G*d Forbid!

Joel Tan chats with us about the inspirations behind his brand-new, howlingly funny black comedy, G*D IS A WOMAN – from Singapore’s unique censorship culture to the Ariana Grande of it all!
Joel Tan Interview

What is G*d Is A Woman about?

G*d is a Woman is a black comedy, a satire, a revenge play about a bunch of artists – specifically theatre-makers, a bit like myself – who get very angry one day because of a very violent act of censorship and, feeling powerless and unable to do anything, they decide to write a fake petition to cancel an upcoming Ariana Grande concert.

Hilarity and chaos ensue. We basically see this huge controversy play out, but we only see it from the point of view of these shady backroom conversations where people are panicking and trying to manage the crisis, and everybody loses their shit.

This is a play in response to Singapore’s very unique culture of censorship – the way there are many stakeholders involved in censorship. It’s never just a kind of top-down thing; it’s a very grassroots activity. It’s a play that looks at the current moral climate and how, in my opinion, it’s shifting dangerously towards a relatively conservative place. It’s a play also about art, I guess, and our relationship with it as a society.

Why did you choose to make this play about the cancellation of an Ariana Grande concert?

I actually chose Ariana Grande because I woke up one day thinking – wouldn’t it be very fucking funny if people tried to cancel Ariana Grande? Because everybody loves her.

And so I went to look through her songs and I saw that she’d written a song called god is a woman and I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect, wouldn’t it be funny if someone took issue with the title of this song?” And then I basically wrote this play asking this question: “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?” and I just kept answering that question until I wrote the play.

So you’re not an Ariana fan?

Not initially – I’m one of those gays who’s like, “Oh, Top 40s, no!” But, in the process of writing this play and investigating the discography and biography of this remarkable woman, I have certainly come out the other end a true stan.

What was the inspiration behind G*d Is A Woman?

When you work in the arts in Singapore, I think you bear witness to a lot of censorship horror stories. Some of them bloodier than others. And I think in the past couple of years, I noticed a very similar kind of pattern in how massive letter-writing campaigns from people who wanted to cancel something that they didn’t like would gain a lot of traction and then succeed. I was very concerned that people writing letters could wield so much power in this country and create this culture of fear and anxiety and content anxiety. And so I wanted to write a play that addressed that.

Specifically in my life, I’ve also seen friends who run arts events who’ve had their shows kind of brutally censored by this kind of activity. And I’ve seen how damaging this kind of behaviour can be. And so, I wanted to write a play that avenged my friends.

What are some episodes of Singapore’s cancel culture and moral outrage that have really stuck with you?

First of all, I want to say that I personally find it very amusing how cancel culture has become this thing that people on the social justice and left-wing side of things have been accused of abetting, and really, the people who are actually out there trying to cancel things tend to be right-wing conservatives who have issues with art and political dissent. So, I just want to put it out there that I find the term dubious at best.

But in my life, I’ve definitely seen lots of this shit. The most dramatic one in recent years, I think, was the M1 Fringe Festival in 2016, which came under attack because it featured two works that involved nudity. They were given the license to go ahead but, because a bunch of people wrote in to complain, the two works were pulled out of the festival. I thought that was really bad.

Outside of the world of the arts, you also have things like the Tango Makes Three controversy, which was very upsetting to witness. More recently, the Watain concert, which got pulled for religious sensitivities after the license had been granted. And Madonna was made to take Holy Water out of her concert [in 2016]. If you can do that to Madonna, I’m just like, what is going on? Leave Madonna alone!

Have you or people close to you personally encountered these incidents of censorship or complaint culture?

Yes, I have a very dear friend who ran [the aforementioned] arts festival and really kena very badly – this onslaught of complaints – and, to this day, I see how it’s still affecting him very, very adversely, mentally and spiritually and artistically. I just think people don’t always think about the effect that they have when they move as a swarm. This is not restricted to people who are politically conservative. I feel people with progressive ideas who act with this kind of mob impetus are also often guilty of the same kind of violence.

In my own life, I’ve been relatively lucky that most of my plays have gone on without issue. There’s always a kind of risk that they won’t get a license – like my play Tango [with Pangdemonium, in 2017], which almost didn’t get a license.

In fact, this play, G*d Is A Woman, at time of recording, still hasn’t gotten its license. Early on in the process, we were just about to launch public sales for this play when we got a call from the relevant government agency telling us to halt sales, because we were undergoing some testy negotiations with them over some of the material in the play… which we eventually resolved.

What are your thoughts on censorship in Singapore?

I sort of see censorship in this country as a creative challenge. [laughs] It’s because they have a very remarkable way of picking on things you didn’t think they’d pick on – you write this scene that you think is kind of really edgy and it says some really ‘out there’ things, but they don’t notice that, they zoom in on very specific words that you kind of wrote as an afterthought. And then they’re like, “Oh no, this is the thing, this is the thing that’s going to get everybody very upset” and you’re just like… how?!

And I just find that very, very charming – I love engaging in that kind of conversation with the censors. In a way, it’s like having a third eye look at your work and tell you things about it that you didn’t even know about it.

But the frustrating thing is living on this edge of possibility where you just never know when you’re going to step out of bounds. Maybe the sinister version of what I just described is that keeping it kind of vague and ambiguous keeps you in a state of hyper-vigilance about what you can and cannot say.

I’ve had friends who put on shows that got the license, like, literally the day of opening… can you imagine living through that kind of headspace where you just don’t know [whether] this thing you’ve worked on for months is going to get to see the light of day? Especially for a form like theatre, which cannot exist independently of the performance. I feel very lucky to have gotten away with it for the most part, but it really can be very devastating. It affects sales, it affects people’s incomes, it affects people’s morale.

What do you hope people will take away from this play?

I really hope people just come and bask in the stupidity of this play. I think there is a value to stupidity and absurdity. This play goes to some really weird places, and I just hope that that feels good [for audiences], that we can have a kind of collective laugh at ourselves and this mess we’re in, and leave feeling a little bit seen. If, at that level, that’s what this play can do, I think I’d be very happy. And then obviously, [I’d also hope audiences can] have a little think about why it is we are so easily offended and why it is we accept that some people are able to leverage on their offence to such a pernicious degree.

Interview By: Shawne Wang

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