The West End had seemed so far and an impossible dream for Nathania Ong, who started her theatre journey late. “But the world works in mysterious ways,” she says. She made her debut in London’s Theatreland on Aug 3 when she joined the cast of Be More Chill, replacing another actress.
Ong is only in the second half of its 10-week run at the Shaftesbury Theatre (June 30 to Sept 5), but there is no telling how one thing can lead to another. “Shows come and go all the time. Perhaps it’ll come back in the future!” says the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts graduate who plays high-school gossip Jenna in the musical comedy about a bunch of seniors trying to fit in and impress.
Be More Chill premiered in the US in 2019, wowing audiences on Broadway before moving to the UK, where it opened at The Other Palace in February 2020 before the pandemic shuttered theatres. The Guardian says it treated the soaring joys and plunging agonies of adolescence with humour and heart. Reviewers love its cheek, energy, electro-pop soundtrack and sci-fi twist, with a popularity pill thrown in.
“I think the message of the show, be yourself, resonates with a lot of people. Everyone puts on some kind of front; I know I’m guilty of that myself. It’s challenged me in my daily life to be comfortable with who I am and not be afraid to show that,” says Ong, adding that she is “literally the least ‘chill’ person I know”.
Joining the cast halfway was stressful: She had two weeks of rehearsals during the day while the other actors went on stage in the evenings. In that time, she had to learn all the material, go through tech rehearsals and layering on mics, and see to costumes. “Jenna’s a hard sing, but that’s my fault for choosing such vocally tiring ad-libs.”
Ong grew up in Singapore in a family that loved to sing. “There was always singing in the car, whether it was the same song or completely different songs at the same time. My dad has the most incredible voice and hearing him always made me jealous and I wanted to sound as good. The first performance I watched was him in The Rainbow Fish. I was very young and can’t remember what exactly happened. I just remember the sensation of being completely enamoured as a child and wanting to do that.”
Her maiden performance, at the age of five together with one of her three sisters, was on Total Defence Day (commemorated on Feb 15 to mark Singapore’s fall to Japan in 1942) for then president S R Nathan. At 10, she won first place in a talent show in school and told her mother she really liked being on stage. Mum signed her up for singing lessons and that led to small gigs here and there with a performing school. At the Youth Olympic Games’ closing ceremony in 2010, she sang the national anthem solo.
“I had wanted to sing ever since I was young. I just didn’t quite know how I would get to doing it.” It wasn’t until she took drama as an elective during her A levels and realising simultaneously that she was not doing as well in her other subjects — “We can’t all be smart” — that she began pursuing theatre seriously.
She auditioned for drama schools in the UK and was rejected by all of them. Competition is keen, with a few thousand applicants eyeing 16 to 40 places a year depending on the school. So, she joined Lasalle Singapore, where she picked up a few tools and aimed to complete her BA in acting, even as her dream of studying in the UK dimmed.
“Then my best friend gave me a wake-up call and I decided to try auditioning again, but this time for musical theatre courses as singing was my strength. I didn’t have the money to fly to the UK for first-round auditions again, but Mountview was auditioning in Singapore.”
Ong had no inkling of the drama school’s reputation, but it was the only one she applied to that year and did not think she would get in. She did and found that in Mountview, people talked about the West End like every other person would end up there. Her course is vocational and acts like a springboard into the industry.
“There have been so many auditions that I’ve gone up for and seen people that I knew in Mountview either going for the audition or behind the piano. The dream felt real.”
Nerves and “baby mistakes” on opening night were part of easing into the production. What she wasn’t prepared for was the stamina of doing eight shows weekly.
Drama school is really good for skills, but they cannot simulate the sensation of doing that many performances a week, she says. “By the end of the first week, I found myself quite tired vocally and knew I had to fix something technically in my delivery. I tried a few things and ended up finding the trick, and I’ve been significantly less vocally spent since then!”
At the end of the day, acting is a job and actors are expected to deliver. “But it is so important to just breathe and remind yourself that you are enough and there’s a reason why you were cast in this show. Not going to lie though: Having an open and responsive audience makes the show better for everyone! So, next time you’re at a live show, give and you shall receive!”
She notices that people have really missed going to the theatre with the various lockdowns in the UK since March last year. The reopening of theatres is a breath of fresh air for a lot of them and they have jumped at chances to see shows.
Different West End venues are handling the pandemic differently. Be More Chill shut down for 10 days due to a Covid-19-related situation following UK government guidelines. “We’ve been all right since. The cast all test regularly to try and be as safe as we possibly can. We’re doing our best to keep the show safe and ensure that it goes out with a bang!”
Ong’s timetable is full. When she has down time, she plays Genshin Impact. “I’ve been watching a lot of food documentaries about different chefs. I just love the idea that someone’s life influences their cooking. I’ve personally tried to recreate some of my mum’s cooking, but it never tastes the same.”
This article first appeared on Sept 6, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.