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Interview: Ivan Heng of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at W!LD RICE

In my previous article, I mentioned the key elements that make the Singapore production of La Cage vastly different from what was staged on Broadway and the West End.

I managed to interview Ivan Heng, who plays Albin/Zaza, the matriarch of the family and find out some of his thoughts with regards to the LGBT scene in Singapore, and how theatre can challenge the current conservative views that currently shape the country, and create an open dialogue about people that living amongst us.

It is your final chance to catch La Cage Aux Folles this Sunday, May 13 at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets available on SISTIC.

W!LD RICE previously staged La Cage in 2012. What differences can audiences expect in this 2017 production?

Ivan: They can expect a completely different show! We've been treating La Cage like a show we've never done before. During rehearsals, we approached the script with fresh eyes, going through every line to find new meaning and adding a little local flavour along the way. We also designed the entire production from scratch, which means we've been wowing audiences with brand-new sets and costumes by some of the best designers in the business.

La Cage is also playing at the Victoria Theatre this time, which is a far more intimate venue than the Esplanade. I think it's perfect for this show: it's grand enough to allow for spectacle, but there's an intimacy, too, that really brings audiences into the show's cabaret setting.

Of course, a few things remain the same - like four members of the main cast, including myself, Hossan Leong, Aaron Khaled and Darius Tan. But the rest of the company is new, and that totally changes the dynamics and chemistry between all the actors and characters.

What does W!LD RICE hope to achieve in re-staging La Cage in Singapore?

Ivan: The message of La Cage is more timely than ever today. We're living in a world where conservatism is on the rise - from America to Europe and here, in Singapore, too. People are finding it hard to accept the 'other': those who are different, or who don't conform to societal expectations or norms.

So I think it's a pretty big deal that, with every performance, La Cage celebrates love, diversity and being true to yourself. Beneath the glitz and glamour of La Cage, there's a fierce, beating heart, and we want our audiences to really feel that. As George, the love of my life in La Cage, says, ""If we've done our job correctly, you will leave with more than a torn ticket stub and a folded programme".

I understand that this production of La Cage is set in Singapore. How does bringing in that element change the tone and expectations of the show?

Ivan: We've worked really hard to re-locate the show from St Tropez to Tanjong Pagar. While remaining faithful to the heart and soul of La Cage, we've added a few local touches to bring the show closer to home. I think that has allowed our audiences to forge a more immediate and emotional connection with the story and characters. Suddenly, it's not so foreign or unfamiliar. They feel that this is something that could happen to them, or someone they know and love. I get a real kick out of listening to our audiences cheer and laugh at some of the more local jokes!

Do you think that drag is being more widely accepted in Singapore, especially with the success of shows like Rupaul's Drag Race? What are the common misconceptions and incorrect stereotypes of drag that Singaporeans have?

Ivan: Whilst drag has always existed on the periphery in Singapore, let's not forget that we had Bugis Street in the '70s, and it was world-famous. Singapore was also the top regional destination in innovating and providing sex-change operations as well, at the time. But, over the past 50 years, Singapore has grown a great deal more conservative, and we've started to forget some of the more colourful aspects of our heritage and history.

That said, the misconceptions and stereotypes that Singaporeans have about drag are no different from anywhere in the world.

La Cage explores the themes of acceptance and family values. How does that translate to how Singapore views the LGBT community and the ideas of traditional families?

Ivan: I think staging a show like La Cage matters greatly for our LGBT community, and helps change hearts and minds about just what constitutes a family. Things have improved gradually in the past few years - cinemas here screen movies like Moonlight now, for instance. But there are still very few positive portrayals of gay people in the local media. La Cage portrays a loving, albeit unconventional, family. This is a family that fights to stay together, in spite of society's prejudices. It's empowering for the LGBT community to see that, I think. And proof that, above all, love wins!

As a happily married gay man, any words of wisdom to the younger LGBTQ community on how to navigate the conservative Singapore waters?

Ivan: The most important thing is to find your own path - to be true to yourself. Yes, I'm a happily married gay man, but I don't advocate marriage for everybody. In La Cage, George and Albin stay together because they want to be together - not because they're bound by the institution of marriage. Different strokes for different folks.

There are still so many risks to coming out in a conservative society like ours, and I don't think suggesting one way of doing things will work for everybody. I do believe, however, that you can only be happy if you are true to yourself. So taking that first step - of coming out to yourself - that's something I hope every young LGBT person can feel safe doing.

We are fortunate to have a more active, visible LGBT community today than there has ever been. These days, LGBT youth can avail themselves of support groups and counselling services like Oogachaga. And we have Pink Dot now - an annual celebration of diversity and tolerance that has created a movement around the world that fights for the freedom to love.

I trust that the space for our community in Singapore will continue to grow, and that we will eventually have equality and freedom, even as the world begins to recognise that LGBT rights are human rights.

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