Do you like your job? Or wonder what it would be like if you’d gone against your parents’ advice and pursued your dream career? Her World’s Career Confessions column spotlights the professional journeys of its subjects and reveals how each individual’s career path and the choices they have made can have an impact on their personal finances, psychological health, and interpersonal relationships.
Actress and writer Jo Tan is a natural on stage. Before the prolific theatre actress found her calling in acting, however, she was a lawyer who was called to the Singapore bar in 2005. Unlike most of the other lawyers in her cohort, she quit the profession the very day she was admitted.
Rather than practising law, she chose to pursue writing and performing instead – interests that she had always had a fervent ardour for. She wrote arts and lifestyle articles for various Singaporean and international publications; spent a year in world-renowned Parisian clown college École Philippe Gaulier; and worked on stage as well in television and film as both an actress and scriptwriter.
Today, Jo is an award-winning thespian known for telling familiar stories from unexpected perspectives. She clinched the Best Actress award at the Straits Times Life Theatre Awards in 2020 for her self-penned one-woman show Forked, and again in 2022 for another one-woman show she wrote, King, which also earned her the Best Original Script award.
Most recently, Jo joined the well-loved cabaret trio Dim Sum Dollies, replacing Denise Tan, and performed in the show Still Steam. She’s also part of the local ground-up art initiative Project Lionheart, which seeks to amplify lived experiences from the ground and share them as stories through art installations, wall murals, music and theatre performances, as well as short films. Jo debuted her mini musical performance, Unmute, which tells the story of three individuals and their journey of strength and persistence during the pandemic.
Few can boast that they are able to wear as many hats as Jo Tan, but as she notes below, it’s not an easy endeavour. This is her career confession.
Name: Jo Tan
Highest Education: LLB (Hons) Law
Job Title & Industry: Actor/Writer
Years of Work Experience: 20+
Salary: It fluctuates every month between $2,000 to $10,000 (occasionally, if I really hustle)
Tell us a little bit about your life and how you grew up.
I used to be called ‘weird’ a lot, because I had a very vague understanding of social cues while wanting very hard to be liked. I once cheered for the wrong team at a football match and my entire class stared at me, but I was really just operating on the understanding that when the ball goes into the net, you have to make loud sounds. Ironically, it’s only in recent years where being ‘weird’ is seen as ‘cool’ (or at least better than being basic), that I’ve learnt how to assimilate. This analysis of human behaviour has been very useful for my acting jobs.
What do you do, and how would you describe your career?
I act and write for both stage and screen, and increasingly, I’ve also been hosting and singing as well. I don’t call these things my passion; to me, it’s the same concept as breathing – you wouldn’t call it your passion. They’ve just become what I do, and they bring me incredible joy and excitement, and sometimes extreme anxiety and sadness. They’ve become part of my identity, which is probably unhealthy.
Is this the career path that you envisioned for yourself, or do you wish you were doing something else?
When I was a kid, ‘actor’ and ‘writer’ were just two items on my dream career list, which also included being a police officer, fireman, doctor…whatever the lead character was doing on the 7pm show on Channel 8. But at some point when I realised I wasn’t bad at acting and writing, I wondered how good I could be if I kept at it. The next thing I know, 20 years have passed by [since I started pursuing these goals].
Sometimes, I do wish I was doing something less open to judgement. I trained at a clown school in Paris – Ecole Philippe Gaulier – where if the audience didn’t laugh at you within 10 seconds of your appearance, you were kicked offstage. I occasionally have insomnia during rehearsals and performances, worrying about that knife-edge you have to walk to keep the audience engaged, and sometimes some people just won’t like you no matter what.
Other times, [working in this field is] just a whole bunch of wonderful people playing together and making something beautiful – and this is the high I keep chasing.
Other times, [working in this field is] just a whole bunch of wonderful people playing together and making something beautiful – and this is the high I keep chasing.Jo Tan
I understand that you quit being a lawyer the day you were admitted into the bar. Tell us about the reason(s) behind your decision back then, and how you felt.
