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3 Hot Questions with Joel Tan (for the upcoming play “People”)

January 12, 2014


We are most privileged and grateful to be able to pose three (or so) questions to talented young playwright Joel Tan, who has written the upcoming play “People”, which will be staged by Creative Edge at the Drama Centre Black Box from the 24th to 26th of this month.

(See here for full details.)

Joel’s works last year include “Walking In” staged by Buds Theatre, a monologue (“That Daniel”) and a full-length play (“Our Lady of Lourdes”) being read by Checkpoint Theatre, and not to mention writing the libretto to W!ld Rice’s big panto “Jack & the Bean-Sprout!”.

Thanks once again to Joel Tan and Creative Edge for the time.

1) When did you start writing “People”, and how long did it take to complete the entire play?

“People” took a while to gestate. It started with a student group I was part of at NUS called USProductions, which brought me in to help dramaturge and write a piece of theatre with them. It took a good long time, I think a total of 6 months in 2012 to gestate on the floor and in my head, but the actual writing happened very quickly in the two months or so before our January 2013 first production.

2) Could you talk a bit more about how the impetus for writing this play came about, and why it moved you to structure the play in this particular way?

It was not clear until fairly late what the play was going to look like. The initial project was about growing up, about fear, about how we learn to be human, to be social, to have empathy. There was a lot of rich material– images, questions, situations, feelings– being found on the floor but no clear or convenient structure with which I could harness it into a coherent play. I stepped back from the process and material and tried to see what recurring ideas were popping up. I saw a lot of people thrown in and out of relationships with each other, people coping with loss, with defeat, people coping with life, sometimes alone, sometimes with someone close, sometimes with strangers.

I sat down to write a play filled with these people, most of whom never even meet, many of whom seem to be drawn from different plays altogether, but all of them share the central predicament of having to live with people, having to depend on people even though people can hurt, destroy and disappoint. That’s the metaphoric quality of the earthquake in this play, it is simultaneously an event, device and motif.

There’s no neat and tidy way to structure a play that deals with themes of lives set adrift, thrown asunder and strands struggling to reconnect. The play slips in and out of different strands and textures– monologue, dialogue, memory, soliloquy– and the audience has to perform a lot of the glueing and piecing together (of images, stories and themes) just as the characters try to glue back and piece their lives and relationships together. Many of the characters have absolutely nothing to do with each other or the earthquake except on an abstract level. It was important to me that I not write a piece where all the seemingly disparate strands miraculously and falsely add up in a grand coup de theatre at the end– it’s open, unstable and difficult; a bit like life.

3) Was this a particularly difficult play to write? Was it collaborative with the actors or mostly a solo effort?

It’s a tricky thing, trying to take credit for this play. I wrote most if not all of it, except for the wonderful Hokkien Mandarin and Japanese translations, but the impetus of the play would never have come about without those months of intense sharing, discovering and collaboration on the floor. It’s very unlike the plays I would ordinarily write if left to my own devices, which was difficult but very rewarding to do!

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