Profile: Joel Tan

Published on 26 April 2016

Playwright Joel Tan wears many other hats and sometimes, even a wig.


Joel Tan has an almost unfair amount of achievements for someone who hasn’t even turned 30. The 28 year-old has written numerous critically-acclaimed and unabashedly Singaporean plays ranging from pantomimes and political satire to personal stories that border on autobiographies.

He even had an anthology of his theatrical works published last year. Beyond playwriting, Tan is also a prize-winning poetry and fiction writer.

And that’s not even the half of it. “It’s in the field of playwriting that I’ve been growing the most — it’s such an important way to reach people and talk about different things. But I put on many different hats.”

Some of these hats are really fabulous wigs. Tan began venturing into drag performance last year, featuring in several installments of monthly drag show RIOT!, which returned this April after a short hiatus. “I don’t think I’m going to become a serious drag performer. But it’s a really great new way to do a lot of the stuff I enjoy — to make fun of things (including myself), be critical and satirical, and entertain people.”

Tan has, in fact, taken on numerous less sequin-studded roles to do those very things: entertain and comment on the world around us. He has been making acting appearances in last year’s touring art installation Singapore: Inside Out (organised by the Singapore Tourism Board); directing poet Pooja Nansi in her autobiographical performance You Are Here; producing works by other young playwrights with his independent theatre collective Take Off productions; writing essays; and sometimes even playing music.

“I see all forms of art as intrinsically connected. Artists may use different ways to express themselves, but they are essentially dealing with similar issues, like human nature and the pains and joys of life. Sometimes we put labels on art when it’s not necessary. For You Are Here, performed by a poet in a theatrical space, I’d struggle to think of it as a ‘poetry performance’, nor would I call it a theatre performance.

“I do think different art forms feed into each other. I love music; I picked up the trombone in secondary school and pursued it quite seriously for a while. Now, for Café, the new play I’ve been writing for the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, about five people in a Singapore café trying to maintain some sense of normality as something inexplicable and ominous happening outside gradually closes in, I feel that’s more composing a piece of music than telling a story. Because rather than discussing specific issues, it’s trying to tap into a feeling about the difficulty of living in the world today, with all its politics and ugliness. This is something new I’m trying, to reproduce that particular feeling for audiences in the theatre.

“In the near future, I’ll also be writing more fiction, which is not something I’ve done very much of. I’m always excited to explore different forms of writing and art.”

Café, Joel’s new play for the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival will be played at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box, 16 Jun to 19 Jun. Click for more details here.

Scroll Up