In our first Spotlight feature, we speak to Vale Wong, an up-and-coming musical theatre actor based in Kuala Lumpur. Working in the performing arts can be exciting but also challenging, and Vale shares the ups and downs of his career path, and how in the end his determination and hard work paid off.
After completing Form 5 at Lodge in 2000, Vale went on to study Year 12 in Perth, Australia. He was performing well academically and was in fact all set to study medicine. But Vale had always been interested in music, and when he decided to pursue his passion, his parents were understandably concerned:
It was a huge shock to my family when I told them I wanted to pursue music, probably because it wasn’t a field I was particularly outstanding in. I liked to play and write songs for sure, but to turn it into a career didn’t quite make sense to my family. They caved eventually, but it took a lot of talking and addressing many uncertainties, even my own. I guess it came down to the fact that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t give it a shot.
In 2002, Vale was accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, where he completed a Bachelor in Music Composition, followed by Honours and a Postgraduate Diploma in Composition. He then moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2008 to check out the local music scene.
Vale describes himself as a “Jack of Arts … I write, compose, direct, choreograph, sing, play the piano, and teach as well, anything ranging from piano to choir.” However, the highlight of his career so far has been his transition into a full-time musical theatre actor two years ago, which he says was a happy accident!
I had gone for a dance workshop at the KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) for fun. The 4-hour class was just RM10, and that’s cheaper than a drink at Starbucks! Why not, right? So I rock up, and discover this competition series called Short+Sweet where new works could compete for prizes and money! I joined the Singer-Songwriter, Musical and Dance categories in my first year, and learnt so much. I fell in love with the stage, and joined as many productions as I could get my hands on.
In 2014, Vale wrote and starred in a musical called One Day, which proved to be the turning point in his career. He received various casting and singing offers after that, one of his favourite memories being when he sang in the Magical Movie Moments concert performed by the KLPAC Orchestra in January 2015.
Vale has demonstrated his talents repeatedly at the annual Short+Sweet Festival. He won Best Actor two years in a row, and about six other awards ranging from Best Singer Songwriter to Audience Choice. His achievements culminated in his winning the Mercedes Benz Creative Excellence Award in 2015 for his musical Walk With Me, which he composed and also starred in:
Winning the Mercedes Benz Creative Excellence Award last year definitely cemented things for me. It proved to me that this work was worth doing, worth the hours and hours of rehearsal, the sweat and blood that we poured into a production. Also, to hear people tell you that your piece has moved them, brought them to tears, always brings home the fact that art can be a wonderful, powerful thing that can shape people’s lives and experiences.
What Vale enjoys the most about musical theatre is its live aspect:
There’s that sense of energy from the audience that is beyond thrilling. Also, if you ever succeed in getting a full house standing ovation, there’s a feeling that almost bowls you over, a mix of gratitude, awe, love, sadness and hope. It’s hard to describe really, but live performances definitely change me, over and over.
Of course, as with any other job, a musical career has its fair share of challenges. Vale points out that there is typically not much money to be had in the performing arts in Malaysia: “Everyone hopes you’ll do it for free, or for ‘exposure’.” Vale counts himself lucky that his parents persuaded him to obtain an academic qualification first, which has allowed him to teach and thus support himself, as teaching in Kuala Lumpur tends to pay well, and is many times more lucrative than acting, directing or composing.
Vale does caution that training to be a musical theatre actor is pretty much training for three different jobs at the same time:
You have to sing, dance and act … you have to be proficient in ALL of these fields in order to be a full-fledged musical theatre actor. Each discipline takes up so much time to train, and they can be very physically demanding.
Additionally, for more ambitious ‘Jack of Arts’, the job scope will include other skills such as directing, composing, writing, choreographing, or teaching. Vale points out that mastering all of them could take several lifetimes! But the experience is something Vale himself cherishes: “It is that incredible journey that makes [musical theatre] so compelling in the first place. You’re always learning, never a master, always a student.”
Vale’s advice for current Lodgians interested in a career in the performing arts is blunt but pragmatic:
Get used to failing … In the performing arts, only one main actor is cast out of hundreds of auditionees. Rejection is common, and not just from judges but from the audience too.
You need to find the joy and faith in your craft, and keep honing it. For anyone interested, please join a drama club, or get vocal lessons, or start taking dance classes … Even if you don’t end up becoming a performer as a full-time career, there is so much joy on that stage that you can take with you for the rest of your lives.
Given his career path, it is fitting that one of Vale’s most vivid memories of Lodge is related to music:
Our principal at the time, Mr Wong, was leaving, and we, the Form 5 students, were tasked with singing him a song at the school assembly. I chose to write one and we taught the whole Form 5 the melody and harmonies. It was called ‘Thank You’. It started out as a band performance, and when the curtains went up at the chorus, we were suddenly backed by a large choir of 50 students singing their hearts out. That high of experiencing the two Form 5 classes come together as one, and seeing Mr Wong burst into tears, is probably one of the best memories I have of Lodge.
Kudos to Vale for doing Lodge proud! We wish you all the best in your career, and look forward to seeing more of you on stage!
Written by Jane Leong
Photos courtesy of Vale Wong