The upcoming M1 Fringe Festival was in the news in recent days when two of its shows came under fire from "concerned citizens" for excessive nudity, followed by the IMDA declining to give the shows ratings. The latest in the saga came when the M1 team announced that it would withdraw the shows rather than compromise them by editing and resubmitting for a rating (see our interview with director Sean Tobin here). But amidst all that, there is a very intriguing Singaporean play taking shape for its debut at the festival. Stage manager-turned-director Tan Liting's Pretty Butch will deal with the issue of gender expression, specifically among masculine-presenting women in Singapore, and the complications that lie therein. The play, Tan's first as both writer and director, came up through the festival's Boiler Room program last year and is currently in rehearsal.

Here we speak to her about the many twists and turns the writing of the script took, and what life is like as a butch woman in Singapore.

Tan Liting (photo credit: David Lee)

Tell us about the process of putting the script together for Pretty Butch. You interviewed people for their accounts.

Yes I did, although not as many people as I had hoped. I think the word still affects people in a very strange way. When I put the open call out for interviewees there was a very cold response. So I worked with whomever who would speak to me regarding how the term related to them. We sat down together over coffee and had a conversation about their experiences growing up and how they have dealt with being labelled butch or labelling themselves butch. I thought I would write a verbatim play with those interviews, but it didn’t feel right. The material was too casual and on the surface, which I think came from speaking with a stranger.

So what did you do instead?

I used the stories as entry points into certain issues I wanted to discuss, and began to write creatively from there. I started to write more extensive back stories, and started to develop certain characters. I arrived at a very monologue-heavy, five-character draft, which read better as prose than drama. Then the writing process began to move in a different direction, and I started writing dialogue, scenes and something more dramatic. I’m eight drafts in now, and I think I’ve arrived at a draft that I’m ready to direct.

So you set out to do verbatim theater, in the vein of The Vagina Monologues or Twilight, Los Angeles, but the material did not permit it. Any regrets about that?

I don’t see this production of Pretty Butch as an end point. I like to work in different volumes or versions, and I see this version of Pretty Butch as the first stop. Hopefully I get to reach out to more people through this version of the work, and then I’ll be able to collect more interviews and then there’ll be a Pretty Butch 2.0 or Pretty Butch: The Interviews.

Sounds like the project has been a great lesson in writing and process as well.

In every creative endeavor you let the research and the material guide your hand, and this is where the material has led me at this point. Someone very wise once said to me, “As artists, we are storytellers.” I don’t think I’ve lost anything in changing direction with the play, because I really let the stories show me how to approach telling them. I haven’t lost anything because I haven’t found what the potential for verbatim theater is, and as I continue working on this topic, and surface more material, maybe the stories will lead me towards verbatim.

As a butch woman yourself, why was it important for you to work with this material?

Because everyone looks at a masculine woman and immediately thinks she’s, one: ugly; two: less of a woman and three: therefore not interesting. I wanted to change that. We forget very quickly that behind every skin there is a real, whole person with a soul. Masculine women, which is my definition of butch, are seen a certain way. People seem to be scared of them or look at them with disdain because they are different. So they tend to ignore their stories, People don’t want to talk about them. I thought that was grossly unfair and that it was important for this work to help open doors for dialogue and perhaps change people’s perceptions. I think issues of masculinity and femininity are things we don’t talk about enough, and it affects both men and women. I wanted to explore that in this work.

In the marketing and discussion around Pretty Butch and masculine-presenting women over the past few months, there hasn't been any mention of sexuality or homosexuality. To what extent is this deliberate?

Being butch goes beyond sexuality. While gender and sexuality are intimately related, I wanted to focus on gender and discuss that as opposed to sexuality. Gender expression and identity affects everyone, LGBTQI or not. We don’t talk about masculinity and femininity enough, and yet it affects us in so many different ways, sometimes in very insidious ways— like if someone told you, “You’re such a girl,” or to “Man up”. I wanted this play to resonate with the times someone tells you you’re not girly enough, or if someone tells you not to be a pussy, or if someone says you have such manly qualities.

What is your experience like as a butch woman in Singapore?

I always get stared at in the toilet people try to figure out if I’m a man or a woman. If I get stared at, I’ve learned to ignore it but if someone is nice enough to try and tell me that they think I’m in the wrong place, I usually say thank you, and my voice is a dead giveaway that I’m a woman. The other thing that happens a lot is when you try to go to ladies night to party with you friends, and the bouncer tells you that you have to pay because you’re not in the appropriate dress code, which just means you’re not showing enough skin in the way the male patrons in the bar or club want you to. I’ve been asked by a very innocent nine year-old kid why I don’t wear dresses. It was the cutest thing.

Those examples really highlight the fact that gender expression is a daily matter, not a vague political or sociological concept.

Yes, exactly. It’s like we don’t want to admit that we are not black and white. It’s not one or the other. People belong across the entire gender spectrum and express themselves differently, even in not overtly subversive ways. It’s been conditioned into us. It’s such an innate thing that people don’t realize they themselves could be subverting gender norms without knowing it, and yet they disapprove of those that do it more obviously—or look at others weirdly because a man is too effeminate—and it doesn’t mean he’s wearing a dress—or that a woman is too masculine—and she could be wearing a dress at that point. I wanted to get past the surface. You can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s as simple as that

Has your opinion of what it means to be butch changed during the course of doing this play?

I've learned to see past the label, and understand that it really doesn't matter what people call you: It's more important what you call yourself. And if you want to call yourself butch, that can be empowering. It can be a source of strength and confidence. That confidence can help an individual get through the toughest of days. 

What is the Kickstarter campaign for?

We're very grateful for the support from the festival so far, but we are still short on funds. My team and I are extremely passionate about this production and we really want to see these stories get told. This Kickstarter campaign, if successful, will allow us to pay for production costs and make sure that everyone in the production is properly paid for their time and effort. We've exhausted every other possible grant option, and so we really need help to raise the money. We're hoping that people will think that these stories need to be told and heard, and help us fund the production. We've got some really great rewards that are exclusive to Kickstarter, so we hope people will check us out and support us.

Pretty Butch is on Jan 11-14 at Black Box at Centre 42, as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. To support the production of Pretty Butch, visit the Kickstarter campaign here