Director Jen Tan is currently working on the world premiere of Julie Tsang’s psychological thriller Fix. She tells Ruth Comerford about the influence of East Asian horror films on her direction of the play and how she is keeping her ancestors happy during the process…
Tell me about the show
It’s a completely original story. I would say it’s the most Eurasian play I’ve ever come across. What it does brilliantly is bring together European fairy tales like the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which have a very dark side to them, with East Asian folklore, particularly ghost stories and tales of retribution. The male character is a young, modern, European man, who flits between those two cultures. Julie is a really interesting writer with a bold mind.
What is influencing your direction?
It is difficult finding playable stories for actors when the action is vague. It’s important to stage the action moment by moment, so that the audience doesn’t 100% know what’s going on. In that sense, I have drawn on East Asian horror films – such as Audition, where there’s a narrative, but you get to the end of the film and think: which of these strands were followed, or did none of this happen? We’ve done a lot of work on authenticity. There is also a spirit world that exists in our show, which has rules, so it’s about making sure we follow the laws of that world.
What research have you done?
The male character in the show repairs washing machines for a job, and our actor has spent time with a washing machine repairman in order to figure out what goes on in the profession. We’ve been looking at East Asian fables from our ancestors because we are a real mixed bag, and we’ve spoken to older members of our family to check that certain things we are using in the show won’t bring bad luck or make our ancestors angry.
After training as an actor, what drew you to directing?
I’m a massive theatre nerd and I was finding that the shows I wanted to see weren’t necessarily the shows that I could be in. I like having the agency to choose which story I tell. Between university and drama school, I spent a number of years working as an IT project manager, so directing draws on that ability to organise and encourage a team.
What do you think needs to change in the industry?
Big question. When I started out, there were several new-writing theatres that had proper literary departments with open submissions. It feels like a lot of that entry has been turned into a competition; you have to win something to put a play on, so it’s really hard because of financial pressures. You see that with actors as well. Many of the opportunities have parameters – you’re only allowed to be emerging if you’re young. You find yourself between criteria, and if you don’t fit, it’s very difficult.
What advice would you give to emerging directors?
I’d say hold your nerve and trust the work. Trust actors and audiences, because everyone is smarter than you think.
Training: One-year acting course at the Oxford School of Drama (2007-08); StoneCrabs’ Young Directors Training Programme (2014-15)
First professional role: Theatre-in-education play about road safety, which toured primary schools (2009)
Fix runs at the Pleasance Theatre in London from January 14 to February 1: pleasance.co.uk