Over the years in attending Toronto productions, I’ve seen Jeff Ho’s name either as a writer or a performer. I had the chance to see his work in an extraordinary online production of ‘Orestes’ in 2020 through Tarragon Theatre.
Earlier in the pandemic when I began compiling this series, I was encouraged by someone to get in touch with Jeff simply because his work as an actor and playwright speaks for itself.
Before we began our Zoom interview, I asked Jeff how he had been faring during this time. He paused for a few seconds before he began to answer and I could just sense, like all of us have been feeling, that Jeff had a great deal on his plate during this year plus long absence from live theatre that he was unable early during the pandemic to be a part of the On-Stage Blog conversation. I so wanted him to be a part of this series and to add his voice to the discussion that I was determined not to give up in asking him.
When he finally sent me a message saying he would love to chat and to add his voice, I was elated and immediately blocked Zoom time with him.
Jeff is a Toronto-based theatre artist, originally from Hong Kong. Acting credits: Orestes (Tarragon Theatre), trace (Remount - NAC/Factory Theatre), Ophelia in Prince Hamlet (Why Not Theatre, national tour: Canadian Stage, PuSh Festival, and National Arts Centre), Hana's Suitcase (Young People's Theatre, tour: Toronto, Montreal and Seattle), Unknown Soldier (lemonTree creations/Architect Theatre), Murderers Confess at Christmastime (Outside the March), Kim's Convenience (CBC), The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu), and Orphan Black (BBC America).
As a playwright, his works include the critically acclaimed Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land), produced by Saga Collectif; Antigone: 方, produced by Young People's Theatre; and trace, produced by Factory Theatre, b current, and the National Arts Centre. His work has been developed with the Stratford Festival, Tarragon Theatre, Young People's Theatre, Human Cargo, Factory Theatre, Cahoots, the Banff Playwrights Lab, Nightswimming Theatre, and he is the current OAC Playwright in Residence at the Tarragon Theatre. His plays are published by Playwrights Canada Press.
Jeff is the Company Dramaturg with Outside The March. Jeff is grateful to have been honoured with a Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best New Canadian Play (Iphigenia); the Jon Kaplan Legacy Fund Award for a Young Canadian Playwright; the Bulmash Siegel Playwriting Award (Tarragon Theatre); nominated for four Dora Awards, and a Harold Award (House of Nadia Ross).
He is a graduate of the National Theatre School.
Thank you again for adding your voice to the discussion, Jeff:
It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.
It’s completely changed, different priorities personally and some of these are also tied in professionally.
I just wanted to acknowledge, Joe, and thank you for reaching out earlier in the pandemic. That’s something that is really true and, at first, it was difficult to reach out and talk to anyone about the feeling, the isolation and just trying to navigate all the cancellations the artists had to go through. It was really quite difficult.
Family was also important. I have a baby niece who I am lucky have been able to meet a lot and to see and re-connect with my family before the pandemic. During the pandemic it’s been really distant. My niece is talking, well, she’s babbling but she’s walking. It’s a huge joy to see her at this time. Thank God for technology that way.
There are missing moments that I can think we can all identify with because of the pandemic, and it’s been more than a year now. We adapt quickly. Some things remain really difficult to parse through.
With live indoor theatre shut now for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?
(Jeff paused for a few seconds and I could tell from looking at his face on camera that this would be a challenging question for him)
I’m both really optimistic for multiple reasons because of the creativity folks have been able to adapt with through the pandemic. There’s been some really great virtual showings.
I felt really fortunate to have worked on ‘Orestes’ with Tarragon Theatre, that was a huge experiment. It was wild because everybody just went in together to collaborate. We made something happen, whether it was equivalent to live theatre or not, I’m not sure. But at the same time, I feel really optimistic that, in all of the adaptations and all the ways we’ll persevere, when we come back live, we’ll be really triumphant, beautiful and joyous.
But, at the same time, I have a deep sadness for a lot of the shows that, who knows if they’ll be able to come back or if we’ll be able to see them. My biggest worry is sometimes with, I think of the newest generation of students who just graduated theatre school last May, and the ones graduating this May, and the ones who are in school right now, how it feels to be training over Zoom.
