Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Dark Nights in Toronto

by Jocelyn MacNeil, Theatre Ontario Youth Advisory Committee

How do you spend every other Monday night? Is it watching the Raptors game? Maybe if you’re like me, you’re watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo. This past Monday, I found myself sitting in a group made up of friends and strangers talking about what it means to be an artist under 30. It really speaks to my artistic dedication that I found myself at the Theatre Centre and not down the street at the Gladstone watching the season finale of RPDR. When I did sprint there immediately following the conversation, I had some new company in tow.

The event is called Dark Nights. The experience? Unlike any other you’re going to find in the city. Dark Nights was co-founded by Luke Reece and Wayne Burns, two lovely gentlemen determined to bring together and learn from leading artists under the age of 30 who may work in any manner of discipline.

I’ve been to Dark Nights a few times before, and I had even met Jeff Ho (the evening’s guest artist) previously at a panel I moderated the week before. Right from the beginning there was a cheerful energy to the group. Myself and my new friend seated next to me giggled through the entire oath (did I mention you take an oath? Don’t worry no blood sacrifice is required, not your first time anyway). I had a cliff notes understanding of some of his career experiences and was even lucky enough to have had a few of my questions answered already. I say cliff notes, but in actuality I had only encountered the tip of the iceberg that is Jeff Ho.
Jeff Ho

Jeff was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada in the early 2000s with his mother and brother. The apartment they lived in was tiny, the adjustment described as “a gigantic upheaval in my life.” Jeff explains that in China, the academic expectations are set at an incredibly young age; for example, it isn’t unlikely for toddlers to set their sights on Harvard. There was no shortage of giving up aspects of his identity to further adapt to the North American culture. He recalls a time in his childhood where he and his brother, Eric, looked through the phone book to find North American names for themselves; an event so significant that it made it into his latest show, TRACE.

Jeff goes on to explain how he was raised in a tiny apartment with his grandmother, mother and brother in Woodbridge, Ontario. His mother put him in piano because she believed the practice of the instrument would improve his math skills. (I’d like to point out that my parents started me in piano at 3 years old for the same reason and to this day I have no idea how long division works.)

Lucky for us, the piano turned out to be somewhat of a gateway drug to other art forms for Jeff, and he would eventually make the very scary decision to leave his new Canadian friends to transfer to an arts high school in Markham. It was this choice that affirmed his suspicions that he was meant to dedicate his life to the arts.

The discovery would drive a wedge between he and his mother, and it was halfway through grade twelve when Jeff ran away from home to audition for Concordia University. His mother issued an ultimatum, and it became clear that if he was going to pursue the career of an artist, he was going without familial support.

Hearing Jeff speak about these formative years, my heart hurt for his 17-year-old self, but I also felt moved by the bravery and stubbornness of a boy who knew what he exactly what he wanted. “When I’ve decided to go after something, there is absolutely nothing that will stand in my way” he declares.

If the transition from Hong Kong to Canada was tough, I can only imagine how hard the journey from Markham to Montreal was. Jeff talks about how he supported himself by playing the piano at weddings and gallery openings while surviving on tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He speaks to his deep love for Montreal and its people, and when referencing the theatre scene, he describes the French Canadian’s indifference to naturalism. “They don’t really give a f--k about it. To them, the theatre is an arena for symbolism.” When asked about his overall relationship to the city, he glows as he recalls how it felt like home for him, “The city informed so much of my taste, and living there helped me grow tremendously as an artist.”

It is around this time that Wayne asks Jeff when he decided to transition from Concordia to NTS (the National Theatre School of Canada). His answer? “When Sandra Oh won [the award].” He credits her as one of the reasons he went into acting in the first place. Later in the conversation, I ask him if he ever experienced some of the same struggles that the Grey’s Anatomy star did, for instance being told that she was too ethnic and essentially not cast-able. “I have a lot of anger”, he explains, “and like Sandra, that fuels my work.” He clarifies that his anger can get away from him sometimes, and it has the ability to hurt the people closest to him. That said, he has learned to accept it and even to incorporate it into his artistic instrument as opposed to suppressing it.

