From performing with the oldest acappella group in town to taking on some of the stage’s most essential literature, Nicole-Ann Thomas is a triple threat as well as Theatrethreesixty’s dark horse this season.
Nicole-Ann has no tolerance for bullshit. Known as the most-feared of instructors at Theatrethreesixty‘s intensive Actor’s Gym program, Nicole-Ann carries a two-metre long stick with her during lessons.
Spare the rod and spoil the actor; mess up one time too many or fail to take her theatrical biomechanics session seriously and students will inevitably get hit.
But away from the classroom, the unapologetic actor, singer and choreographer extraordinaire is really just a serious performer who wants to see things done properly on the stage.
Reminded of her years in the business, she bursts out in a rare laugh.
“You don’t realise you’ve been doing it for so long until you look at your own CV,” she states, before sounding stern. “But remember that experience counts for nothing; you’re only as as good as your last show.”
Her last show, a compilation of four short plays by Samuel Beckett titled Bare Beckett, was particularly well-received. Ticket sales were solid, with at least three out of five performances packed.
Starring Tria Aziz, Anitha Abdul Hamid, Alvin Looi, Grace Ng and Christopher Ling, the play ended its run seven days ago.
Nicole-Ann however is no stranger to success.
In 2010, the Oral Stage‘s Metamorphosis garnered strong positive response from audiences as well as critics. Helmed by Christopher Jacobs, the staging of Steven Berkoff‘s adaptation of the Franz Kafka classic saw Nicole-Ann serve as producer.
“That was my last time doing anything like that — we had absolutely no sponsors,” she shudders from memory. “But in the end, there were full houses and people who came were like what the fuck.”
But to put things in perspective, one must first go back to the early nineties, before internet was a thing and Nicole-Ann was almost finished with adolescence.
They say you were something in those formative years…
Due to her success in talentime and choral singing at school, a then-young Nicole-Ann hoped to pursue a degree in the performing arts once she completes her secondary education.
Unfortunately, her traditionalist parents had determined she was going to grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant.
“They told me, you can talk very well, go and do law. But I knew that I would kill the judge if ever he made a poor verdict,” Nicole-Ann ruminates matter-of-factly. “I can’t even imagine what I would do if they let in some rapist… I would probably kill him then and there itself too.”
“Needless to say, I would have made a bad lawyer.”
She eventually sat through her A-Levels with intention to pursue a law degree, although this was soon altered by a twist of fate: a sudden offer from the Taylor’s Foundation made her parents lean towards medicine instead, as a scientific background was not yet prerequisite for medical studies.
Nicole-Ann however clearly remembers the torture of sitting through physics.
“I literally wanted to take my physics teacher and throw him out the window,” she exclaimed furiously, “I didn’t give a fuck on how A got to B — it walked.”
But out of sheer will, she found work in production houses and attended performing workshops to hone her skills in her spare time.
By 1994, she was inducted into The Philharmonic Society of Selangor (commonly known as “The Phil”), a long-running ensemble first established in 1958.
Her exposure to the performing arts knowledge grew exponentially from this point: courses with acclaimed contemporary dance entities such as Mew Chang Tsing (who Nicole-Ann learned from for at least seven years), while an encounter with theatre company Repertory 21 (founded by Christopher Ling and Llewellyn Marsh) led to her very first theatre experience.
At the same time, Nicole-Ann was also a core member of local acappella group six2eight.
“During that time, acappella was hot! From 1995 to 2000, we were very laku,” she recalls. “We performed almost every week. From corporate show; from corporate shows to weddings, there were at least three shows for us each month.”
Currently the longest-running Malaysian acappella group ever, six2eight made a comeback last November with a three-night stint at Theatre Lounge Cafe. Despite initial worry that there was no longer interest in the group, tickets flew off the shelves.
But desiring greater challenge and more complexity in their repertoire, Nicole-Ann later founded Fancy Poultry with friend Vivian Lessler. Not strictly an acappella group, Fancy Poultry sometimes combines acappella techniques with live musicians for a truly-unique auditory experience.
You live, you learn!
The biggest turning point in Nicole-Ann’s artistry arrived when she met director Christopher Jacobs for the first time while auditioning for a staged reading of Moliere‘s Tartuffe. The reading was meant to preempt a full-length staging of Tartuffe which eventually arrived in a critically-acclaimed 2005 production starring Terence Swampillai and Anne James.