It’s [The theatre industry] is a very hard industry to enter, and so I worry about a generation lost and the stories we might miss on. Ultimately, I’m hopeful and I’m trying my best to remain hopeful because it’s so important to do so. Theatre artists are really creative and adaptive.
I certainly miss an audience, being in an audience.
The [theatre] industry is not dead but Zoom theatre or You Tube theatre is not live theatre, by any means. What I’ve been grateful for with these platforms is at least the connection with the community that can chat with virtually or to see a performance live, even though it’s not live and in person. Through a small technical delay, it always fulfilled a few criteria of going to the theatre but never that full package of being sensationally with an audience, feeling the heat of the lighting design, and the actor really going at it full throttle.
Zoom and You Tube can’t capture that heat of live experience, but it always held little bits of that experience that always made the missing part a little deeper each time, but at least I’ve been able to see other artists over Zoom. Or chat with other audience members I’ve seen over the years. The fun is having national audiences and national connections through the internet. That is something I hope we take forward where we can workshop a play with other artists around the country
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
So many things, but the first that comes to mind is the pre-show experience and immediate post show experience, and the actual show, of course. Those were the moments especially in the preshow you’d be like, oh, there are people I want to connect with, the ritual with the programme that is given to me in recognizing someone I’ve seen earlier or a new face on the stage whom I haven’t seen. Sitting and waiting for the lights to go dark and lose whatever was carried in from the outside world or sometimes you’ re carrying it fully on account of the show you are seeing.
And the moment after, where there is always that ‘moment’ of celebration or that moment of judgment, or for better or worse, I have taken all those moments for granted. That moment of discussing what we just saw with friends.
Ultimately, it’s the community in the preshow and post show experience that builds into an audience and then magically dissipates until the next time, whether it’s the next performance next day, next week. Every theatre does its preshow differently. I love the preshow experience at The Theatre Centre with its café or outdoors.
What I also miss is the shared laughter and the shared tears. When we come back it’s probably going to be incredible laughter at any joke and any actor who tries to make a joke, and we’ll all be, “Yes, thank you very much for that.” And the actor just instinctively knows to stop for the laughter and everyone is going “Yes, we’re all in this together and we’re right there.” And the actor just picks it up on a dime.
Oh, and also the shared complicity when we see something tender and felt and we feel that tear in the corner of our eye.
As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
So much of it…(Jeff paused for several seconds and again I could just sense that he and me too are missing live theatre so much)
I never want to take for granted the experience and privilege of having a platform on stage and telling a story. I never want to take a story for granted again.
It’s wonderful that we’re chatting right now, you and I, but it’s been a heavy week of stories in the news cycle for real both nationally and internationally.
It makes me think of the stories that while I was rehearsing or while I was writing, we get exhausted because we work really hard. The artists put in so much time out of passion over economics. At times, it felt like okay I’ll just put it up and just do the thing, I’m just going to rehearse it.
And I never want to take for granted whatever the story will be, that chance to connect and share something in a laugh, or something really ridiculous, to celebrate the small joys. If I make a mistake on stage, I also don’t want to take that for granted. It felt like that in training as an artist for so many years that there is that pursuit of perfection, like there’s a perfect way to tell a story. This last year plus away from live theatre has shown us how we can embrace those imperfections and adjust to them, that’s all part of the story.
Even in live theatre when an actor ‘corpses’ or a prop breaks in performance on stage, I don’t want to take that for granted again. That’s a moment to connect and think, “Look, we’re in a theatre. Things don’t always go as planned. Isn’t this beautiful?”
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
Yeah, hmmm…. It’s really exciting and also sad, I’m not sure if sad is the right word, but there’s a monumental shift that’s going on with the theatre nationally too.
