Siti Khalijah Zainal did not train as an actor. But that hasn’t stopped her from becoming one of the most well-known names on the Singapore stage.
A versatile actress, Siti K, as she’s known, has been nominated several times for her work in well-received plays like Gemuk Girls, How Did the Cat Get So Fat, Nadirah, and Off Centre. She’s twice won Best Actress at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards – in 2011 and 2016 – and was awarded the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council in 2014. She’s also flown the Singapore flag at arts festivals and performances in Malaysia, Australia, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
But her success was hard-won.
Siti fell in love with acting after performing in a stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a student at the Institute of Technical Education. While pursuing qualifications in building and drafting, she managed to secure a scholarship to train under The Necessary Stage’s Theatre for Youth Ensemble programme.
For a year, she juggled studies with theatre training – going for classes after school two to three times a week. Yet, coming from a modest background, her parents weren’t keen for their youngest daughter to pursue theatre as a career. “I won’t ask you for money, I will just find my way,” Siti recalls telling them. They agreed to give her a year to see if she could make a living from it.
During that time, Siti said yes to any theatre jobs that came her way – including crew work like wardrobe styling and front-of-house – so that she could pay her bills while auditioning for everything she could, even children’s productions and school shows. By the end of that year, she was making enough money to support her parents.
For Siti, the transformative element of theatre is what keeps her coming back for more. “I’ve always been a big girl, and I wondered if my size would limit my ability to play certain characters,” she says.
But advice from a mentor – acclaimed playwright, director and actress Aidli Mosbit – made her think otherwise. “She was the one who told me, ‘Darling, I may look like this, but I can play the role of a nine-year-old girl’. It made me realise that’s why I do theatre,” she added.
But more importantly, theatre allows Siti the opportunity to explore social issues that matter to her – like those concerning mental health and marginalised communities. “Through my voice, I represent people who are the socalled underprivileged… to be able to give other people a voice is a very important role,” she says.
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