Conversations with Kamil Haque

By Sherry Tan and Jejhar Singh

Kamil Haque is the Founder and Artistic Director at Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity (HCAC). Prior to founding his own professional acting studio, he taught acting in multiple institutions in Los Angeles and Singapore including The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, Los Angeles. In this interview, Kamil sheds light on the path he has taken in theatre, and the oft-misunderstood parts of his profession.

I run my own business and the peak hours are typically at night. Workshops are typically from 7pm to 10 or 11pm. Even though workshops end late, I often will stay later until the students want to leave. Sometimes, we stay until 1am or 2am. I’ll stay until they feel like they want to go home, because I know it’s a major sacrifice for them to even be there, and I don’t live too far away, so the least I can do is be there for them. 

Typically, when I get back home, I need some time to decompress before I get to bed. Maybe about 2am or 3am, which means my day usually starts later than the average person. The only time I start at the same time as an average corporate warrior is when I’m facilitating a corporate training in the morning at banks or tech companies. Otherwise, my afternoons are spent going through emails and administrative things, maybe one-on-one private coaching in my studio, or a team catch-up session with my colleagues. 

However, during this circuit breaker, I feel like I’m working more than I normally do because I’m spending more time transcribing my usual workshops into online workshops and also coaching people. Because of the lack of a shared resonance being in the same room, it takes more time to coach someone. If let’s say we are all in one room, if I give one of my students an instruction, the atmosphere in the room changes and you can feel it—it just doesn’t fully translate when you’re online. This means I have to spend more one-on-one time with people to at least simulate that atmosphere.

Well there are several misconceptions. Some think that acting is about pretending and lying which could not be further from the truth. Acting is all about telling the truth and behaving truthfully. Another one is that some think, “Acting’s not for me, I could never do it,” and they don’t realise we are acting on a daily basis. Acting is one of the greatest social lubricants in the world. I think one of the big misconceptions about acting, even within the industry itself, is that you have to hurt yourself or to a degree, suffer for your art. I think the word “suffer” in and of itself is a controversial word because I think there is a healthy and appropriate amount of suffering, and there is an unhealthy and inappropriate amount of suffering. 

Within the business of acting, I think the big misconception is the idea of the struggling artist. I think a lot of that has to do with the lack of appropriate training provided to people and beyond that, the lack of awareness and skills to navigate the business of show business. For a typical three-or-four-year-long conservatory or theatre studies programme, you might spend 12 or 15 weeks on the business of show business. What happens is you assume, “Yeah, I have all of the techniques I need!” but when you actually go out there, you think, “Oh no, how do I use what I’ve learnt?”. “How do I create a sustainable and commercially viable career for myself?”. Some don’t realise it is a business. 

The last misconception is that if there were no COVID-19 pandemic, some would assume that the arts are not essential and yet, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the television and Netflix shows that we watch, what do you think that these are? These are art and art is essential in normal times and more so now when people find it hard to cope. Art has been and will always be an essential good.

My parents brought me to watch ‘Dead Poets Society’ when I was seven years old at Orchard Cinema, which is now Cineleisure. I had never seen a film like that before in my life. I remember when we were done with the film and were driving home, I began asking them questions about the traumatic, certainly for a seven-year-old, traumatic events in the film.

My dad jammed the brakes and both my parents turned to the back seat, thinking they brought home the wrong child, because I clearly should not have been asking the questions I asked as a seven-year-old. In that moment, I felt an immense amount of curiosity and interest and attention from them that I had never really received. I loved that my provocation had created a new form of engagement. I thought to myself that if talking about acting and seeing this film are what got their attention, acting was what I wanted to do. 

I didn’t realise until much later on, fourteen years on to be exact, when I was twenty-one, when I had a conversation with a childhood mentor of mine that it wasn’t just the acting that gravitated me toward that film and moved me on such a deep level, it was also the character that Robin Williams played in this film—a very inspirational teacher. He shifted minds, bodies, hearts and souls, and that stuck with me. That was probably what I was most attached to.

During the circuit breaker, I have begun to realise another aspect of how it is rewarding for others. Pre-COVID-19, what was the most rewarding aspect for me was what I term the “lightbulb moment”—when I share, adjust or teach something, and then people just get it, literally like a lightbulb goes off. I can’t describe it other than there is a twinkle in their eyes, and something shifts in their mind, heart and soul. 

For the people who I work with in this new COVID-19 scenario, I’ve learnt by doing some of these online classes that especially in Singapore, most people don’t live by themselves. Most people don’t have a quiet and safe space to perform and express themselves. I literally have students who have to turn the video off because they don’t wish to let their parents or spouses know they are involved in acting classes. I poked a little further and realised that people really treasure the safety of a space where they can really just be themselves.

