Stage & Screen

No Particular Order's Joel Tan: "Sometimes When I Think About Theatre, I Think There’s Far Too Much Champagne"

Ahead of the London premiere of his new play “No Particular Order,” UK-based Singaporean playwright Joel Tan shares his thoughts on code-switching, bending time on a stage and the distorting effects of an audience’s gaze.
Cast member Jules Chan in a promotional image for No Particular Order. Photo: Eivind Hansen
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No Particular Order's Joel Tan: "Sometimes When I Think About Theatre, I Think There’s Far Too Much Champagne"

No Particular Order is a radical shift in style and tone from your older writing, and I’m hoping you’re down to discuss some of the similarities and differences (we’ll start with the differences)! One of the consistent qualities of your earliest plays is the inherent multilingualism tethered to Singapore’s hybrid identity, which over time begins to function as defiant evidence against the assumed homogeneity of Asian identity - a homogeneity that is both internally and externally imposed.

With such vividly individualistic characters, what was your process like to write in multiple languages yet still retain the unique rhythm and feeling of each character?

Theatre in Singapore has always had a very dynamic relationship with multilingualism. Most Singaporeans speak in a number of languages and even within English we speak a few different registers. And the way language is used varies according to class, race, age, and so on. So really my approach to writing in multiple languages in my Singapore plays has to do mostly with trying to figure out how to make them feel lived-in and realistic. To answer your question: the character and their voice inform the language.

Following that: your earliest characters’ spirits shine through in their expression of desire; these expressions often meander through multiple languages and dialects, as if one tongue itself cannot fully express the complex individualistic desires that our homeland cultures are sometimes unable/unwilling to talk about. As a rare multilingual playwright, what are your thoughts on these inexpressible voids in our native vocabularies, and on the future of these voids?

It’s that thing of how, being a writer from Singapore, I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time or energy negotiating Asianness in my work, at least not Asianness as defined in opposition to its supposed other, for example: things like a white Western culture of individualism. If anything, it’s only something I’ve found myself having to deal with since working in the UK, where I sometimes feel the only thing I can articulate is my Asianness, which is often interesting, but sometimes quite boring.

In other words I’m not sure there’s that much of a politics, or a diasporic longing, in the way I use language in my Singapore plays — by and large these characters are in their homeland. Singapore is alive with language, we are constantly, constantly talking and code-switching, and moving up and down various registers, switching between different languages. Different languages give life to different parts of ourselves, we are never the same person in one language and another.

So: some of my characters meander through different languages because that’s how they speak. Sometimes there’s a certain music to another language that feels more appropriate to the sentiment, maybe… because it’s the language of the TV soaps they grew up watching? Or the language of afternoons spent slacking around after school, or the language they heard their parents fight or flirt in.

To answer your question about voids: to me, It’s more the case for some of my characters that English is full of voids. For them, English is mostly inadequate to the task of reaching certain depths of melancholy, desire, and poetry that are inherent in, say, Hokkien or Malay or even Singlish.

In pushing against homogeneity, you take an extra step in spotlighting those whom are considered invisible or hidden away, especially queer folx and sex workers: I’d love to know what motivated you to consciously include this representation in your work from the beginning.

I’m queer myself and when I was learning how to write plays, I let my queerness lead me into the plays I was writing. That felt like the most urgent, present, and emotionally rich space for me to tap on. I guess, from there I found a natural solidarity with other invisibilised people. It’s also that thing where in Singapore the theatre has historically been a very potent political space, and I guess I was inheriting the tradition of other Singapore playwrights giving voice to the silenced.

A part of Singapore’s hybrid culture is manifested in its extremely Eurocentric aesthetic, consumerist and educational culture.

This filters through in your Asian characters entrenched in higher academia, and what I find super familiar is their internal dissonance at loving these Poststructural and Modernist words - a love that also acts as social and intellectual capital in a Eurocentric world - and yet those same words are at odds with a reality we embody. Was this also part of your experience, and if yes, how was it for you?

