S'porean actress Selena Tan gave up law career for comedy, sets up theatre company

She spent four years as a lawyer by day and a performer by night.

Fasiha Nazren | December 03, 2021, 02:03 PM

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Growing up, I'd watch Singaporean actress and comedienne Selena Tan in sitcoms like "Under One Roof", "Daddy's Girls", and "Living with Lydia".

Theatre junkies would remember her from "Into The Woods" and of course, "Dim Sum Dollies".

Photo from Dream Academy's website.

This is why it was an interesting experience, almost surreal even, to meet the more resolute side of Tan as the founder of Dream Academy, a theatre production company in Singapore.

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A post shared by Selena Tan (@bigdimsumdolly)

One of the least funny person she knows

And it is even more amusing to me that the woman who has made many people laugh, both on stage and on screens, thinks she's "one of the least funny people around."

"I enjoy, I understand and I appreciate good humour. I like the medium. As to whether I am whether I'm one of those [people that can] naturally crack a joke — because I know many people who are really naturally funny and can tell you an anecdote and make you laugh — I don't think I'm like that."

Despite this, she chose to be in the business of creating laughter instead of continuing her career as a litigation lawyer.

Choosing laughter over law

In another life, Tan spent four years practising law by day and practising her lines for the theatre by night.

Eventually, juggling both passions took a toll on her, and so in 1998, she bit the bullet and decided to make performing her full-time career.

On why she made that choice, she said:

"I started performing at a very young age. By the time I was qualified as a lawyer, I was getting better at my craft in performing. Meanwhile, for lawyering, I was at an infant stage... Kind of just starting out. I just thought that while I was young, I would give it a go and the law degree is something I could fall back on."

But she has never really forgotten her lawyer roots.

Literally studied comedy

What many people don't know is that doing comedy can be a lot like studying for an exam, which was how Tan delved into the world of stand-up comedy.

When the thespian was given a chance to try out stand-up comedy for the first time sometime between 1996 and 1997, she dove straight into a pool of books.

"I basically did what I would have done in law school, which was just to study my way through it. I took down notes, read the examples and did the exercises... So I guess I've never left the legal background, I am more cerebral in that sense," she explained.

Founded Dream Academy with savings

And as much as it was terrifying, it was an exhilarating experience for her too.

She said: "[Stand-up comedy] allows you a chance to present your point of view in a way that is so palatable to an audience that will cause laughter, allows you to really connect and really reach out to people."

Soon, she found herself doing stand-up comedy to a wide variety of audience, including medical professionals, teachers and even newly-weds.

In a bid to create more opportunities and produce her own work, Tan founded Dream Academy in 2000, with S$13,000 of her own savings.

Now, the company is home to a series of theatre works, such as "Broadway Beng", "Meenah and Cheenah", "Dim Sum Dollies" and stand-up comedy series "Happy Ever Laughter".

"Happy Ever Laughter" back since 2018

Unfortunately, as the entire world would know it, Covid-19 affected a lot of industries and livelihoods. The theatre scene is one of them.

The fifth edition of "Happy Every Laughter", a biannual stand-up comedy show, was supposed to take place in 2020, but was indefinitely postponed because of the pandemic.

Thankfully, the show has finally returned, just a couple months shy of 2022.

Speaking of Covid-19, this year's edition is aptly titled "Happy Ever Laughter - The Multi Comedian Task Force", and is running from now till Dec. 18.

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A post shared by Dream Academy (@dreamacademysg)

The live show will showcase a panel of nine comedians, including Rishi Budhrani, Sharul Channa, Judee Tan, and Fakkah Fuzz.

What inspired the show's title, you ask?

"I just watch a lot of press conferences," Tan said before bursting into uproarious laughter.

No short supply of comedians

When asked what it feels like to have the show up and running again, Tan heaved a sigh of relief and said that it has been "wonderful".

Since its inception in 2012, it goes without saying that Tan, as the showrunner, has immense pride in the show.

"When we first started our very first 'Happy Ever Laughter', when I looked at the stand-up comedy industry and the actors involved, the question was: can we find so many stand-up comedians in Singapore?

Now, with the last show and this one, I'm like: 'Oh god, I've got too many. Who do I leave out and who do I leave out?'

So clearly, the stand-up comedy industry has blossomed and it's a wonderful thing!"

Tan also would like to think that "Happy Ever Laughter" has, and will, continue to be a "bigger arena" that helps the audience to see the local comedic talents and in turn, will go on to follow the individual comedians.

"It feels great that we have reached a stage where I can say that there are too many funny people," she said.

And what are her favourite acts this year?

After giving it some thought, she gave quite a politically correct response: "Every time one comes for the rehearsal, I'll go 'Oh, this is my favourite act' and then the next one comes to rehearse, I'll be like 'I change my mind, this is now my favourite act."

She did add that Sebastian Tan as the Broadway Beng is a "crowd favourite", while Suhaimi Yusof just "throws himself" into his craft and then there's Gurmit Singh, who is a "natural" on stage.

Tan didn't forget to highlight two new faces to the "Happy Ever Laughter" line-up, Hafidz Rahman and Jinx Yeo, that she guaranteed are hilarious acts.

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A post shared by Dream Academy (@dreamacademysg)

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A post shared by Dream Academy (@dreamacademysg)

What's next?

What's next for Tan, once she's done with this year's run of the stand-up comedy series?

"Don't know, we are all waiting. We'll see what's in store for me," she replied.

But in all seriousness, you'll probably catch a glimpse of her in the cinemas next year in "Shotgun Wedding" which stars Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel.

Yes, the J. Lo.

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A post shared by Selena Tan (@bigdimsumdolly)

This is not Tan's first foray into Hollywood—she was also in "Crazy Rich Asians" as lead Nick Young's aunt.

Stressing that she has "very little to do" in "Shotgun Wedding", Tan modestly said,

"I really enjoyed just watching the rest do their work. I thought J. Lo was incredible as an actor. She came fully prepared, they all did. They rocked and the cameras loved them."

"Happy Ever Laughter - The Multi Comedian Task Force" runs till Dec. 18, 2021. Book your tickets here.

Top image from Selena Tan's Facebook page.

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