Playing it right
Full-time playwright and occasional drag performer, Joel Tan, shares his atypical success story.
It started out as a school assignment. Little did Joel Tan know that a script he wrote for a playwriting module in school would later become a full-length play, staged over five days by local theatre company W!ld Rice.
This was in 2011, when Joel was only a 24-year-old third year English Literature student at National University of Singapore (NUS).
His debut play, Family Outing, which was about how a Christian family coped with the news that their dead son was in fact gay, was a hit with audiences. While there were plenty of comedic moments, the emotional scenes were so powerful that members of the audience were moved to tears.
Joel, now an associate artiste with Checkpoint Theatre, recalled: “When people were crying, I felt (like I was being) manipulative. I feel wary of making people cry as I don’t like to emotionally manipulate people.”
Family Outing was very personal for Joel, who used the play to “come out” as gay to his family. He said: “I wrote it as a love song to my family.”
It was not easy, as the Singapore-born playwright added: “I faced a lot of uncomfortable memories that (made me feel) like I was maybe going too deep.”
Since his unexpected success five years ago and the media attention he received, the 28-year-old, who is also an occasional drag performer, admits that the pressure to produce good works continuously has been challenging.
He has written nine more plays since Family Outing. While all have been staged, only two of them, Jack & the Bean-Sprout and The Emperor’s New Clothes, received much media acclaim.
Joel explained: “The two W!ld Rice pantomimes are commercial shows and (were) written to be popular.”
Besides playwriting, Joel is also a drag performer. He picked up drag performances last August, and since then, has performed thrice at RIOT!, a monthly drag show, as Ashley Fifty, Singapore’s most patriotic drag queen. Draped in figure-hugging outfits and a face caked with makeup, Joel is unrecognisable.
Joel explained: “Drag allows me to do all things I enjoy about comedy – poke fun at myself, society, etc.”
When asked about his parents’ responses to his drag performances, Joel, who has two brothers, replied: “They haven’t been to see me in drag. But I think they just see it as one of many of the [sic] silly weird things I’ve decided to do in life.”
As we talk and Joel shares about his other hobbies such as cooking, it is clear that Joel’s passion still lies in theatre.
Referring to some recent popular local plays, he noted that most highly regarded Singapore plays are those that challenge politics.
However, the English Literature graduate is not keen to conform to writing a play about politics, just to be popular. Instead, Joel believes that a powerful play can develop from day-to-day conversations between ordinary people, a belief that often sees him unabashedly eavesdrop on strangers around him.
His eavesdropping habit provided enough material for his upcoming play, Café, which will be staged as part of the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival from June 16 to 19. The play is about how comfortable life is in Singapore, despite increasing danger outside.
So, what does he think makes a good play?
After a prolonged silence, Joel said: “It needs to be something that has power. I think the best works of art changes your thinking somehow.”