I studied English Literature at university, so I’ve been through the whole critical theory rigmarole. I think when I was younger I was very energised by that kind of space because it unlocked so many ways of seeing through the bullshit, but the more time I spent with it, the more I realised it was its own form of bullshit, run through the dialysis machine of higher academia. In truth I think I always found those bodies of thought and writing very intimidating, and when I was younger I wanted to be fluent in it because, as you say, it has a kind of power. But as I’ve matured I’ve sensed that, as with most power, it circles around its own insecurity: fear of the affective, the sincere, the honest, the in-yer-face. I also work in contemporary art so I’ve seen how this kind of language and conceptual scaffolding can hide work that’s really empty, elitist, and with-holding. I’m not interested in that.

Connected to that but not so much to the plays: as a queer person, I’ve always gravitated towards writing that theorised the desire for desire which simultaneously shielded me from fully embracing or encountering my own. Was this also part of your experience with academia and do you see it paralleled or buoyed by East Asian sensibilities towards sexuality?

My struggle with queerness has primarily been phased through Christianity (I was raised in the evangelical church) and state homophobia (Singapore famously has a very patchy relationship with queer rights). Neither of those properties is strictly “Asian”— the kind of homophobia I was subjected to in church was of a distinctly right-wing American tenor, and the homophobia of the Singapore state is a British colonial legacy. Historically, in East and Southeast Asia, we know that there exists a deeply spiritual quality to queer experience, there are very fluid approaches to gender and sexuality here that were ruptured by the arrival of Christian morality in this part of the world. The ascendancy of right wing Christianity in Singapore has been a terrifying thing to witness.

A consistent focus of yours that has followed all the way to No Particular Order is the parafictional timeline/narrative and your use of non-linear storytelling. In some of your earliest works, it functioned as bittersweet closure within a passively silent reality; now in NPO, it acts as a guttural prophecy that simultaneously catharts the fears we can’t scream out.

I’d love to know more about what drives you consistently towards these writing forms, and how you personally feel about the unflinchingly harsh tone you wrote into the dystopian world of NPO.

I’ve always been really excited by the way theatre can literally bend time. I love how an act break is a form of time travel. I love how past, present, future can exist on stage at the same time, how they can breathe the same air. I guess it’s because that’s how I feel most days, that any moment is pregnant with its history and its future. Lately I’ve also been writing a lot of plays about colonial history, the way it literally sits in our bodies, and so the way I use time in storytelling becomes super crucial.

Another consistent focus is your critique of institutions, which has slowly progressed from interrogating Family, Religion, Academia, and Class to the more current-day nightmare of Partisan Politics (which itself encompasses all the previous institutions within it).

Can you share what motivates you to almost didactically point out the ideology-tinted glasses of institutions for your viewers, and do you find the audience comprehension of such critique different depending on where the play(s) are being performed?

It’s got to do with writing plays in Singapore. Free speech and protest are heavily circumscribed in this country, and in our recent history this has taken on some truly shocking and perverse forms. The theatre emerged in that context as a space of rebellion and, of all the performative art forms in Singapore, is the most heavily censored. Which is to say that critiquing institutions is sort of part of my heritage— something that lives in the work of really firebrand political playwrights like Kuo Pao Kun, Haresh Sharma, Alfian Sa’at, and Eleanor Wong.

It seems like the only institution we can be certain of surviving in perpetuity is Bureaucracy, and you use time in such an interesting way within NPO to illustrate the dire difference between “Bureaucratic Time” and “Life-Or-Death Time.”

I’m curious to know your imaginative thoughts on this, like if you think this binary opposition is something that we can never reconcile as a species, or if you can envision what changes humans need to make in order to find a better temporal middle ground for peace and survival?

