Fir Rahman in Prism: "Appreciate whatever you have and keep it, especially your heritage"
Fir Rahman opens up about starring in his first English language theatre production, Prism, and why the preservation of the Malay language is so important
Fir Rahman waits for me at the public atrium of the National Library, squeezing in 45 minutes for a chat before he goes back to rehearsals for Prism. Starring in his first English language theatre production, the 36-year-old dimple-faced, bookish-looking actor will take on the lead role in a restaging of Toy Factory's chief artistic director Goh Boon Teck's story. First staged in 2003 by a cross-country effort which roped in six countries, the bilingual theatre company's first show of the year will see the production readapted for a local cast. Helming the stage is Fir, a name that has already made headlines with a lead role in Boo Junfeng's Apprentice, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
From fighting a battle between his character's occupation and his father's past (Fir played a prison officer who strikes up a friendship with the hangman), the father-of-two now faces another conflict within his character as he struggles between progression and loss. In Prism, he plays Aman, an urban city development official whose work involves demolishing historical buildings for new ones. Fir's relationship with the role isn't too alien. Like every Singaporean, he's faced one or two losses when it comes to saying goodbye to buildings.
Both of the educational institutions he grew up in — Lee Kuo Chuan primary and Braddell-Westlake secondary — are no more. Another alma mater Temasek Polytechnic — where he studied intelligent building technology and encountered his first flush with theatre in a small production — is still standing, but he's conscious of the fact that some buildings don't last in Singapore.
"You don't have to care if you're the government of Singapore, because what is more important is redevelopment...more houses for the next generation," Fir laments, shrugging as we both start to reminisce. "Yes, they will compensate you. But it's not the same, its different. You don't get those kind of neighbours anymore. Before, you could walk into their flat and share their food, and you wouldn't have to ask. You don't know your neighbours now."
However, it's never too late to reclaim the community spirit. Sharing that his family will be moving into a new flat in Balestier by the end of the month, Fir already has plans to set things into motion. "I'll give them food and invite them in for a soccer match," he chuckles. Food and football? We're fishing around for an invite too.
How did you get into the theatre scene after winning Juara, the talent competition when you were 21 years old? I was enlisted into the army that same year. By 2005, I went back to theatre because I didn't know where else to go. I was close to the theatre community so I knocked on doors to ask for roles. I told them I could start from scratch and be a supporting actor — I didn't mind. Supporting roles then turned into lead roles.
Were your family and friends supportive of a career in the arts? My girlfriend back then said that I couldn't make it. Her mother said, "No, if you're with my daughter, you can't do this". So I got a full-time job in Sentosa as a performer in Songs of the Sea, the nightly attraction show. I supervised the actors and worked with them for about four years, doing television and theatre on my days off.
Who were your idols or mentors back then? Atin Amat of Teater Kami opened up doors for me. He gave me meaty roles that I couldn't get on television. I also look up to Rafaat Hamzah and Sani Hussein. I'll be acting with Sani in April for Esplanade's The Studios. Were you allowed to watch the 2003 production of Prism to prep for rehearsals? No. It's a good thing. Rei Poh told us not to, because you tend to follow your character's movement and development. It's not the first time I've done a show that's been restaged, and it's better that we don't watch so we can form our own interpretation. You mentioned that since the release of Apprentice, more doors have been opened. Was Prism one such opportunity? I didn't have to audition for it. I received an email by Toy Factory asking if they could engage me, and was given the synopsis.
Why do you think they picked you for the lead role of Aiman? Maybe they saw Aman (the lead character in Apprentice) in Aiman. They both had conflicts, one with urban city development and another with the prison. For me, there's quite a difference between Aman and Aiman. For Aman, the conflicts are between his job, responsibility and beliefs. For Aiman, it was more personal, something between himself, his father and his past.
Prism is your first English language theatre production. What's been your biggest challenge so far? I'm not a lit person. Most of Boon Teck's script is very poetic and it took me a while. Rei's way of directing is not as simple. Some directors tell you to read the line and go from position A to B. For him, he asks, "Why do you walk from position A to B? What is the motivation of your character?" I've never done these kind of rehearsals.
Having done film, television and theatre, which do you prefer? Theatre, hands down. Daily rehearsals make you better and make you search for your character. You can tell the director that you can try to do something different tomorrow, and whether to keep that or not. For television and film, you don't have that much time for rehearsals. On stage, there are about 1,000 people watching and you're there with your sparring partner, making it alive. Making it believable, because the audience doesn't know your lines.
What are your own personal views on Singapore and how the government preserves and lets go of things? I'm totally for redevelopment. I mean, it's for our future and our children. But at the same time, I'd love to have my school and previous homes — which have been demolished —preserved. If there are still there, I could go back and walk around the Toa Payoh neighbourhood, just to reminisce. So there's a conflict.
How do you think officials can find that balance, and redevelop or improve something without compromising on nostalgia? I don't know. I don't think they can. Either they do it and then lose the other. These memories we have that we can only see through photos...when we go to those places, they're not there. It's sad.
What else do you think should be preserved in Singapore? Traditional Malay food, especially the kuih-muih (traditional cakes and sweets). We don't get to see traditional food served anymore. Kids these days don't even know the names of the kuih-muih. They know the ondeh-ondeh cupcake, but not the ondeh-ondeh! They should also preserve older playgrounds, like the dragon-shaped one in Toa Payoh.
As a Malay, what do you think is your responsibility as a minority in the arts? I'd love to preserve our Malay language. We should showcase more syair, sajak (poems) and gurindam (couplets).
What steps can be done to preserve that? Bulan Bahasa (a month-long celebration of Malay language, culture, heritage and arts) should be done more than once a year, with more pop-up shows. Our teachers play a part in school and education is important. Back when I was in primary and secondary school, I wasn't into Malay language and literature. Now that I'm in the arts, I'm starting to appreciate the Malay language. I'm teaching my son and daughter the Malay language, while my wife teaches them English.
Lastly, what do you think audiences can learn from watching Prism? To appreciate what they're having right now. Maybe in five or 10 years down the road, they might not have it anymore. Whether it's where they live, the food or the clothes they're wearing — all these aspects are being touched in Prism. Appreciate whatever you have and keep it, especially your heritage.
Prism runs from 23 February to 5 March at Drama Centre Theatre, National Library. For tickets, click here.