Theatre is a medium and an arts scene I am very much an outsider of, but an art form I very enjoy watching and engaging in. During the planning process of Creator to Creator, I made sure theatre would be a community I would want to reach out. When the opportunity came to interview Aaron Jan, director of Swan and Silk Bath, I was excited to not only learn about the world of theatre, but how he brings his experiences and stories as an Asian-Canadian into his work. From his queer-horror set in Hamilton (you can read our reviews here and here), to “Big Brother meets Hunger Games meets immigration,” his plays aren’t your typical stories of Asian representation.
Read my interview with Aaron below as he shares insights into his creative career and goals in his theatre journey, and his upcoming projects, plus his favourite visual artist (psst a video game concept artist!).
Can you tell us about how you got into theatre?
My parents enrolled my brother and I in a theatre summer camp that was close to our house when we were about 5 and 8 respectively. I think I bit the bug there. Since then I’ve never really stopped.
You started Filament Incubator with few of your friends, which you described it as “storefront theatre” – could you tell us more about how this came about? What’s the idea behind the Incubator’s goal of “8 different plays in 8 months”?
Long story short, but we didn’t get into Fringe! We had three shows ready to go and we had each lost the Fringe lottery. In this, we realized that Fringe was the primary producing opportunity for indie artists. There was no other financially reasonable alternative to mounting your work in the city independently. We wanted the incubator to be that opportunity. The artists focus on creating their work, we as the incubator, focus on producing and getting people to come. We also felt that the indie theatre community was very microcosmic and intimidating for grads fresh out of school. We wanted to create a sense of community by being a catalyst for the development of work at an indie level. I think that’s something that centres my own work. I favour the underdog, the underproduced, those who aren’t normally given a chance by the venued houses (indie or not). As long as they have something to say that they believe in, I’m game to see where it goes.
As for the 8 plays in 8 months, the idea is to get the work out there, uniting it under one brand so we can pool several audiences together and engage them in a season. While I’m no longer with the incubator, I’m so stoked that the company finally has funding, so they can produce at the scale we would’ve liked to last year.
Your plays usually focus around the theme of Asian identities and representation, such as Silk Bath and Swan. Is there a particular message you wish to present through your plays? What are questions or themes you’re currently exploring or interested in exploring more?
I’m interested in exploring Asian Canadians as not paragons. I love my theatre dirty, filled with contradictions. I think I want to present the Asian Canadian body as flawed, and full of malice, hate, greed and sorrow as well as all of the positive attributes. I think that’s the next step for equity in narratives – discovering the flaws in our own community, where the racial tensions lie and what the stigmas that we generate within our own circles are. I’m not interested in White vs Brown narratives, as I think that’s something that we already know in our work and our community.
My favourite shows are the ones you leave with a weird feeling in your stomach, where your morals were all fucked up because you aligned and empathized with the villain rather than the heroes. I love theatre that changes my worldview and makes me consider something I had initially disregarded.
Currently, I’m very interested in the idea of left wing villains, specifically in this post-trump age where the loudest voice wins. I’m fascinated by the complexities of people of colour who become branded as criminals and how our society classifies good, evil, worthy of sympathy and not. I think we’re a more vengeful people than we think we are. I’m interested in exploring the moral greyness within the justice binary. I think especially after the Trump victory, we’ve lost the ability to listen and empathize with those who we don’t necessarily agree with. I want my work to encourage that discussion.
What drives you to create, or where do you get your inspiration?
In my first year acting class, my teacher told me that we watch theatre because we want to see people onstage who reminded us of ourselves. These people would be like us, but with a little bit more bravery and a determination to face adversity in their lives. We see theatre because we become inspired by their struggles and their fights, so we can take some of that courage into our own lives. This is what drives me to create. I want to create heroes for a new, Asian-Canadian audience, people they can see onstage who are like them and draw bravery from. I love the underdog narrative, the person who rises against incredible odds, or dies trying.
I get my inspiration from musical theatre, video games and film scores. And when I say musical theatre, I don’t mean cool, high art. I love that commercial stuff. There’s something about that level of spectacle that makes me excited, hearing those I want songs reminds me of the fight that all of my characters go through.
When I work I usually create a playlist for myself. Swan was almost entirely Daughter and Ben Howard. Rowing was Of Monsters and Men and the soundtrack to Man of Steel. Silk Bath was both of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musicals.
The play I’m currently working on is the score from Perks of Being a Wallflower, most of Garfunkel and Oates’ stuff, Glen Hansard, and a lot of chiptune. I associate songs with images that I draw up in my mind when I hear it., or an emotion I’ve felt when I play it for the first time. I then use those images to write, as they become waypoints for me to reach.
What do you think makes theatre stand out against other artistic medium in terms of storytelling?
It’s live! There’s no screen! You’re stuck with live people in the same space, hearing them tell the story in front of you. It’s like a boxing match. So much better to be there in person!
What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?
I’m currently working on a roadtrip play with Factory Theatre about pedophilia and vengeful justice. In August, I’m directing one of the Territorial Tales that’ll go up before Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park. In March, the Silk Bath crew is getting back together for a final workshop of our show. So it’s mostly development, which I’m totally cool with. I think last year I churned out a lot of work, which fucking killed me. It’s good to take some time to develop stuff.
Lastly, what does your identity mean to you?
My identity means I have an increased need to fight for the underdog. My identity is the look of hope in Chinese immigrants’ faces when they talk to me, and the look of dismay that follows immediately after when they find out I can’t speak the language.
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