Loose Canons08.08.23
#Loose Canons

Loose Canons: Nathan Joe

Loose Canons is a series where we invite artists we love to share five things that have shaped their creative practice. Playwright, theatremaker and performance poet Nathan Joe shares five pivotal things from his life.

Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.

Award-winning Chinese-Kiwi playwright, theatremaker and performance poet (2020 National Slam Champion). Nathan’s play Scenes from a Yellow Peril had its world premiere at Auckland Theatre Company in June 2022. He curates the BIPOC spoken-word showcase DIRTY PASSPORTS at Basement Theatre, and directed Yang/Young/杨 for Auckland Theatre Company’s Here and Now Festival. He is the recent 2021 Bruce Mason Playwriting Award winner, and currently working as the creative director at Auckland Pride.

Nathan Joe deconstructs the domestic drama into a Groundhog Day-style series of failed reconciliations. Losing Face is a love story grappling in the intersections of race, sexuality, love and fatherhood. Entertaining, accessible, thought-provoking. The play was shortlisted for ADAM NZ Playwriting Award 2022. At Q Theatre, from 9 - 19 August 2023. Find out more here.

The Glass Menagerie (or THE GREAT AMERICAN PLAY)

I don’t suspect Tennesee Williams, at the 1944 premiere of his play about a family of three in St Louis, Missouri, would one day touch some gay Chinese kid in Tāmaki Makaurau. But it did. I suspect he did it to exorcise his own ghosts, and to articulate the things swimming around his heart and head..

I don’t know if my love of theatre and playwriting can be easily pointed to any particular moment, yet The Glass Menagerie with its blue roses has been tattooed onto my arm, so there must be something in that (beyond early twentysomething impulsiveness).

Of all the GREAT AMERICAN PLAYS, this is the one I often come back to, because it concludes with no easy or obvious moral lesson. It resists didacticism in the pursuit of emotional truth, and, on paper, isn’t particularly dramatic. But the emotional simplicity of it devastated me. I identified with both siblings, Tom and Laura, so severely. The very thought of this play ruins me.

Here are characters desperate to stay tender hearted, despite harsh realities often at odds with those desires. No, to dream and hope is a dangerous thing. And to open yourself up to truth or reality is a recipe for hurt and disaster.

Recently, I visited the Harry Ransom Center (Austin, Texas), where the earliest drafts of the play rest in it’s archive. It is stunning to see a playwright having worked and reworked an idea so many times over. The seed was there from the beginning but evolved to become radically different. While I have yet to match this level of rigour, this is the benchmark for what I would love to pursue in my own work. In any creative work, really. A work where the artist has invested something of themselves, and that investment is met with a craft and intention that cannot be denied. Reworked until it is the trust, most honest, most lucid, version of itself is in plain sight.

A work of heart-bending empathy. A work wracked with guilt. A work etched onto my body and soul combined.

The Lumière Reader (or THE JOYS OF CRITICISM)

In my late teenager years, I stumbled across Roger Ebert’s Great Movies series at the Christchurch Public library. These volumes, collecting his reassessments and apprecations of film classics, pointed me towards filmmakers like Yasuijo Ozu and Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes.I started my  journey as a “serious film buff” and wrapped my entire identity around cinema. I watched films I was far too young to grapple with, I watched films I loved because they made me feel mature. In many ways, Ebert was my first criticism teacher. With great insight and simplicity, he spoke of the virtues of all these films. From that point onwards, I developed a deep love of reading reviews, criticism, etc. The way someone loves something tells you so much about what they love about it. The moments they latch onto. The things that bother them formally, aesthetically, or, most importantly, ideologically.

Stumbling across The Lumière Reader, it was remarkable to know that there were New Zealanders - actual Kiwis who were as invested (more invested actually) in this thing called criticism. It sort of blew my naive smalltown mind. I thought I was so alone in my capacity to appreciate, so unique. It meant so much to me to know that it existed.

When I emailed the founder, Tim Wong, to write for The Lumière Reader back in 2014, I didn’t think I’d be engaging in a lifelong apprenticeship. If the site, as it once was, has since disappeared, with only a sliver of what it once was online in archive, its spirit remains. It shaped the way I watched or talked about movies. I learnt to take it seriously, which is to say more deeply.

The ability to articulate what I liked felt important to me at the time, even if I wasn’t always as honest as I aspired to be. Or wanted to be. I felt I was inching closer and closer to a more authentic and clear version of myself and my tastes. We write to understand something better. We write to understand ourselves better.

Many of my greatest artistic relationships and happenings can be traced back to criticism. Much of my favourite writing too. Consumption and celebration of art as its very own creative practice.

I think of the critics, cultural or otherwise, who have put time aside to write about the things they love, to draw unsuspecting people to the things they might love. To make them think deeply.

2019 NZ Slam Championship (or PERFORMANCE POETRY)

If 2020 would prove more significant, in that I actually won the National Slam that year, 2019 remains high on the bar for formative first experiences. It was here, that I found my confidence as a performer and rose to the occasion. My first National Poetry Slam, first slam in my hometown, first time slamming in front of many many strangers, and first time competing against many friends from Auckland.

For the uninitiated, poetry slams are events where poets get 3 minutes to do their thing, with audience votes, and up to 3 rounds. It’s competitive poetry, poetry as sport.

It’s a much maligned art form. Much mocked. Oh and, yeah, I’ve seen people take them far too seriously. And, oh, I’ve seen tears. But when it’s good, there’s nothing quite like it. Storytelling stripped to its most essential form. In its best, most transcendent moments, I believe the world can be changed (or at least agitated) 3-minutes at a time.

When I wasn’t sure what theatre could do for me anymore, I had these 3 minutes on stage that didn’t need all the trappings of a play. Performance Poetry has provided me with a creative anchor when the infrastructure of theatre could not hold me.

If I ever worried I was being too self-involved, too navel-gazy, none of that mattered on the night of the 2019 Slam. I might not have won (Eric Soakai took the title), but I came a strong 3rd and left feeling something had shifted inside me permanently.

At the risk of being overly earnest, performance poetry probably changed my entire practice. I went from self-consciously avoiding parts of my identity to tackling them head on. I could write about myself. I could speak as myself. There was no need to hide behind the veil of character. I was enough.

It is as Sean Thomas Dougherty poeticizes in “Why Bother”:


Back in 2013, I had a somewhat dubious workshop for my first play. This was partly due to the unformed state of the play itself, but also the ill-fitting team surrounding it (an all-Pakeha room for my mostly Asian play). It wasn’t the most promising start to my playwriting career.

Four years later, Proudly Asian Theatre’s landscape-changing Fresh Off the Page would begin, and soon after, there would be a home for new Asian plays. But, at the time, unluckily for me there was no community to hold me yet. I was less than the new kid on the block; I was just some nobody giving playwriting a go, put in a room with professional Pākehā theatre-makers. They did their job, but the sector had no infrastructure to hold a work of my intersections (gay asian maleness continues to be underrepresented). Suffice to say, that play never made it to the stage.

Luckily there was someone who had time for me. That person was Stuart Hoar, who was working for Playmarket and assigned as my script advisor. He has offered many words of gentle encouragement over the years. He offered no illusions of what playwriting might be. He never shied away from saying what he thought. And I appreciated that.

There are many people I can claim as champions of my work in different ways, from directors who have staged my work (Patrick Graham, Sam Phillips, Chye-Ling Huang, Jane Yonge) to the many producers (Jordan Keyzer, Ankita Singh, Sums Selvarajan, Nahyeon Lee) who have made it possible, or the artistic directors who have programmed it in their spaces (Gabrielle Vincent, Nisha Madhan, Jonathan Bielski). Or the forces behind the scenes (Murray Lynch, Salesi Le’ota, James Wenley, Renee Liang, Marianne Infante) tinkering away. Or simply friends (too many to name). I owe so much to all of them.

But Stuart was an anchor during a deeply vulnerable creative threshold for me, one of my earliest champions. I think, if not for him, that might have been it. I would’ve binned it in the too hard basket.

We all need champions in what can be an incredibly lonely and isolating industry. Yes, we should be able to advocate for our own work, but goddamn being your only champion would suck. It is important in an arts infrastructure that often forgets, that often is operating under stress and scarcity, that we have people to push us forward, people who can witness what we do, recognise it and reflect it back to us.

Perhaps Stuart is a metaphor for all the kind advocates in my life who have spurred on my career. They can be thanked. They can be blamed. I am here because of you.

Horniness (or MY QUEER DESIRE)

While I would never define myself or my art by my horniness, I always find myself drawn back towards smut and sexuality, whether in the form of low or highbrow. The feeling of horniness as well as horny representation.

When I think of horniness, I think of Cruel Intentions, with Ryan Phillipe’s bare bottom revealed to titillate Reese Witherspoon’s gaze (and therefore my gaze). No to mention the corrupt tease of step-incest hanging like a thick smog in the air. Things were very different in the 90s.

I think of Justin Chin’s horniness fused with rage and anger in his punk-filled scream of a poem:

Lick my butt

cos I’m an angry ethnic fag

& I’m in so much pain

so lick my butt

Horniness is the centre of so much of my queerness, because it is the thing that drove me to illicit late night hookups, and the thing I chastised myself the most severely for. The thing I am always working to reconcile, to remain sex positive without my horniness being simply another tool for late capitalism to commodify and corrupt.

I want to be horny and abject and profane on my own terms.

I think of Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche and James Badlwin’s Giovanni’s Room which places you in the minds of destructive queer male gazes.

I think of Samuel Te Kani’s Please Call Me Jesus with its absolute sense of true transgression and shock, but also where his horniness meets storytelling meets craft.

I think too, of Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, how perversely and casually it captured smalltown ennui, the feeling of being too queer, too much, too haunted. Horniness as futile escape.

I think of how horniness is hard to separate from danger and mortality for queer people. The sex and death drive, two sides of the same cum and blood soaked coin. A car hurtling down the motorway with no destination, a passenger with no seatbelt on, a head screaming out the window.

Header photo by Ankita Singh, edited/resize by Sherry Zhang

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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