Written by Joss MacNeil
On Monday, May 9th, I arrive at The Theatre Centre feeling stuck and creatively stilted - not an uncommon side effect of a Monday. And then a very good thing happens: I sit down next to Jeff Ho. Jeff is the artist in the hot seat for this week’s conversation and is also hands down my new favourite person.
I’ve been to Dark Nights a few times before, and I’ve actually met Jeff before too - he spoke on a panel I moderated a week earlier alongside Wayne Burns, one of Dark Nights’ co-founders. Tonight, there is an immediately cheerful energy among the group that has assembled. My new friend seated next to me joins me in giggling 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 arrived with a CliffsNotes understanding of Jeff’s career experiences and am lucky enough to have had a few of my questions answered already.
I say CliffsNotes, but in reality I quickly learn that I have only encountered the tip of the iceberg that is Jeff Ho.
As we get into the conversation, Jeff talks about his early memories of coming to Canada in the new millennium. He covers what it was like to go through the gigantic upheaval of shifting cultures, and talks about the very profound and scary discovery that he was meant to be an artist. He also talks about inflection, a subject neither you nor I would expect to be fascinating - except that it is. Did you know that in Cantonese one sound contains up to 9 different inflections? Basically that means you can get to the point much quicker in Cantonese than in English. Jeff thinks this can be attributed to the Hong Kong culture: a city with glass partitions on the subway platform to prevent eager transit users from shoving one another onto the tracks in an effort to arrive at their destination seconds faster.
There are a lot of reasons that I find myself very charmed by Jeff. To start, he has an incredibly calm demeanor. He makes you feel at ease, yet there is nothing boring or unengaging about him. Secondly, he is a very smart artist. Not just smart, not just creative, a real example of what a fine marriage the two can create. He’s also driven: by his own admission, when he believes in a project there is nothing that can stand in his way.
But it’s neither his personality nor his motivation that stands out most to me about him - it’s his advocacy. When Jeff is asked to name one of his greatest inspirations, he answers Yaël Farber. When asked at what point he decided to transfer from Concordia to the National Theatre School of Canada, he says "When Sandra Oh won the Gascon-Thomas Award." Does he have any male role models? “Not really,” he admits. “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 concerned with the woman’s perspective (without being patronizing). Coming from a family populated by two brothers and dozens of male cousins, I was raised to equate a “woman’s intuition” with caregiving. It certainly didn’t encompass the thoughts and opinions of someone who might be considered a leader. And how does he explain his gravitation toward female sources of inspiration? Citing his mother, he recounts how in spite of the pain that exists in that relationship, she prepared him for the world and he owes her dearly. 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.
As men, there is a certain inclination to write stories about women - at least according to 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.”
That is the kind of sentiment that stays with you long after it has been said. To hear someone explain that they want to talk about the struggles of an underrepresented group but also admit that, lacking the lived experience, they don’t fully understand their challenges is a seriously refreshing thing to hear. So refreshing that my icy and at times overly defensive feminist heart started to melt.
I think that idea is something we can all take to heart. As a society we are so careful not to offend anyone that we often end up closing ourselves off to experiences that can be eye-opening. An example: I am a stand up comedian. I am also 5’11’’ and plus size. When people hear my jokes, they hear the observations of someone who lives in a society that doesn’t provide an overarching sense of acceptance, but they still laugh. A lot of it is probably shock value, (I have a joke where I refer to myself as Tilikum from Sea World) but most of it is the fact that they haven’t heard this story before, because no one has thought to ask.
The difference between Jeff and I (setting aside the fact that this impeccably dressed man is ten times classier than I can ever hope to be) is that I am speaking solely from my own experience because I am often too afraid to identify with other people’s lives. I worry that veering too far from what I know personally could mean offending someone or reducing their experience to a spectacle.
Jeff, on the other hand, is specifically after the voice of the underdog. He brings it to light and he does his research. He doesn’t say “I understand what it’s like to be a woman because I remember how it felt to be an outsider when I first came to Canada.” He is very clear that while he is influenced by the strength of his role models, that doesn’t mean they are the same - and why should they be? I don’t understand what it’s like to move to a different continent at only ten years old and pick my North American name out of a phone book, but it’s still a story worth hearing and I shouldn’t close myself off to it because I don’t identify with it.
Seeking out people who don’t look like us, think like us, act like us or talk like us - that’s where the real conversation begins. That is where we grow.
It is this kind of post-Dark Nights frame of mind that makes me so grateful that I pulled myself out of my spiraling Netflix addiction and dragged my ass across town to have my world re-stimulated for a mere $5 cover charge. And I know I’m not alone in this - these few hours once every two weeks are exactly what I know so many of my fellow artists in their 20s are craving and hoping for. The opportunity to learn about something you never considered, the chance to discuss something that you never thought you’d talk about - that is how we grow as artists.
I’m obviously not suggesting that after 30 you should throw discovery to the wayside and abandon self-growth. What I am saying is that this particular period is so important for an artist. For most of us, this is a time of great upheaval. A time where we challenge what we were taught in our teens, appreciate the value of some of the lessons of our childhood, and seek to establish what it is we want to create and what impact we will have.
Do you see a hole in the industry? Fill it. Do you wholeheartedly believe in the strength of your idea? Don’t let anything stand in your way. Do you see a group of people without a voice? Find out what you can do to become an ally.
Go, do, see, create, make, experience, ask, challenge, try, fail, and grow.
Joss is a budding stand-up comedian and musical theatre performer. You can follow her on Twitter @Jocelyn_MacNeil.