Interview with Tan Liting

Pretty Butch first read
Since joining our Boiler Room programme in July 2015, freelance theatre practitioner Tan Liting has been hard at work researching and writing the script for her first ever play, Pretty Butch. The work is inspired by a series of interviews that Tan conducted with people who identify as “butch”, but the resulting piece is an ode to everyone who feels like they don’t quite fit into what society has conventionally labelled as “male” or “female”. Pretty Butch will be making its debut at the 2017 edition of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and we’ll be sharing more details about her creation process soon, but for now, we sit down with Tan for a quick chat about how her play ties in with the festival’s theme of “Art and Skin”.

When did you start working on Pretty Butch?
The actual writing began at the start of this year, but the whole process began when the open call for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival came up. I actually applied for theme of “Art and the Animal” for Fringe Fest this year, with a piece named Bitch, but then of course Edith [Podesta] did Bitch. But there was also a discussion about how the work needs more time to develop, and it just so happened that [Centre 42’s] Boiler Room was having an open call then, so [the festival team and I] agreed that I’ll apply for the programme and sees what happens. From there, it developed into something that they decided was more suitable for the 2017 theme of “Art and Skin”, which I agree, because the play is really a lot more about body image and less about animals.

How does Pretty Butch fit into the theme of “Art and Skin”?
It’s a play about body image about humanity, about living in the skin you’re in, or finding a different image or skin. To me, the concept of “butch” is actually very skin deep – it’s an external thing. I feel like everybody is on a spectrum of femininity and masculinity, but I think how you express it externally kind of defines that. So Pretty Butch fits with the theme of skin much better.

You’re the first Boiler Room playwright to go straight into production – why the urgency?
First of all it’s because I had submitted the work to M1 Fringe, so from the get go I knew that I’m going to produce it and direct it right after I’m done. But also because I’m a person who works better with a deadline, and I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten to where I’ve gotten now were it not for the fact that I had to go into production after this. Also, while I respect the art of play-writing, I didn’t want this to become a play that was written and then didn’t have a chance to be staged. I’m actually a very impatient person, to be very honest with you! [Laughs] Plus, while writing is a part of creating the work, I think for me, my idea is not fully fleshed out until it goes on to the stage. Hence the urgency and that’s why I wanted to do it.

How do you think the next few months will play out between trying to cast and produce work at the same time, while still trying to figure out the work itself?
After the first read and getting the feedback, I’m going to start looking at the draft. I get about a month to still look at the draft as a playwright before I start rehearsal, [so I’ll use this time to] get down to the nitty gritty of how the play is structured, and the words of the characters are going to be crafted. And I know it’s needing a lot of fine tuning, because after submitting the draft, I look at the script again, and I’m already spotting errors and things I need to cut or change. So for the month of October, that’s the idea. Then in November when we go into rehearsal, I’m going to take my playwright hat off, and start wearing my director’s hat. And I feel like after the production, there will still be a point in time when I come back to the play and look at it again, and edit things based on how I see them on stage before I’m going say that [this work is done] – Boiler Room, thank you very much.

Interview by Daniel Teo and Gwen Pew

Tan Liting has been part of our Boiler Room programme since July 2015, and you can read more about her journey here. Catch Pretty Butch at Centre 42 from 11 – 14 January 2017.