If I could sum it up in one sentence, it is: Attitude over talent. I think talent is a bit of a conspiracy. There are people who will tell you, “Oh I am talented, you are not,” and I think that is nonsense. I think that talent boils down to smart and hard work. I think anybody with a great attitude is able to learn anything. Attitude extends to having an open mind and an open heart, and the willingness of the body to try and experiment. Acting is a craft which requires far more discipline than people think. I think it requires a level of intellectual intelligence, and a spiritual and physical sensing of what to play. 

In my opinion, there are so many things that one needs to be a good actor—being able to not be afraid of silence, be a good listener, be honest, be unafraid to make mistakes, knowing how to make strong, consistent and justified choices, having respect for themselves and others, being curious about themselves and the world around them. Someone who is unafraid to be the voice of the voiceless. Someone who has a level of emotional, physical and spiritual maturity. Someone who has a vision of what they are trying to do. Someone who is willing to engage themselves and others. Someone who has passion coming out of every quarter of their being.

Method acting appeals to me so much because it was through learning about acting that I really learnt about myself. It was when I really started to come into my own being and develop my own voice personally and professionally. I was fortunate to go to Los Angeles in 2005 where I studied the art and craft of method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute on a scholarship. I also got an opportunity to teach there for 6 years upon graduating and then came back to open my own studio. It is a tried and tested means of training an actor. When I say tried and tested, I mean it produces the kind of actors we associate with success. Not just one-off success, but sustainable success over the span of years. Names you associate with really, really solid craft of acting, they are all method actors. 

However, method acting is unfortunately a very misunderstood term. People think it is a technique or style of acting. This could not be further from the truth. Method acting is an umbrella term for different methodologies of actor preparation, even though the term ‘method acting’ is also most synonymous with Lee Strasberg. Method acting is not a technique. It is a methodical way of preparing an actor to immerse themselves physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically into being as truthful as they can under imaginary circumstances. Just the very idea of method acting as a means to eliminate nonsense and to propagate truthfulness and authenticity appeals so much to me.

Oh, one hundred percent! If it doesn’t, I should be ashamed of myself because my job at the end of the day is to put a mirror up to society, to speak on behalf of people, to be aware of what is going on in the world around me, observe it, analyse it, and be a vessel to interpret what is going on around me, whether it’s on television, in theatre or film. If I am unaware of the world, then I am not really aware of myself.

Firstly, I’ve never worked in a corporate environment. Before opening my studio, I had only ever been someone’s employee. Only by sitting down with the administrative staff in where I used to work did I understand a little bit of what they did. I have never been to business school or studied accounting.  I don’t know business administration. So, in starting my own business, a lot of it has been trial and error—learning from failure and learning how to adapt. Sometimes I’m good at it and sometimes I’m not. 

The other obstacle I’ve faced is being the first professional acting studio in this country. I am metaphorically banging my head against a wall to try to chart a path no one else has charted before, in a culture that may not think arts is essential, and yet, I’m saying, “Yes, we have a place, we have a seat at the table.” Furthermore, I am trying to find a way to make it sustainable, and I also specifically propagate method acting which has been severely misunderstood and criticised by many people mainly due to fear and ignorance. 

Another big obstacle I’ve had to overcome is my own fear of failure because this is something I’ve wanted to do since I was seven. I am going to be 38 this year, so it has been a 30-year-old dream. When I started HCAC, I was 30, so that’s 23 years of harvesting, manifesting and working towards building my own studio. If you ask anyone if they would like their dreams to come true, who wouldn’t? I am very fortunate and I am aware that I am in the very small minority of people who has been able to see their dreams come to life. 

The problem with that is once you have achieved your dream, no one tells you how to sustain your dream and what comes next. Now that I have brought my dream to life, I have also realised that in Los Angeles, I had people who I could look up to—mentors, people who could answer my questions, people who have seen it all and done it all. Here, because I am charting the path by myself, I have to have the answers all the time and I don’t. I genuinely don’t most of the time. I don’t have people I can immediately call, email or speak to for advice, and this has been a huge challenge.

If we are talking about whether Singapore provides enough outlets and platforms for the arts, then yes, because we have lots of arts events. Do I think that we have done enough to educate our audiences to aspire to more than what we’ve been given on our national broadcasting channels? I don’t think we have done enough.

Are we doing enough for youth who want to make their own art? Absolutely not. There are an increasing number of youth theatre companies and youth art companies that maybe have enough energy, mentorship and finances to do one or two projects. It’s too expensive in this country to sustain art over a long period of time. It is a difficult process to fill up the forms to try and get support from various organising bodies. 

Mentorship isn’t readily available at a moment’s notice, which is why bodies like Advisory are so important because they say, “We are here to help you if you need help.” I don’t see enough of that in the arts community. Maybe I am insular and just don’t know that there are people in the arts community with a regular string of mentees, I’ll be the first person to take ownership of my own ignorance. I just don’t see enough of it. I wish that there was more and that people knew of them. I wish that there was more outreach to people, including adults and senior citizens, and not just for festivals or commissioned projects, but on a consistent, affordable, 365, 24/7 basis. We are not doing enough.

I wish that we inculcated a love for lifelong learning and training, because at least from my perspective, actors who do want to do this professionally may consider doing a degree or diploma at one of the big arts schools in Singapore, and then that’s pretty much it for the rest of their lives. If there’s a celebrity teacher who comes to town or a big name who will do a one-off workshop, then they may sign up for it, but other than that, there’s no desire for life-long upskilling, or learning between jobs to keep sharpening the tools. That has long-term detrimental effects for the kind of work we put out there. I wish there were more avenues for one to do lifelong learning and training. 

I also wish people could step away from this idea that acting is about trying to become famous, or that if you are an influencer or key opinion leader, it means you have any modicum of talent. Just because you’ve got a lot of numbers on social media does not equate to your craft or guarantee an audience. That being said, I contradict myself because I am also fully aware that being visible on social media is part of the business of acting. So, we have to find a way to promote the business, but also not do it at the expense of the craft.

My mentor used to say “Kamil, are you aware that you are a big believer in ‘rescue magic’?” And I asked her “What’s rescue magic?” “You know it feels like you only get validation when you can help others.” I thought to myself, “Wow! She’s right.” I realised that maybe it’s a sacrificial lamb thing because I know that when I was old enough to understand what was going on, I wished that arts and arts education and entertainment industry in Singapore would be different. I wish things would evolve faster, and they haven’t yet, and how come they haven’t? So, maybe it’s just me wanting to throw myself onto my own sword and say, “If I don’t, then who will?”

Well, that question would have been valid in 2019 because I think everyone had a sense of where the world was going in 2019. In 2020, I don’t think anyone can really see where they want to be five years from now. I think five years from now, if we can all gather in groups and not risk our lives, and if we can be less than six feet apart and won’t die, that in itself is a far bigger goal now. The reality has so vastly changed. Everyone is trying to adapt and figure it out on a day-to-day basis.

That being said, only having a school and theatre company and a production house are no where near my end goal. I have ambitions of expanding the training offered. I want to bring more theatre-based skills and tools into the workplace with my corporate training programs, expand the in-house workshops to kids and teenagers, create online lessons for a wider reach of students worldwide, have a regular pipeline of shows involving my community and the big, big dream? I want to build a permanent home for my arts education and entertainment ecosystem with its own blackbox theatre, a small soundstage, an office for a talent agency and casting agency. If as a seven year old, I could dream big, who’s to say what I’m aiming for can’t happen?

One, spend some time building self-awareness and sensitivity to yourself—who am I, what is it I want to do, why do I want to do this more than anything else in the world, why is this so important to me. Once you know yourself, you need to figure out the craft of acting. Watch good TV shows, read scripts. Expose yourself to really solid training especially now that online classes are available at your fingertips. Learn and train as much as you can. Then, figure out how you can navigate the business—marketing, visual communication. You have to understand that we are moving into the digital age which requires you to have basic digital marketing collaterals like a website, showreel, resume and headshot that can be downloadable, social media following—that’s knowing the business.

Next is knowing who you are marketing yourself to and understanding that you can be the smartest, most talented person in the room, but if you don’t know who your audience is or what kind of stories that you want to tell or you’re capable of telling or what your core target demographic is, you’re just going to be firing blanks. Once you know who your core audience is and you go for roles that appeal to your core audience, there is an understanding that at the end of the day none of this is about you. All of this, the performing arts, is about giving back to society, helping to shape a community, changing minds, bodies, hearts and souls. If at any moment in time you begin to think this is about how many influencers or sponsorship deals I can garner, or “Why am I not being paid enough?” you are probably already doing it for the most inappropriate reasons.

It was the debut performance by my own theatre company called The Haque Collective. I guess people don’t realise that there are three things that we do. Firstly, we have the school, HCAC, where we conduct workshops, corporate training for people in offices where we bring theatre into the workplace, and one-on-one coaching. Then, we have Method Productions which is a production company, and we do theatre, film, TV and casting. Finally, there’s The Haque Collective which is a HCAC alumni theatre company made up of teachers and students from the studio. 

Last year, ‘The Jugular Vein’ was immensely successful for us. At the start of 2020, we were planning to do something in October, but it is hard to plan ahead given the current situation. So, I’m working with our resident playwright, James Thoo, to figure out what would be viable scripts that we could produce when the time is right. If it turns out that people can’t gather in large groups in the theatre for a while, which will likely be the case for the next 12 to 18 months, James and I will have to figure out how we can create viable work online. 

Just before the circuit breaker started, I was working with my team to figure out how I can put certain modules or aspects of the work we usually do on Coursera, Teachable or Udemy, so that they reach a wider audience, beyond the 5.5 million people on this island. I am not that tech-savvy and can barely operate equipment or lighting. So, it looks like from June 2nd, when my team can start to meet in person, we’re going to resume figuring out how we can put some of our workshops on these platforms. That being said, we have already started doing online workshops from the time the circuit breaker started, and I think we will continue to do that. We will also continue to figure out how to bring theatre into the workplace and reopen a safe space for people to free their talent.