Every week so far has felt like there’s been new news of departure of artistic director who have been leaders for twenty years. There’s a major shift around of who’s helming these theatre companies that are also in quite a vulnerable position, programming wise and resource wise. And so, with those shifts in leadership,
I also see a shift in what artists are identifying quite simply, I’m just going to name them, reckoning equity and diversity inclusion that we’re seeing across many companies. Last summer it was pretty hot with Black Lives Matter, at times informative and at times really felt an active way of change.
More recently just this past month with ‘Stop Asian Hate’.
There’s been a different way to see how the companies are reacting politically and seeing sometimes the inaction of it. Empty words. And sometimes seeing individual artists rise up and speak and demand the change within theatre.
I hope there’s a more embrace of those real-world politics and real amplification of artists who have those stories and the urgency to tell them, and the space for that to happen to really and honestly and safely and bravely engage with those conversations in the theatre in a way that we haven’t been able to achieve in the past.
I feel it’s all connected to the new leadership we will see in the coming years.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the theatre industry.
(Jeff carefully pauses and thinks) Must accomplish…oooo… (several seconds to pause and to think)
In a really selfish way, one of the cancellations last year that really broke my heart was I slated to perform in ‘M. Butterfly’ at Soulpepper directed by Nina Lee Aquino. I was to have played Song Liling. This role has been my dream role since theatre school, since I was 17.
That cancellation really wrecked me in a real personal way. Since then, ‘Orestes’ at Tarragon was my one acting experience, but I’ve been very, very grateful to be able to maintain playwrighting commissions and begin new plays with different theatre companies I haven’t had a chance to work with.
And so, my personal must accomplish, is in some capacity with whatever company, I still hope to tackle that dream role and play one day. ‘M. Butterfly’ is so beautiful, and I so wish to share that story and I’ve been yearning to play it.
So that’s a real personal must accomplish and, in the scheme of being connected to the companies I’m in service with right now, yeah, I feel like I must accomplish my playwrighting duties. It’s my passion, playwrighting. Duties isn’t quite the right word. I both love serving and writing for my Chinese Canadian community and really specific ethnic stories to really broaden these representations on stage.
But I also love adapting Greek classics, and I really love adapting classics from the Euro central canon, and that’s part of the interrogation of why I adapt them. My two Greek play adaptations are being published by Playwright’s Canada Press this fall, and already I’ve had conversations with universities or theatre school students who always have to go to theatre school auditions with a classical monologue.
But now I can provide, even in some small way, a Chinese specific Antigone so that Chinese specific students can still find a classical monologue that somehow sees through this culturally specific lens just a little bit more. That’s something I feel I can accomplish is to continue adapting new stories that speak to a community that’s close to my heart, and then to also, with a lot of whimsy and mischief. adapt a canon that I want everyone and folks who have felt other from it, to feel safe in tackling them and grappling them, with a lot of fun and with a lot of play.
That feels like a little passion that I have.
Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.
I think it’s inevitable, and I think the theme will be more surprising than we may think. There will be ones that will go into the isolation of the experience, but I also think about the experience of the audience. I keep on thinking how we always have a cougher in the audience. That’s now going to have a different meaning when we go back. When the actor and the audience now hear the cougher, it’s now going to be “Ummmm….”
In terms of stories, however subtle or however on the nose the Covid reality is, ideas around isolation, ideas around being hermit at home, ideas around hygiene in our going to the theatre, that’s going to shift. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to have a series of plays that will capture this moment.
Or through the lens of Covid, there might be some plays that examine some of the things we’ve talked about during this interview because it’s been a year of great strife and inequality, and it’s all been through the lens of us being often at home, unable to take to the streets or in limited ways to mobilize with communities.
We’ll hear those stories with a touch of reality that Covid is.
As a professional artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
That’s a tough question.
I’m not sure. Okay (and Jeff pauses again for a few seconds)
I want everyone to remember joy, mischief, and that trickster quality that’s both really sad - laughing until we cry until we laugh. That’s what I hope people will remember from some of my plays in a real, simple, human way.
But I also don’t mind if I am forgotten quite honestly because that is the cycle of things and the cycle of life.
But I hope the books will live on even if my name is lost, it’s okay.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @kjeffho.