Computer engineer-turned-actor Lieutenant (LTA) (NS) Erwin Shah Ismail shares his secrets on thriving in the theatre industry.
There is a perception in Singapore that you can't make a living from acting in theatre productions. But LTA (NS) Erwin believes this is fast changing and that theatre actors and actresses are just like any other business professionals.
He himself is a great example of someone who has carved out a successful career as a freelance actor by being able to perform in English, Malay and Mandarin.
In 2014, he performed in popular Chinese musical ????? (If There're Seasons). He also starred in Yusof, a Malay play about Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, as part of SG50 celebrations last year.
"An actor is no different from being an insurance or property agent because at the end of the day, if you want to earn more money, you've got to look for more jobs or clients," he said.
The 30-year-old, who picked up Mandarin in kindergarten, added: "I have to be more versatile. Being tri-lingual has helped me in a lot of ways... It's like a business; if you sell more products, you can get through to more customers."
LTA (NS) Erwin was the first male Singaporean to graduate with an honours degree in acting from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2011. Since then, he has performed on the local and international stage, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Peru and the United Kingdom.
Last year, he was part of the Dark Room x8 cast that won Best Ensemble at the Life! Theatre Awards. He was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2013 and 2015. LTA (NS) Erwin is also a TV actor and has starred in dramas on local channel Suria and the AXN TV network.
He is constantly learning new skills with each new performance. To date, his toughest gig was The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco, where he had to learn the flamenco.
"I'm not a dancer," he confessed. "Flamenco was extremely tough because you can't fake it. It is a dance form of another level - very passionate, sensual and egoistic."
But the actor thrives on challenges. He even sang, acted, danced and played the ukelele in children's theatre show The Ant and the Grasshopper in 2014.
"Here's the thing: whatever that's challenging makes it fun and scary. Any job that scares me is what excites me," said LTA (NS) Erwin.
When asked for advice to those who want to pursue acting as a career, he said: "It's tough. There will always be times where you have dry spells. In the first one-and-a-half year, I wasn't earning much. When I started, I did everything - beggars can't be choosers."
He acted in children's theatre, hosted events, did voiceover work, TV work, and even story-telling.
LTA (NS) Erwin studied computer network technology at Singapore Polytechnic and that was when he spent most of his free time doing amateur musical theatre shows for free.
He then enlisted for National Service, where he learnt to be a Basic Military Training instructor. The role allowed him to shape people's lives and, in the process, understand human emotions better. "When people look up to you, you have that sense of responsibility to give them guidance. I realised that contact, sincerity and openness (with people) helped in my training as an actor."
Now as an Operationally Ready National Serviceman (NSman), he serves as a situational test assessor. He brings recruits through a series of scenarios in the field, and judges their leadership potential.
"I can smell a wayang (colloquial Malay term for acting) recruit from a mile away," said LTA (NS) Erwin. "I'll know if you are honestly struggling, or just being lazy, or you're clearly the only team player here or stuff like that. I guess being an actor, I understand behaviour a lot better."
The Last Bull: A life in Flamenco was the most challenging performance to date for LTA (NS) Erwin (standing). To prepare for his role, he spent six months mastering the flamenco dance.
When asked, he declined to talk about his future goals because he prefers to "go with the flow". "I just want to recharge myself creatively, to learn more things and gain more skills. Who would have thought I could dance flamenco five years ago? But I was open to it - maybe this is the reason why I am where I am today."
LTA (NS) Erwin is now busy preparing for Pangdemonium's upcoming play Rent in October, where he plays multiple roles as part of the ensemble.