Interview with Set Designer Tan Ju Meng

Tan Ju Meng, set designer 

Tan Ju Meng, set designer 

Ju Meng, you are an architect. You are trained to build houses. Real ones. The sort people actually live in. How did you get into set design? Building bluff things for bluff situations and characters that are unreal. 

I see my Architectural education as a way of understanding the world around us and the world of design. For me it's just a framework of understanding things and not limited to architecture with a capital "A". Hence, I've always been interested in trying other realms of design, graphic design, furniture, set design and so on. In fact, I take the way I see things into how I see management of projects, critiquing structures of all forms and systems. Moving laterally (design wise) into set design provided different design challenges to me, different criteria of design. Hey, isn't everything an "illusion" anyway? ;) It's all relative. What's happening on stage is "real"! What we see and feel is real. So to me it's just a different experience. Some people might even choose to live in a "set-like" environment! Come to think of it, isn't our home a set for our own lives?

What is it you enjoy about set design that you don't get from architecture? And vice versa? 

Well, I think that one big difference is the temporary nature of a theatre set. Also, a set in a theatre or event is primarily geared towards presenting a scene from fixed vantage points and (usually) less spatially plastic in nature than actual space for habitation. So, it's just different. I also feel that in set design, one can more readily explore ideas in metaphor, abstractions and exaggerations without being overly concerned with function. 

What do you remember about Tropicana the nightclub? 

The Dim Sum! I ate a lot in my young age and oddly, remember the food more than the topless shows! Haha! But maybe this was a sign of my future interest and profession, I remembered the screened facade of the building quite vividly.

When I mention 60s Singapore, what are the things you think about? Or that strike you?

Frankly, not much. Perhaps I was too young at that time. The most I remember of that time are probably of my kindergarten days at Sunrise Kindergarten along a row of shophouses along Orchard Road next to the old Heeren Building where I used to get my haircuts! Or more like head shaves. But I remember life as more idyllic, spacious, much slower and less urban. It's like a b/w photo/movie to me when i think of my life in the 60's.

What about the Tropicana play that grabs you most? 

I reflect on the dichotomy and tension of societal forces that shape how art is created and expressed back then and now. But when I first read the script, the first (positive) thought I had was that this show was going to express ideas beyond a typical feel-good-song-and-dance story. It's exploring universal and timeless themes and boundaries of artists' rights to freedom of expression and a life of free will.

Without too many spoilers, share something about what you are intending as the set for the play. 

There won't be too much glitz and glamour! But it won't lack drama!

One of the inspiration mood-board: My Fair Lady, Robert Carsen

One of the inspiration mood-board: My Fair Lady, Robert Carsen

You live in Santa Fe. Most people think that has something to do with Santa Claus. That's how far out it is. How in the world did this Singaporean get there?

The most recent popular reference to Santa Fe in Singapore might the song "Santa Fe" from Pangdamonium's production of RENT. I can believe Santa Fe used to have that vibe where American's romanticise about "opening up a restaurant  in Santa Fe". Haha. Traditionally, it's a place where people come to re-define their lives in a place that is not so American. But it's a small city in northern New Mexico in the USA at about 2100m. Back in the late 90's, I had a job offer there and so my wife and I decided that the opportunity to live there was hard to resist. We stayed for a couple of years before moving to Singapore. But about 8  years ago, we decided to go back to the US with our daughter. Santa Fe just came back to us.

Do you have a secret talent we don't know about?

I really don't know what you're talking about!

A little bird told me you are a self-thought musician. Play and record a segment of a 60s song. And no, you don't have to sing. 

Hardly a "musician"! Just "gorenging" around for personal pleasure. 

Give us a photo of a 60s icon that you love.