Jack Of All Trades

As a writer, Joel Tan has tried his hand at many genres. He’s won prizes for his poetry and fiction, and written electrifying, thought-provoking plays like Family Outing, which was staged at W!LD RICE’s Man Theatre Singapore Festival. This year marks Joel’s first attempt at crafting W!LD RICE’s annual year- end pantomime. He tells us what we can expect from his re-worked Jack & The Bean-Sprout!.

How did you come to write this year’s pantomime?

Earlier this year, Ivan came up to me after watching a production of my play People and asked me if I would like to work on a pantomime for W!LD RICE. I pitched Journey To The West, which I thought (and still think!) is a really cool idea. But, because of the mysterious ebb and flow of logistics and schedules, Ivan decided instead to do a re-staging of Jack & the Bean-Sprout! and asked if I’d like to re-work the book and lyrics from scratch (kinda). They’d asked me before, right after Family Outing, and I suppose if one can write a funny electrocution on stage, one can potentially write a pantomime.

So what has changed – or stayed the same – from the 2006 production of Jack & The Bean-Sprout!?

I’ve kept most of the offbeat Singaporean characters that Desmond Sim created for that production – they’re very endearing, his population of dyspeptic HDB aunties, dishonest swindlers, gangsters, at-risk youths with big dreams… Other than that, I was given the green light to just invent things, so I did. I’ve changed quite a fair bit. I’ve trimmed the telling of the story a little, bled it out some, added in some bits and bobs in the structure to help the story move along faster. I’ve also added in some insane characters and situations, culled from the insanity that is living in Singapore mostly, but there’s also an alien space princess. My favourite part is the songs! I’ve written new songs, many of which didn’t make the cut but would make a cute, if a little un-PC, mini-musical of their own (I’d like to call it Lorong Q, with puppets, like a Finger Players Musical).

This is your first pantomime. Can you tell us about your process in writing it?

My process involved talking to people who’d been involved with W!LD RICE pantos: Ivan and Glen, of course, but also actors and writers, like Karen Tan and Alfian Sa’at. Someone memorably told me the panto should zun zun end at 9 so people can go for ice-cream after, and I guess that helped me make some decisions about how to write the thing. I did lots of googling (“Panto… what is… is it okay to have someone die in panto” etc) , watched a hilarious British Jack panto on YouTube and made a list of ideas that made me laugh (e.g., children doing weights in a gym, children running around as giant coins, children eating other children; only one of these made it in).

Writing a panto is hard work! You’d sometimes not think it, because it all looks so breezy on stage, but this play has gone through at least four drafts at press time. I was a little held back in terms of the structure by some of the choices made in the earlier production, as well as by some of the conventions of a W!LD RICE pantomime which I wanted to innovate around, but, you know, lemons… lemonade. I think it gave that part of my brain which deals with economics, map-reading and playing poker a good work-out.

Here’s that age-old question: lyrics first, or music?

Lyrics first, always: content dictates form! I challenged myself to write proper songs for a proper musical (songs that one day, these panto kids might use at auditions haha). But that’s quite fussy and pretentious lah, sometimes with the songs for panto it’s more about what keeps kids’ bums in their seats and the tunes in their heads for weeks after. I guess it helps that I’m also a musician, so I wrote the lyrics with a musical line in my head. Of course Elaine comes up with infinitely better tunes than I could imagine. She’s been an immense joy to work with – she’s turned some of my most erratic lyrics into really amazing songs. We have a very fun email work-process, and for a week, I remember being joyfully tied to my laptop shooting off edits to lyrics and waiting for her demos to come in, and I’d sit in a cafe somewhere grinning goofily listening to them. I’m actually very proud of the songs, I think they’re a very special feature of this panto.

What insights have you gained into pantomime as an art form?

Well… the W!LD RICE pantomimes aren’t exactly traditional British pantomimes, so I’d like to think they’re a form in and of themselves. And I think the form offers a quite special, sometimes subversive, way to tell Singaporean stories in a non-confrontational way. Mostly, though, I really value the opportunity for people to be silly on stage and in the stalls, to collectively not-take-anything-seriously. Plus, the way W!LD RICE does it, with such high production values in terms of the sets, costumes, music and performances, it’s really pushing the logistics of the stage to its limits.

What have you learnt about yourself and your craft in the process of writing the pantomime?

I probably won’t have a career writing for children. But I realise I also give the intelligence of kids a lot more credit than other people might. I’m quite suspicious of the conventional belief, in panto, that there are jokes that fly over the heads of kids, especially kids these days. In my own interaction with the future of our nation, I’ve found that, more often than not, it’s the adults who laugh at things kids are supposed to laugh at but that kids, in all their sophistication, actually find deeply unfunny. Then again, that adult might just be me.

What can we expect from Jack & The Bean-Sprout!?

Expect lots of instantly recognisable characters winding themselves up in ridiculous circumstances, a heartwarming story of mother and son getting through self-created adversity, expect really great music, expect dazzling sets and costumes, expect the unexpected!

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

Huzir Sulaiman and I are working on a musical, which we hope to present later this year as a work-in-progress. I’m also working towards completing a few plays about queer life and politics in Singapore, although some people might say I’ve already done that with Jack & The Bean-Sprout!

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