Pretty Butch - creating stories that break the binaries
"We make expectations based on gender so often that we don’t stop to consider why we think an effeminate man is weak, and why a masculine woman is less attractive. Would we have less sweeping judgements of people if we took time to understand their struggles?"
Tan Liting's 'Pretty Butch' is a binary-bending new play and the latest work to feature in our Fresh off the Page playreading series, bringing brand new Asian works from around the globe to the Basement Theatre in Auckland. A Singaporean playwright, Liting works full time as a theatre practitioner with an interest in devising performance from personal stories. Liting’s past directorial credits include Pretty Butch (M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017), The Truth About Lying: Heresy and Common Sense for the Theatre (The Finger Players), Taking The Subs (The Substation Director’s Lab), (When I’m) Sixty Four (Ageless Theatre), Re: Almost Left Behind (Singapore Arts Festival 2011), Almost Left Behind (NUS Thespis). Liting also teaches drama in schools, and has trained her students in both performance and backstage work, in the hopes of providing a more balanced experience in theatre training and performance. Liting likes conversation, hearing and telling a good story. (Liting also likes guitars, sneakers and referring to Liting in third person.)
Marianne Infante, producer of Fresh Off the Page, interviews Tan Liting on their journey of creating 'Pretty Butch' and the motivations behind their work concentrating on femininity and masculinity rather than the scope of sexuality.
What was the inspiration behind Pretty Butch, or how did the story of Pretty Butch spark up for you?
Initially I wanted to write a documentary play about being butch in Singapore. This was in early 2015, when there was an open call for the M1 Singapore Fringe festival 2016. The theme back then was Art and the Animal, and there was this sense that a masculine presenting woman was looked at as if she was an animal: not nearly man enough, and not feminine enough to be considered beautiful or pretty. But it turned out that the work was more suited for the theme of 2017: Art and Skin, and so the development process began. I found myself with more time to develop the work, which I was very grateful for.
I started writing the play with the intention of interviewing people who identified as butch and using the transcripts as material. However, people were not ready to accept ‘butch’ as a label on themselves, so I only managed to get 4 people who responded. At the same time, I was also keen to deal with some personal demons, and so I began to look inwards. The play began to take its current shape about 9 months into the writing process, and I just rolled with it. This is 28 different drafts later, and I am still finding things to improve. I suppose when you deal with an intensely personal subject matter, you will never be fully satisfied with its expression.
How does the story resonate with you?
All these characters are a part of me, imagined or otherwise. They are a reflection of me, at least at the point of writing. I have grown much since the first time this play was performed, but there is still a lot of the play in me.
You've mentioned in interviews that you didn't want the focus of the play to be on sexuality, but rather on the topic of masculinity and femininity. Why did you choose this as your focus?
I guess when you write a queer play, there is a lot more focus on coming out, on being different, on having power over your own sexuality (or not). I didn’t feel like that was my fight. I wanted to discuss something that was a lot more universal, and not just a ‘queer’ thing.
In the writing process, I also wanted to discuss ‘masculinity’. It felt like one of those subjects that people were afraid to touch. A lot of people asked me why in a play about being butch, there are 2 straight male characters. Someone even said that they felt that straight men had all the airtime in a lot of artistic work, and that I should have given more space to ‘butch’ characters. My response was this: men find it the hardest to talk about masculinity. This self reflection is often seen as weakness.
Straight men may dominate social discourse, but this is an area they find difficult to talk about: I simply wanted to open those doors and let some light in.
We are living in an age where we have a broader and more diverse understanding of sexuality: but the conversation we are finding difficult to have was more about gender: what standards do we hold biologically male or female persons to? What does it actually mean to be male or female? Gender and sexuality are completely separate, and yet we can’t seem to talk about gender without thinking about sexuality.
What kind of conversation are you hoping to begin through 'Pretty Butch'
I hope the play challenges your preconceived notions of gender and leads you to question what you believe to be male and female. A lot of these things are taken for granted: we make expectations based on gender so often that we don’t stop to consider why we think an effeminate man is weak, and why a masculine woman is less attractive. Would we have less sweeping judgements of people if we took time to understand their struggles?
How has the development process and the journey of creating this play been for you, and what's next for the play?
It’s an ongoing process that is still unfolding right now. I am constantly surprised by how little I still know about the topic. I am learning new things everyday, and challenging my own perceptions the more I work on this play.
I hope it keeps growing, keeps getting translated, and keeps finding spaces in different cultural contexts. We are taking the text to Taipei and we are finding an interesting dynamic between the characters in the play and the cultural context of Taiwan as the LGBTQIA capital of East Asia. I hope Pretty Butch keeps asking questions in different places, and grows together with the conversation about gender and identity we are currently having: until one day, we will read the play and discover how irrelevant it has become. When that day comes, the world would be a lot more accepting, and I hope the play can finally be laid to rest.
Check out Pretty Butch as part of our playreading series, Fresh off the Page, Wednesday 27th June at 8.30pm, Basement Theatre Studio!