The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Joel Tan

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Joel TanLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Generally, I think better, clearer, more sharply and more vigorously when I write. I spend my non-writing time in a haze of distraction, boredom and anxiety, but when I write I am immediately more confident and I see and express things with greater clarity and excitement. Sometimes I think I access who I really am through writing, or rather reach out towards the possibility of becoming something bigger and better than I am.

The seed of each play I write is always something that gnaws away at me and seizes my imagination and refuses to let go until I get it out of my system. Sometimes it’s a very funny setup that I want to share with people. Often, it’s irritation or anger; a need to address something in my life or in the world. Sometimes writing starts as a scab-like patch of melancholy in my mind that I need to pick away at until the fleshy wetness underneath becomes open to the air.

Tell us about your most recent play or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I most recently put up a second staging of a play called Mosaic about four young Singaporeans at an old 80s playground that’s about to be demolished. In that play, like many of my plays, I was trying to access something about life in Singapore. Like a texture or feeling or specific set of textures and emotions: absence, letting go, not knowing where to go; things that I think come into acute relief here.

There’s something about living in this city that disturbs me on a deep, hard-to-place level and I’ve been trying to get at it with each play I write. Sometimes I get close, sometimes not so close. Lately, I’ve been nursing an impulse to write a play about Singapore and the natural world. A lot of things—encounters with some contemporary Singapore art that has a lot to do with nature, my own sudden longing for green spaces in the city, my love of food and plants—have led me to it. I think there is something fundamental about the way we relate (or don’t relate) to nature that exposes some truth about the way we live as a society. I want to investigate it.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Lyric attracts me; sometimes I wish it didn’t because I bury a lot of poorly-formed ideas in lyric and get away with it. With playwriting, I think dialogue is of special importance. It seems an old-fashioned, conventional thing to say, but I believe dialogue is the vehicle. It’s like the time signature in music. I am drawn to people, the sound of people’s voices.

Who are your favorite authors/screenwriters?

I’d fly across the world, if I could afford it, to see a Caryl Churchill play done well.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Some of the commercial shows that I pick up often present me with a lot of challenges, because I hate pandering to audiences but sometimes it’s asked of me.

What’s your idea of bliss?

Waking up to a day without any commitments except to myself. Any of the increasingly rare days spent with my family. Cooking late at night. All three in one day, please.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Being around other gay men in large numbers has in the past made me very angry, like violently angry, but it’s something I feel less nowadays ‘cuz I don’t go out as much. The church I used to go to before I left the faith made me very angry.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

For soul-stirring entertainment, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. For something just to say that it’s been three self-improving months, David Foster Wallace’s collected everything but I realize that Infinite Jest alone would take me a year to finish. Possibly also one of those horribly long novels from my uni reading lists that form a massive gap in my education.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My laptop.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Don’t piss your friends and family off and try to have a good time while you can.

Author’s Biography:

Joel Tan is a playwright and performer. He is an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre. Recent productions of his work include Mosaic (Take Off Productions, 2015) and The Way We Go (Checkpoint Theatre, 2014). Apart from his work in the theatre, Joel also writes creative non-fiction, much of which can be read on

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures