‘Speaking of….’ A Chat with Nicholas Tan

By Sarah Smit

Nicholas Tan is an award-winning writer and recently premiered his new play, Five, Six at Studio 411 for the Fringe Festival. METIOR caught up with him to discuss his directoral debut and indie theatre in Perth.

This is your first time directing, right?

That’s correct. I did some assistant directing 3 years ago for fringe 2015, but this is my first time at the helm, yeah.

Has it been a challenging transition for you?

It’s interesting, because on the one hand I have  a vision — being the writer, I know where I want the actors to go — but the difficult part is trying to find the language to direct. And because the play deals with OCD and some other issues, it’s sometimes hard to teach the actors to be authentic about it so we’ve had to do a few changes. Some of the bits will be stylised, so that’s one difficulty. The other difficulty is I’m also producing, as well, so it’s kind of having to put on two hats. It’s pretty full on.

Can you tell me a bit about the play?

Essentially, it’s about two brothers, and one of the is closeted and the other one has OCD and they come from a broken family, and what happens is they try to cope with their struggles.

Has the experience been quite stressful?

Yeah. Some of the things that were originally in the play are no longer there, or now we’ve just implied it, so there were  a few character changes. Also it was originally a ten minute play, and now it’s gone to an hour.  The ten-minute version was directed by someone else and [in the shorter version] some of the behaviours are ok, but when they’re expanded to an hour long play, some of those characteristics are a bit difficult to prolong because we’re trying to express it in  a way which is respectful, too. What I found is that when the OCD continued throughout the play, there was something wrong with the structure of it. We have a younger cast; in the ten minute version they were all 25 and older, [now] the youngest is 19, we have two 20 year olds, and the oldest is 28.

Was there a generational barrier there?

Yeah, some issues of the display of mental health. The play is set around ten, fifteen years ago, so and it still plays in my mind, but I kind of have to externalise the pain [for the actors] because things have changed since then. I think we have a better awareness now of mental health issues, and we’re slowly changing our positivity to saying ‘I’m not alright, I need help,’ whereas in the play, some of the characters have facades, and that doesn’t make sense to the actors. It makes sense to me though, and I have to try and explain that. And just the experience as well, some of the younger actors may not have experienced OCD or mental health issues. I have to try and give them that research to help them. The play isn’t  an exposition on mental health, but there’s lots of implied issues in there, so they needed to understand it. I think that’s the challenge.  The play also deals with closeted behaviour,  and what I get from these actors, [is] it’s not an issue that their friends have experienced, so showing up and having to teach them how to conduct themselves, and the history behind it, I think, is a very important part of the process for them as actors to discover the script. Then again, saying that, the benefit of a cast that we have now is that they’re closer to the age of the characters than the original cast were. But it does meant that there’s a lot of research and pre-acting exercises.

OCD and mental health struggles are quite internal experiences; do you find it difficult to communicate your experiences of those things to the actors?

Yeah,  it’s hard for me to show because my expertise in the theatre is not acting itself, so I have to rely on different tools and resources to be able to teach them. One of the things we did I couldn’t do it myself without making a fool of myself, or going into my OCD phase. I couldn’t personally show it to them, so one of the suggestions I gave to Callum, who plays Joel, was to look it up on Youtube. But even then it’s difficult to try mimic it.  And I guess that’s why I try to stylise those things, not too much to the point where it becomes mimicry or disrespectful, but enough that we avoid the situation of having to fake it. It’s not really putting it in good words, but yeah… but it’s important to try to be respectful of it.

To find a genuine portrayal of it?

Yeah, a genuine portrayal , otherwise you just lose it. It’s even things as basic as anger that can be difficult to actually show the actors. Part of it is them not understanding, and me not explaining it to them what the rationale is. Once I explained it, they got it. So the challenge is me thinking when do I need to explain it and when don’t I need to explain it.  There’s such a limited time sometimes in my mode, I go do this and do this and do this, and I forget that because I’m the writer, it’s already in my head. But they didn’t write the script, so I need to develop it with them.  So that’s the difficulty of having two hats.

What’s your background? How did you get here?

My interest is actually in writing. In 2016, there was a festival in Newcastle NSW, and they were asking for ten minute pieces. The theme was out of place, and I wrote this piece and it was selected as one of 10 plays. I went to Newcastle and saw the play, and I thought that the story and characters were not finished yet, so I decided to write [the expanded version of] it myself.
Before that, I had something I wanted to produce at Fringe, but I wasn’t able to find a director. So with this ten minute version, when I wanted to do it for Fringe, I thought ‘Why don’t I have a go at directing it myself?’ But of course it was going to be a sixty minute piece, and on top of that, I’m also producing and doing other tasks as well, so it’s a little difficult. If I could get a director, that would have been great! I love the idea of someone else interpreting [your work] for you, because I think when you interpret it yourself – especially at my early levels of directing- mistakes can happen, and you want an experienced person. But the nature of Fringe and where I am at the moment, meant that I would have to direct it myself, and so I decided to, and I produced it myself. I had to train myself pretty quickly about what was expected in directing, and how you deal with actors. The producing side was not as difficult in the sense that I didn’t need to look up or read up or anything, but more the time you needed to sign documents and send emails. But the directing, definitely, I had to make sure of the theory and make sure I was proficient.

Is the play autobiographical , or is it more an exploration of the issues that you went through?

There are definitely some true experiences in there, of myself and people that I know, but I’ve also added fiction to it. I did give the script to a few people to read, and some of my friends could see bits that they thought were them, but they still couldn’t figure out the whole thing. So I think I’ve done a good job; I’m not going to get sued for slander or libel! The characters in the play are from a broken family, and that was pretty much the experience, growing up in Kalgoorlie; I’ve seen it firsthand. So some people will see some truth in it, but there are other parts that are totally comic and probably wouldn’t happen in real life. *laughs* Hopefully not!

What do you want to achieve with Five Six? Ideally, what would the audience take away from it?

I think I don’t want the audience to think that the characters are right. Because characters are not always right. The way I’ve written it, sometimes the characters make the wrong decision and take the consequences. And do not think the play reflects my views. You’ll see, when you watch the play, that some things are left unanswered. And that’s how I think that some things should be. But the theme I think definitely is taking responsibility for your choices, and being responsible for your success and your happiness. But also, considering your journey. In the play, all the characters go through the same problems, but they each take a different way out. And that’s what I want the audience to get.

But it’s not there to teach any morals; I don’t believe in that. And I try not to judge my characters. I think when we go to see a play, sometimes we’re too quick to go ‘this character is good and this character is bad,’ but we’ve got to look at the flaws. I think the what the audience member should say is, I wouldn’t have done this if I were the character, or I understand what the character is going through but I would have done it a different way.

Did you grow up with a brother?

I do have a younger brother, and that’s sort of where the issues come up. The issues didn’t come up with how I grew up, the issues came up from people that I saw. So it was taking experiences of lots of people and putting them together. I didn’t grow up in a broken family, but many of the people I went to school with did. I’m a bit suggestive when It comes to characters, I believe it’s up to the audience to come up with the story for the characters, so I try not to say this particular character grew up in a broken family.  It’s not said in the staging or dialogue, but I try to suggest it. Audience members have the right to their imagination. I think sometimes in indie theatre there is sometimes a lot of amplification and flamboyance, and everything’s in your face. I wanted to minimise that. I want the audience to be able to think, to imagine and be creative. They’re part of the play as well. Something I told the actor is that the final part of the production is the audience; it’s up to them what the play is about in the end. We can only do so much.

You mentioned that there’s a lot of amplification in indie theatre, could you expand on that?

Yeah, I find in Perth indie theatre, there is a lot of amplification, there is a lot of flamboyance, there is a lot of out there, in your face. In this play there are some parts that are in your face, but not in your face in an artificial way, I think. What I mean is that if it’s in your face, it’s by movement, and by voice and by dialogue, but not by special effects. I try not to rely on special effect too much. That might change, it’s just where I am at the moment. I would never say ‘this is how I will be forever,’ but at this moment, my artistic practise is to try and keep it actor focused. If you rely on special effects too much to  try and entertain the audience in a play that deals with issues, you end up talking about the issues and not the people who are affected by the issues. That’s how I see it anyway. There are lots of plays that deal with identity politics that are very out there and push the form, and that’s good, its always good to push the form. But then the question I ask is where are the people? Because it’s people who are affected by the issues, not the issues themselves. So it’s important to make sure there’s a balance and ecology in the theatre world, and that’s what I’m trying to do. But also for me, it’s also interesting to see how much can I push the actors and the script in a way which doesn’t have to rely on props. Some people are lighting designers, or set designers, but I’m not. If I were to use the props, they’re not my strengths.

Are there any directors in Perth who are doing those things that you find really interesting?

There’s this company called Improve Silence – one of my actor friends is one of the producers of this company- and they recently made a show so that is character based, and I finds that interesting to watch. There was another show by The Last Great Hunt; it wasn’t so recent, they already did a second part. [It starred] Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs, and they’re just storytelling on stage. And that was a really interesting performance, because it was really stripped bare. But saying that, The Last Great Hunt do produce other shows with effects. [They did] one that involved puppetry and there was no dialogue, but the characterisation was interesting.   I couldn’t do anything like that. Even if you have your style, still I think it’s important to see what’s around.

I suppose you can know your own style and still be informed by other performers and other ways of doing things.

You need that variation. But I think, for me, you can’t look at a different style without knowing your own style first. Otherwise, especially at an emerging level, you will get swept in and it’ll just be too much. Even with this production, ‘I have to say no, I’m making a decision, this is how it’s going to be.’ Just because something’s in trend, doesn’t mean you should always choose it. It has to be right for the story. I always have to ask myself ‘does it serve the story?’  And sometimes it won’t.

Our review of Five, Six, can be found here.

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