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From Law to ‘Forked’: Actor and Playwright Jo Tan Says It Like It Is7 min read

10 December 2020 5 min read


From Law to ‘Forked’: Actor and Playwright Jo Tan Says It Like It Is7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Despite informing her superiors at work about an audition later in the evening, a young Jo Tan found herself stacked with an ever-increasing workload that would have been impossible to finish by the day’s end. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She found herself at a crossroads: to either commit to her passion for theatre or abandon it in favour of a career in law.

Fortunately for us, Jo chose the former. Today, she is a prolific performer and playwright, with over 16 years of experience in theatre, television and film. Some of her notable works include her award-winning one-woman show Forked and her starring role in local film Tiong Bahru Social Club.

Joined by host Nicholas Chee for the second instalment of Say it like it is, Jo candidly shared her insights, hopes and growth as she reflected on her journey so far. The four-part series will feature figures from Singapore’s creative and cultural industries in heart-to-heart conversations about their arduous rise to success. Made possible with the support of Our Singapore Fund, the series will be livestreamed for the next two Fridays at 4:30 pm on Facebook group SG COVID-19 Creative/Cultural Professionals & Freelancers Support Group.  

Ever since she was a child, Jo’s mother always had an impression she liked drama and sent her to theatre classes, including at Act 3 International. While pursuing law at the National University of Singapore, Jo found a community with Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) The Young Company.

(Jo starring in The Little Company’s staging of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ in 2004 / Photo credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre)

It was during her time as a pupil when she auditioned for the role of Emily Gan in 2007’s staging of Off Centre and as one of the Dim Sum Dollies. Already having a bad time with the firm she was with, Jo decided to take a hard left from a potential career in law and towards fulfilling her passions.

Amongst her first professional paid jobs as an actor was with SRT’s The Little Company productions Rumpelstiltskin, The Gingerbread Man and Scrooge. Looking back, she is grateful for these opportunities presented to her by The Little Company’s founder Tracie Pang, and expresses regrets for her attitude back then, feeling that she did not live up to Tracie’s expectations.

Following productions with The Necessary Stage and Drama Box, Jo made the leap to film with a starring role in Ho Tzu Nyen’s film Here, an official selection at the 41st Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes Film Festival 2009. On the challenges she faced crossing over to screen acting, she said: “As a young actor, I was quite insecure. I always felt that I had to be funny, be super entertaining, or be super ‘big’ which really does not translate well on screen.” 

Similar to her time with The Little Company, Jo felt that she could have shed off her immaturity working on Here, and wish she had better known the value of opportunities back then. She remembers Oliver Pang, owner of cafe bar Going Om and part-time actor, sitting her down for a conversation where she realised that her attitude needed to change.

Since then, Jo has starred in several local productions in both television and theatre, including her award-nominated role in FRAGO and in television series Scrum Tigers. She made a breakthrough as a playwright with Forked, where her one-woman staging of the play won her the Best Actress prize at this year’s The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards. More recently, she was named as part of Tatler’s Gen. T list for 2020, which recognises the leaders of tomorrow in shaping Asia’s future.

The global pandemic has devastated the local theatre scene with the year’s slate of performances and cultural events either cancelled or postponed. Jo considers herself and her actor husband Edward Choy to be fortunate throughout the pandemic so far. Earlier in the year, they performed spoof songs on YouTube, which led to similar commissions from OneService SG and MapleTree Arts in the City. 

(Even a fractured toe didn’t stop Jo from her one-woman performance of ‘Forked’ in 2019 / Photo credit: Jo Tan)

An interview with The Straits Times revealed that, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the couple’s home has been transformed into a film set for commercials and skits.

With the restrictions, being a married couple also meant that they were able to take on roles and work that others could not, including starring in K. Rajagopal’s short The Distance Between Us: Five Minutes as part of the StoriesTogether initiative. During their spare time, they picked up new skills, including video editing, which Jo shared on Say it like it is, has been vital for her profession with most casting today done through self-tape auditions. 

2020 has seen Jo write and perform King for T:>works’ N.O.W. Festival of Women, A Bit for Checkpoint Theatre’s video series Two Songs and a Story. She also wrote and directed Lights Up! The Non-Essential Chan-Tan Songbook. Put together in two weeks and shot over two days at the Esplanade, the musical is available for free online till the end of the year.

Jo’s next performance — and her first stage show in 2020 —will be as part of the Dim Sum Dollies in Dream Academy’s Crazy Christmas Fun-raiser Concert – Keep the DREAM Alive from 15 to 20 December. Her next appearance will come slightly earlier with her starring role in local film Tiong Bahru Social Club, which opens islandwide today, 10 December. 

As for the near future, Jo hopes to be in another movie and to be back on stage soon to “dig into a very complex role”. She also hopes to downgrade and sell off her HDB flat for a profit which will go towards her retirement fund. 

All these and more, including her time at theatre school École Philippe Gaulier (with Jo’s impression of the world-renowned master clown), the value of children’s theatre, and the importance of keeping a digital presence, on this episode of Say it like it is. Follow Jo on Instagram @jodecro

On the next episode, the talk show will welcome award-winning singer-songwriter, record producer, music composer and performer Shabir to the red sofa. Catch the show this Friday, 9 December, 4:30 pm on Facebook.

Episode timestamps:
(1:59) Start of episode
(4:48) Self-introduction by Jo
(9:20) On Tiong Bahru Social Club
(16:16) On being on Gen. T’s Leaders of Tomorrow 2020 list
(18:47) “How has the year been like so far?”
(26:41) On her work with the T:>Works N.O,W. Festival of Women
(29:17) “Once Circuit Breaker was lifted, did you get guys get calls for auditions and work?”
(30:52) On how she got started with theatre work
(38:09) On her first experiences with theatre
(41:20) On the value of children’s theatre and her role as Emily Gan in Off Centre
(44:55) On the challenges crossing over from theatre work to screen work
(47:38) On her performance in Here and her experience at Cannes
(55:10) On her experience at École Philippe Gaulier  
(59:32) On FRAGO
(1:02:59) On Lights Up! The Non-Essential Chan-Tan Songbook
(1:05:11) On Forked
(1:10:05) On if she has any worries of being typecasted
(1:13:24) On her greatest fears
(1:17:51) On her regrets
(1:24:44) On the roles and projects that were the most rewarding for her
(1:26:10) On if she prefers theatre or film
(1:27:45) On her aspirations
(1:30:43) On Crazy Christmas Fun-raiser Concert – Keep the DREAM Alive

Read more:
“We Must Dare to Venture Beyond Our Comfort Zone”: Actor/Action Director Sunny Pang Says It Like It Is
Film Review: ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’ is a Dazzling Tribute to Singapore’s Oldest Housing Estate
Sinema.SG LIVE! Episode #14: Actors Jo Tan and Edward Choy

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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