I really didn’t like most of the legal partners I was working for. When I got offered a part in a play that was taking place after I was called to the bar, I just thought: ‘I promised my mother I would qualify as a lawyer; now that I have, it’s time to go’.
I’ve also realised that what I was mostly excited about in law was courtroom dramatics, which takes place much less often than drama dramatics. It’s lucky for the population at large that I didn’t practise. I just wasn’t systematic, empathetic, and careful enough at that point in time.
Ironically, I might be a much better lawyer now.
How is your work going now? Would you change anything about it?
This year will be interesting! In 2022, I was very visible with the return of the Dim Sum Dollies; main season W!ld Rice shows; and being on the radio.
This year, I’ll be more busy – albeit less visible – as my shows will be in smaller theatres, which is actually something I really enjoy because it’s more intimate. My scripts will also be taking the forefront. My first full-length play, Forked, will be available for study in a school; two of my recent plays will be restaged, including King (a play about gender and feminism in Singapore) and Session Zero (a play about Dungeons and Dragons that has actually gotten the game distributors’ attention); and two new plays, one called Happy Place (inspired by my deejaying experience) as well my own version of a work by a UK-based artist called The Future Show will be staged.
I don’t know if this year will mark a shift in my career, but I’m excited.
Tell us a little more about your new musical ‘Unmute’. What inspired it? How long have you been working on it with Project Lionheart?
The idea for this mini-musical was discussed with Project Lionheart in mid-2022, and when it got the go-ahead, I wrote it with feedback from my director and mentor Chong Tze Chien. I then redrafted it, recruited collaborators, and have been performing it with them around the island since last December.
Unmute was inspired by the philosophy of Project Lionheart itself, which aims to shift the spotlight to the everyday folk who made huge differences to lives around them over the past three years. I wanted to put some of these stories around me onstage, tell them through the delightfully corny medium of parody songs (which everybody including me were putting on social media during the pandemic), and make it feel like a party with dancing and laughter.
Have you ever felt stage fright or a lack of confidence when performing? If so, how did you overcome it?
Of course! The strategy I try to remember is to focus on communicating with the audience and (when you have one) your co-performer, instead of thinking about how well I am doing. The best performances take the focus away from each performer’s ego, and place it on how the story is being told.
The best performances take the focus away from each performer’s ego, and place it on how the story is being told.Jo Tan
Share with us a little about your current salary and compensation. How has it had an impact on your life?
It’s probably not what I would have gotten as a lawyer but it’s served me well so far! I’m debt-free, I travel when I want, eat what I want, and wear what I want. It doesn’t hurt that my tastes are far from expensive. My love of performance extends to passing off low-price buys as expensive ones – almost all my friends remember when they compliment me on an outfit to have me respond “THANKS IT WAS $8 FROM CAROUSELL”.
I generally only buy secondhand fashion nowadays – it’s my small way to try to be as ecologically friendly as I can.
Do you feel pressure to have a successful career, or to earn more money? If you do, is it mainly internal or external pressure?
Internal, sometimes. In this line, you’re only as good as your last show, and even an amazing last show might not guarantee future work, which is why you’re always rebuilding your career from further back than you would expect to be.
External, always. In a line that doesn’t come with promotions and pensions, other people can decide what the markers of success are. For freelancers working locally, if you haven’t been on a long-form TV sitcom or a bank commercial recently, it doesn’t matter if you’re winning national theatre awards and accolades – some people can still decide that you’re unsuccessful. It can sometimes feel like you have to constantly explain yourself to fight for respect.
Would you say that your life is primarily career-oriented?
Yes, tragically. When I’m not working on a project, I kind of don’t know what to do with my day.
If you could tell your younger or future self something, what would you say?
Go to the dentist, it’s not that scary.
Anything else you would like us to know?
I play Dungeons and Dragons, and I’m training in fight choreography at Sandbox Training Ground.