This is the first time that Jeff references how a strong woman has influenced himself and his work, but it definitely isn’t the last: enter Yaël Farber. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Farber is an award-winning director and playwright. She almost exclusively works with people of colour in her plays and has never had less than a 5-star review. Jeff describes how experiencing one of her shows will leave you confronted with a physical sensation. He recalls one of her most insightful quotes about theatre. “There are shows that are like anesthesia, and then there are shows that really wake you up.” Another quality Jeff admires about Farber is her inclination towards hiring someone based on their energy rather than their resume. He notes the time when she hired someone who had no previous acting experience, but the energy he brought with him into the room caught her attention.

After singing Farber’s praises that Jeff admitted that he doesn’t have many male role models; practically all of them are women. I don’t know why this struck a chord with me as intimately as it did—perhaps it was the fact that I haven’t encountered a lot of males in my life who are primarily occupied by the woman’s perspective, and in a non-patronizing way. Coming from a family populated by two brothers and dozens of male cousins, I was raised to equate a “woman’s intuition” with care-giving. It certainly didn’t encompass the thoughts and opinions of someone who might be considered a leader. And how does he recognize his interest in female sources of inspiration? Citing his mother, he describes how in spite of the fact that there is a lot of pain in that relationship, she prepared him for the world and he owes her so much. He explains that another aspect of his magnetism towards female heroes is his admiration for the strength of underdogs; he finds himself drifting towards the most unheard voice in the room.

By now you know a lot about where Jeff came from and what drives him, but I haven’t done a very good job of explaining his actual work as an artist in 2016. Don’t get me wrong, I find the former fascinating, and I could go on—but you’re probably wondering why Jeff is in the room in the first place.

Enter: Playwriting.

Jeff was trained as an actor at NTS but he admits that, as far as actors go, he can be pretty difficult in the rehearsal room. He confesses that he can never let go of his writer’s voice, and that causes him to disagree with directors from time to time. Playwriting wasn’t always on Jeff's radar, but when he was assigned a final project that required him to write a 20-minute solo show, he seized the opportunity.

“I loved the fact that it could be about anything I wanted, and no one could tell me I was wrong,” he explains. He ended up writing a show called Mary Queen of Scots, in part so he could dye his hair red. It ended up being more of a cabaret, lacking much of a narrative, but it was what helped him discover his appetite for writing. He recalls the parallels he felt between his own life and that of the Queen, who was exiled from her home. He felt a connection to her through his own experiences as a gay Asian male, an identity that often rendered him more of a fetish object than a person.

So where would this new path lead him? After graduation Jeff relocated to Toronto and booked Murderers Confess at Christmastime, which would win him an Emerging Artist Award at the 2013 Summerworks Festival. He quickly followed that up with a guest spot on Orphan Black. It was during this post-graduation success period that he remembers thinking, “wow, TV, film and theatre are going really well for me!” He hasn't booked a TV spot since.

It was during the six-to-seven-month post-graduation period of unemployment that Iris Turcott approached him about a script that was given to her by one of Jeff’s former teachers. This collaboration would result in a weekly one-on-one writing master class that would prove to be incredibly beneficial to Jeff.

As his passion for playwriting soared, Jeff admits to uttering perhaps the least familiar statement in the arts community: “I really consider acting to be more of my Joe Job now…” Cut to me audibly choking back my jealousy. He insists that treating the rehearsal process like working under a boss that you might not necessarily agree with but cooperate with in order to pick up a paycheck has really helped his process. It also brings renewed love for writing when he does get back to his own work. 

Another aspect of his unconventional workday is the time Jeff spends writing grants. He explains that he spends his 9-5 workday writing and applying for funding as I try to pick my jaw up off the floor. “They’re the motivation to survive,” he says. (Meanwhile, I punch out three tweets in a row and I’m exhausted.) He also acknowledges that grants really help him warm up to the idea he’s pursuing and that asking the questions the grant application requires encourages him to identify the specific intentions of his project.

I know Jeff may be coming across as a guy with an endless supply of patience—his simultaneously calm and engaging demeanor definitely convinced me as much—but he declares he has none at all. 

Case in point:
Wayne: “What does patience mean to you?”
Jeff: “NOTHING. I have ZERO patience.”
Pierre* (Jeff’s fiancé) chimes in: “Absolutely none.”

*A short haiku about Pierre:
He makes Jeff pasta
Everyone needs a Pierre
He transcends this poem

Jeff attributes this trait in part to the Hong Kong culture, a city of efficiency with glass partitions that prevent anxious subway riders from pushing other riders onto the tracks. The unspoken motto of the city, he says, is “If you’re slow, you die.”

It is during the discussion of various cities he’s lived in that Wayne seeks an answer to whether Jeff will ever return to Montreal, the place he identifies as his true home.

“I love how Toronto is closer to the ideal of inter-culturalism; Montreal did not do it for me. Chinatown was literally a street in Montreal. I also feel less aware of my ethnicity in Toronto, but if I become successful enough as a playwright and I could create from a distance, I would like to return some day."

At this point in the discussion I can feel myself attempting to write down every single word that’s said, as though if I could somehow bottle the inspiration I feel right now, I could channel it into my own work. The conversation flows on: Wayne asks Jeff about the status of his relationship with his mother and he explains the gradual process of mending a parental bond.

Two things that have really stuck with me (even now, which is days after the fact) are Jeff’s explanation of why he writes female characters, and how Cantonese influences more than just his language.

As men, there is certain gravitation towards writing stories about women—or so it has been told to me by two of the male writers in the room. In Jeff's case, he was brought up exclusively by females, and seeing their struggles so intimately left him feeling that it is his responsibility to dismantle the obstacles they face in society.

“I tell stories about real life situations. Things that happened to a woman, gender expectations, I want to talk about them, but I don’t want to identify with or say that I assume I know the experiences of women.”

When it comes to the influence that Cantonese has had on Jeff's work, you first have to understand that in this particular language, every sound can have up nine different inflections. Every word that is said, however short, can mean almost any number of things. The prime example of this happens to be Jeff’s favorite word. I will spare myself the embarrassment of trying to write it out phonetically, but know that it roughly translates to “heart so dear that is my life.” This imperative to identify the driving force of a conversation has led Jeff to describe himself as more of a poet than a playwright. "I don’t write a lot, and I’ve come to know the meaning in the minimal." Cantonese, he explains, does a great job of getting to the point of what you’re really saying in the least amount of words possible. 

It is also this rich tie to his culture that leaves Jeff fiercely opposed to explaining himself. Jeff believes that he doesn’t need to provide a window into what Asian culture is about in his work—he just wants to drop into that environment and let the audience discover it at their own pace. He continues, “White people don’t feel the need to explain their world, so why should I? We ask in the theatre for empathy, and not feeling the need to explain my culture is a great practice in that.”

The most magical thing about Dark Nights in my opinion is that you walk away feeling like you yourself have had an intimate conversation with the artist, when in reality the experience wouldn’t have been possible without co-directors Luke Reece and Wayne Burns. We were incredibly lucky on this night to have Wayne interviewing Jeff and Luke documenting the most inspirational quotes for the Twitterverse.

It was through this dialogue that I realized what I still need to define in terms of what I myself want to create. Do I want to make something that ignites fire or do I want to provide an artistic anesthetic? How will I use my voice to bring representation to voices that aren’t often heard? Also it’s clear that I need to find myself a Pierre—we ALL do.

I'm also coming to terms with the fact that I've now spent nearly three thousand words describing an essential event for artists when I really only needed two.

Dark Nights. 

Go, you must.

Dark Nights is a biweekly conversation series that was started by YAC 2015 alumni Luke Reece and Wayne Burns. You can visit their website www.darknights.ca to get more information on upcoming conversations.

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