, and start calling you for different projects.
On Her Latest Project, Urinetown: The Musical.
Tell us more about the upcoming musical that you are a part of! Tell us whatever you can about the musical, your character and why people should catch it!
It’s tricky not to give away too much! Urinetown is a satirical musical comedy that satirises capitalism, corporation, populism, bureaucracy…and all that political jargon I only know from watching House of Cards! The story is set in a dystopian world where there is a massive water shortage, private toilets are outlawed and people basically have to pay for the privilege to pee. Well, that’s the gist of it! You’ve got to come see the show to find out the rest!
My character in Urinetown is Hope Cladwell, the daughter of Mr. Cladwell who is the CEO of this large monopolising corporation that controls the public bathrooms in the show. I play his very sheltered, naive, slightly ditsy and a little quirky daughter who later falls in love and…that’s all I can say. Watch the show to find out if they end up together!
Catch Mina Ellen Kaye in Urinetown: The Musical by Pangdemonium, which will run from 27 September 2019 to 13 October 2019 at the Drama Centre Theatre!
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