“Chris was in the process of establishing an ensemble to keep and train,” explains Nicole. “It was basically a chance to learn regularly and for us actors to just do it. I jumped at the opportunity!”
Soon enough, Chris managed to round up talents like Lim Kien Lee, Sabera Shaik and Lim Soon Heng among others, and the newly-formed collective called themselves the KL Ensemble.
“Chris was the type who was willing to put you in a role you’ve never been in as he was against typecasting. His shows were not just light entertainment; he constantly pushed boundaries.”
We aim to create good theatre – works of art that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Most of all, a tour de force complete with that “Total Theatre Experience” that will stay with the audience, long after the curtains are drawn. Led by Christopher Jacobs as artistic director, the KL Ensemble is based on a vocation that is steeped in the Grotowski principles of being an actor and Meyerhold‘s training technique. We also borrow teachings from acting Gurus throughout history, the likes of Stanislavsky, Chekov and Meisner. Our training aims to equip an actor to be totally in sync with his body and mind, culminating in a performance that can successfully create an independent reality on stage. We continuously raise the bar in everything we do. And by that token, we are more than just a company of actors, aspiring and otherwise. We are also developing ourselves into writers, directors, producers and technical crew. What brings us, and keeps us, together? Our passion for theatre.
— Manifesto, KL Ensemble (2005 – 2008)
The ensemble began practicing three times a week — two nights on weekdays and once during the weekend — and soon set up a studio in Taman Desa. Each member had to be fully-committed, as all of them were responsible for paying rent and even finding ways to monetize the space.
Here was where Nicole-Ann scored her precious theatrical biomechanics knowledge which she would drill into her future students.
During the two and a half years it lasted, KL Ensemble also staged some important productions around town. They tackled Alan Bennett‘s Habeas Corpus in 2006 and put together eight short plays by Samuel Beckett in 2007’s Bucketful of Beckett.
Sabera, who produced most of their shows, was already running Masakini Theatre then. Notably, she managed to form a special collaboration with the ensemble to stage August Strindberg‘s two-woman play The Stronger, directed by Christopher Jacobs and sponsored by HSBC.
“It was a two-hander consisting of a speaking and a non-speaking role,” reminisces Nicole-Ann. “We did four shows during the run and alternated our roles so both of me and Kay Chin got to experience what it was like for the other.”
After the KL Ensemble folded, Nicole-Ann struck out on her own as a freelance performer. Big breaks arrived in 2009 in the form of a Best Director Award at Masakini’s second annual 24-Hour Theatre Challenge (in which she directed Uzair Ibrahim Lu’s Menara Panjang Umur) as well as the lead role in the Oral Stage’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.
Playing Mrs. Rosepettle, Nicole-Ann garnered positive reviews for her work, particularly in performing arts advocate Arteri which only had praise for her.
The following year saw her producing Metamorphosis, while in 2011 she played the titular character in the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC)‘s Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Fast forward to 2014 and she’s part of Theatrethreesixty, creating the stellar Pack/Unpack with fellow collaborators Ostella Adam and Alex Chua. It would take another two years before she returned to directing with this year’s Bare Beckett.
Founded by 2009 National Arts Award recipient Christopher Ling, Nandang Abdul Rahman, Alex Chua and Nicole-Ann herself, the theatre company is currently in its third year, having concluded their 2016 season with great success.
Given this incredible trajectory through the performing arts, it seems only natural that Nicole-Ann chose to revisit Beckett for We Are Theatrethreesixty 2016‘s headliner.
Once, she was May, pacing back and forth to her mother’s voice (then performed by Sabera Shaik). Now, she’s in front of the stage with a long stick in her hand, just in case actor Grace Ng doesn’t figure out the right walk for Footfalls.
But through it all, what does Nicole-Ann think of her brand as a woman, entertainer and educator in Malaysia’s performing arts scene?
“I’m best known for being a biatch,” she states, before breaking out in a cackle.
We don’t dare disagree.
Find out more about Nicole-Ann Thomas from our own archives, we’ve got more of her from Bare Beckett! Photos sourced from The Philharmonic Society of Selangor, Janet Lee, Rodney Thomas and the KL DAW.