Yeah absolutely I think the way we experience time is super disturbed. I don’t know how to answer your question except to say that I find a lot of peace trying to hold deep time in my head, which obviously is impossible, but there’s something about sublimating all my anxiety into the time scale of a mountain shedding itself of a layer of sediment, that is very healing. I find a lot of solace, too, in trying to bridge where we are now with where people were hundreds of years ago, and will be hundreds of years to come, to hold on to what I imagine to be the same things: love, family, nature? Maybe it’s my Christian upbringing, but I have a desire to dissolve myself into something incomprehensibly large, all the time.

No Particular Order also makes its point known in liberating appearance from its casting, stepping further into the ambiguity and constant flux of “roles”: more than how we look, it’s about the roles we choose to play in society. It’s also about the namelessness of suffering, in contrast to the pseudo-celebrity culture around policymakers and politicians.

You take care to show how playing a role - for better or worse - is more often spurred by fear than allegiance. Do you believe we can ever collectively overcome our fears to act together before it’s too late, and honestly, within the context of certain governments, is it even possible to overcome “it”?

I wrote this play precisely from that desire. I come from a country that’s perfected a kind of benign authoritarianism (not so benign in the granular, actually pretty horrific in the granular; but benign enough that people can look at our clean streets and nice houses and think it’s some kind of paradise). The reality of living under that kind of authoritarianism is that you can taste a world that’s better, fairer, more humane, less violent, but you are powerless in so many ways to enact it, least of all by civic routes. I find this stasis very frightening, very frustrating. I find the hold that powerful states have over us very disturbing. I mean history has shown us that, yes, resistance is possible, is not futile, yes revolution is possible, is necessary. But revolution more often than not bears the seeds of its own corruption, and that too is a very sobering idea. I don’t know how to answer your question. I feel that it’s not small resistances, but deep breakages, that are necessary at this point, to snap us out of this fugue state.

And lastly, on the role you play as an artist and creator, and the question of art that repeats throughout NPO... I think a lot of artists of late have had to question why we do what we do in the face of horrific futures, and additionally how do we deal with the reality of portraying (and sometimes aestheticising) our pain for buyers/consumers who play an active role in creating suffering and inequity.

Your characters debate this in the play, but I’m curious if you have some wisdom or answers of your own on these dilemmas?

I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine who’s a performance artist, who said that they began to grow suspicious of their work - which draws on their personal trauma, and a certain embodied experience of coloniality - because they were working in the context of a mostly white audience and institution. My friend said: “I became mindful of what it means to be watched”. I find that really eloquent. It’s about what’s inherently present in a gaze, and the deep structure that lies under the production of a work. There’s something very distorting about an audience— either the real bodies in the room, or the imagined audience you’re writing for. The scary thing is when I start to wonder: am I writing this because this is what’s expected of me as a writer of Chinese descent working in the West? I struggle with it a lot— does my work inadvertently make room for the expiation of guilt? Does it flatter an audience? Does it reproduce harmful ways of looking? I dunno, sometimes when I think about theatre, I think there’s far too much champagne.  

I guess to circle back to your original observation about how No Particular Order marks a really distinct shift from my earlier Singapore plays: yes, and part of that shift is a kind of code-switching, from the hyper-locality and granularity of my plays about Singapore, to something else, something more “globally” legible in its abstraction. I am deeply ambivalent about this.

The reality is: writing into spaces like London is writing from a periphery to a centre; there is a process of distortion. Part of that distortion is knowing that you could write a play about a bunch of disaffected 20-somethings fooling around in Bedok in the east of Singapore, full of the rich poly-tonality and musicality of our multilingual reality, and full of the angst of being young in this cultural moment… and it would never be relevant to a London audience. But that same play set in South London, with its own rich poly-tonality that would be mostly unintelligible to us in Singapore, could travel the world.

It does something to you, this imbalance, makes you hyper-conscious of who’s watching, what stories to tell them, how to prioritise their needs and feelings. That’s how you end up with cultural products like Crazy Rich Asians, which distorts my country in such perverse ways to tell a “universal” story about love and repressive Asian parents. Something shameful lingers there.

No Particular Order is running from the 31st of May to the 18th of June at Theatre503. Joel Tan can be found here.

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