Tonight, Factory Theatre in association with b current performing arts, presents the World Premier opening of trace by Jeff Ho. A painfully personal story of family and genealogy, trace follows the footprints taken by Jeff’s great-grandmother who fled the Japanese in WWII by escaping to Hong Kong, losing one of her two sons during the trek; his mother’s similar pilgrimage to Canada, also with two sons in tow; and by Jeff himself, when he too embarked on a journey, moving from Markham to Montreal to pursue an uncharacteristically Chinese life.
eap had a chance to connect with Jeff about his family's experiences and how they led him to develop his new multi-disciplinary play. We asked him about the work's unique incorporation of the piano, and his approach to writing about his own family and personal experiences.
"The piano came very early on as a storytelling device. The very first iteration of trace, was a long form piece of poetry on the internment camps set up by the Japanese army in China during WW2. I had written this during my second year at the National Theatre School, and fortunately, [Director] Nina [Lee Aquino] was around at the time, teaching. I took her aside, and asked if I could read this piece to her, and she said yes. I remember Nina being fidgety during the read, and after I was finished, her first response was: you need pianos...We agreed that since piano is such a core part of my artistic expression, it felt organic to have this story told with entirety of my artistic facilities - music, acting, and writing. However the rules for the piano in the piece took a lot longer to evolve to what it is now. It was initially background, or setting music, then it became voices for characters (all genders), and eventually we settled on the piano being the voices for the men - for clarity and for fast transitions within the text."
In terms of writing about his own family and life story I asked Jeff if the experience of creating trace has been cathartic?
"Not cathartic, more relieving. My mother and I have moved on since our initial explosions that led to my leaving home... I'm also older now, and realize what a dumb teenager I was, owning up to the fact that I broke my own mother's heart to pursue my dreams. But life moves on, and I'm living my dream, and working at mending the familial relationship - it's never too late, and life is life, love must come first. It has been significant to me personally, to acknowledge all the privileges, fortune, memories, dreams, and nightmares that have led me to be the man I am today (through a lineage of powerful, iron women)."
But is he nervous about his family seeing the work for the first time I wondered?
"...they're excited! I've briefed them over the usage of our familial stories, the use of our names, and the points where fiction deviates from fiction (memory is fiction, after all) and they're open-hearted and will be bringing family friends along too! My mom has been the most direct point of reference for my interviews during the writing, and she's expressed nerves a few times knowing her name is in it, but she also sees how our family story is rich and ripe with hilarious/sad/painful/beautiful moments to mine and share with a larger audience."
I asked if Jeff had felt different about the experience of writing and performing this one-man piece, in comparison to some of his other incredible acting work, specifically as Ophelia in last year's Prince Hamlet.
"It's my first play, so with that comes all the challenges of learning what it means to write! A solo show at that too! Since beginning trace, I have begun other writing projects for other theatre companies, and everything I learned from working on trace ... has already found it's way into my next projects... This has been the greatest professional experience so far, but also working with Ravi Jain and the INCREDIBLE cast of Prince Hamlet. That show was totally mind blowing to work on - learning about my own privileges, what it means to be marginalized, what it means to perform gender, what it means to adapt classics for a new audience, what it means to tell stories through all of our abilities. I was so intimidated by the whole thing, ... but got to learn so so so much, and eventually, fell so in love with the entire thing, and with Ophelia."
In closing we spoke briefly about the shifting theatrical landscape here in Toronto. I asked Jeff who his biggest supporters have been and if he has found the growing appetite for more artists of colour and work that reflects our City's diversity has benefited him as a young playwright..
"Oh absolutely. This debut would not have been possible if not for the tremendous belief and support of Factory Theatre, Nina Lee Aquino, Matt McGeachy, b current, jajube mandiela, Alison Wong, and Catherine Hernandez, and IRIS TURCOTT. A lot of senior, wiser, far more experienced artists that opened the door and welcomed my inexperience, stories, nerves, all that in, and vowed to work with me uncompromisingly, but with a guided hand. I am still quite young, and so my work is only possible at this point due to their belief, and risk taking. These risks will allow new voices to bubble up, and contribute to our still young Canadian theatre landscape, as we all work at what it means to make theatre today (in this age of netflix and hulu)... I have had some of the greatest opportunities to travel, [have] adventures and friendships while working on trace. It's how I got a chance to work with Iris Turcott, the chance to travel to Banff..., the chance to work at the Stratford Playwrights Retreat, and meeting artists from around the country with a shared desire to tell new stories, in new ways."
Don't miss your chance to see trace on at Factory Theatre until December 3rd.
Written, Composed and Performed by Jeff Ho
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
A Factory production in association with b current performing arts
November 11 – December 3, 2017
Set Design by Michelle Ramsay and Nina Lee Aquino
Lighting Design by Michelle Ramsay
Costume Design by Joanna Yu
Dramaturgy by Matt McGeachy
Tuesday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm. Click here for tickets and more information.