‘I always found the theatre to be very embracing of differences’
It’s 8pm on a Thursday night, and Denise Tan is tired after a long day. She spent the morning and early afternoon hosting Lunchtime Jukebox on Gold 90.5, and rushed over to rehearse for the Dim Sum Dollies’ comeback show straight after that. Comfortably curled up on a sofa at the Dream Academy HQ, however, her bubbly energy immediately resurfaces once we ask how rehearsals were going.
‘We’re doing choreography right now! I love choreo!’ she gushes. ‘I’ve always loved dancing. It’s fun and it burns calories, so what’s not to love?’ Denise had already been practising with the two original members of the Dollies – Selena Tan and Pam Oei – for a few weeks before we met, and most of the show had already been created. ‘Selena is sort of the Mama Dolly, so she came up with the main concept,’ Denise explains. ‘But it’s very much a collaborative process.’
The most recent full Dollies show in 2007 – The History of Singapore Part 1 – took us from the birth of Singapura all the way to 1965, and as we approach our city-state’s 50th birthday next year, it’s only apt that the Dollies now take a look back at how far we’ve come since 1965 in, well, The History of Singapore Part 2.
‘The story pretty much wrote itself as it’s based on facts. But while I don’t want to give away too much, let’s just say it won’t be anything like what you’ll get in your history textbook,’ Denise grins. ‘I’ll give you a hint, though. We’ll be making references to all the government campaigns held throughout the years while dressed as various local fruits, chickens, schoolgirls, mermaids and other characters.’ In fact, there will be so many costume changes that Denise even jokes that ‘the real show is actually happening backstage’.
The production also officially marks a new chapter for the Dollies, as it’s the first complete show they’ve staged since their third original member, beloved actress Emma Yong, tragically lost her battle with cancer in 2012. Denise has succeeded her and made several appearances with the group since then, including last year’s edition of Crazy Christmas, stepping into the big shoes Yong left behind with grace and the same wicked sense of humour.
‘I guess it’s kind of a big deal, but it’s also not,’ she says, referring to the upcoming show that will solidify her status as the newest addition to the Dim Sum menu. ‘We want to carry on Emma’s legacy. She had insisted that the show should go on.’ She adds that while she does feel a bit of the pressure, it’s not the first time that she’s shared the stage with Selena and Oei. ‘We’re all friends. I’ve worked with both of them since I started out in the late 1990s.’
Of course, things were very different when she first hit the scene. She made her professional debut as a member of the ensemble in the 1998 restaging of Beauty World – where Yong starred in the lead role of Ivy Chan – getting paid just $300 for three months’ work. ‘Pretty much no one in the cast was a full-time actor back then, so rehearsals would only start at 5 or 6pm, after everyone was done with their day jobs. And there was no welfare system in place for the actors. There’s no way the companies would even provide you with tea or biscuits,’ she laughs, gesturing towards a cupboard filled with snacks and drinks at the Dream Academy studio. ‘If you want biscuits, you bring your own! The kids coming out from the arts schools these days have it much better. That said, I loved it. I always found the theatre to be very embracing of differences. I used to be short and round, but I never felt out of place.’
Having experienced the tougher days of yesteryear has made Denise a tough cookie, and she now has little trouble switching between her various roles. It does, however, explain her fatigue. ‘It’s a bit better now. When we first started rehearsals, I was filming for a TV show and doing radio and rehearsing here every day,’ she says, almost in disbelief. ‘Thankfully, the filming’s done now. They say curiosity killed the cat, and I can tell you curiosity definitely almost killed this cat!’
Denise is unlikely to take a breather for the remainder of this year, though, as the Dollies’ show will be running until mid- December, and they’ll also be taking part in MediaCorp’s New Year’s Eve concert.
‘Maybe next year, I’ll go on a holiday. Maybe,’ she hesitates. ‘I’m not really a beach kinda person, but maybe I’ll go to a mountain, get some peace. And just sleep.’