As a non-theatre artist who’s been working in theatre for about two years, I can now say, with a sort of confidence, that I understand theatre—or at least the labour of thought, creativity, research, resources, and time of the playwright/creator and so many other people to create a show.
As someone who predominantly engages in visual art, I recently found myself more interested in spending time seeing a show than going to an exhibition. I consider live performance more fascinating, particularly for its physicality, intimacy, and ephemerality, and the numerous ways you can “perform” a story. All these make theatre is such a powerful medium. When I saw the first iteration of The Chemical Valley Project in 2017, I was caught by Kevin’s intriguing storytelling approach—the live collaboration of video and light projections, audio recordings, and object puppetry, which moved along with his performance. It also caught me because of its possibility to offer voices other than Kevin himself to share the story—the voices that need to tell this story, the voices that we need to be listening to.
Just in time for the Toronto Premiere of The Chemical Valley Project, read my interview with Kevin as he shares his journey into performance, his thoughts on possibilities of environmental activism and multimedia storytelling in theatre, and his “favourite” visual storyteller. – Mirae.
Mirae: Can you briefly tell us how your interest in performance began?
Kevin: I was a really, really quiet kid. Shy, awkward, and prone to crying in new situations.
I could never figure out how best to communicate – what the right words were and how to say them. I’m still trying to figure that out.
English was a second language for me and many of my Agincourt classmates, so my grade 1 teacher tried to find ways to spice up English class. She decided it would be a good idea to act out the stories we read in class.
We started with Three Billy Goats Gruff. That story changed my life.
I was cast as the troll underneath the bridge.
I loved being the villain – the misunderstood one.
I loved being part of a story where good prevails, even if I was the one to get my comeuppance.
I fell in love with playing pretend.
I think my inner shit-disturber was awakened that day.
I discovered that I could use my imagination to express myself and to bring characters and stories to life. And that people could entertain each other through make-believe!
Fast forward twenty years and I’m in a double major in International Relations and Drama. I’m enjoying my schooling in both, but was frustrated that these two interests didn’t intersect easily, and neither directly addressed the political questions and concerns I had.
In third year, my friend Nathaniel Rose and I start a company to create plays based on environmental issues. This was my first foray into creating and performing work based on everyday political issues, and I think it’s been going alright so far!
You’re the co-founder and Artistic Director of Broadleaf Theatre, a company that merges environmentalism and live performance. What has been your journey in bringing environmental awareness into a theatrical space? How do you think activism function and exist in a theatrical performance?
Broadleaf Theatre began five years ago when a few friends and I realized we wanted more from theatre than just acting. At the time, we had been studying “Canadian classic” plays. Those works were 20-30 years old and the characters were often far removed from our lived experience.
I wanted to know how theatre could react and respond to the happenings of the day.
Climate change in particular was something I’d been passionate about.
I hadn’t heard or experienced theatre about climate change yet, and I thought it was a vacuum we could help fill. We started with a piece called The Broadleaf Plays, which were 20 short plays in 1 hour, each based on a different theatrical genre. That initial project allowed me to really try my hand at a lot of different styles and to challenge what I thought theatrical form could be. Playing with succinctness and starting with irreverence to a “well-made-play” structure allowed me to think in new ways about what environmental performance could look like.
The idea of new possibilities and unexplored paths is essential to creating environmentally-focused work. We are in an era that requires immense creativity and societal shifts to save this planet and make it liveable for generations beyond our own.
I don’t consider my artwork activism. Art is inherently political, but as an artist that works closely with activists, I see my work as something different from what they do.
My voice is one of action through amplification. In terms of subject matter, I think a lot of good can come from artists working to amplify experts – climate scientists, activists, those with lived experience around environmental issues.
We are still a long way to go for theatre to be environmentally friendly, on stage and backstage.
We need to figure out how to use less, and to use what we have efficiently, as well as how to effectively communicate the stakes of climate change today.
I had the chance to see the first iteration of The Chemical Valley Project at SummerWorks, and I’m very excited you are bringing the piece back and that you had the chance to share your experience on the digital LooseLeaf Vol.6. What made you decide to use multimedia storytelling – projections, object puppetry, and solo performance – to communicate the story/message?
Thanks for checking out our first iteration, Mirae!
The use of multimedia has always been integral in my version of environmentally-focused theatre. In particular I’m motivated by the idea that theatre about environmental issues help audiences see things in new perspectives.
The object puppetry in The Chemical Valley Project, for example, often shrink familiar objects down to miniature scale – a school bus, canoes, a childhood bedroom, and my mum’s car are all shrunken down. I believe miniatures open up people’s imaginations – it reminds them of childhood play and, subconsciously, makes these big issues more bite-sized, relatable and manageable.
Projections are something I’m fascinated by. Not as video, but as light.
I think that’s something that may distinguish what you’ll see in The Chemical Valley Project from other types of projection design. For me, the primary function of the projections is to allow us to share textures, colours, concepts, rather than for us to share only photos or videos. I also have a brilliant collaborator Julia Howman, our co-creator and production designer whose work and voice are absolutely integral to making the show happen.
For me, creating new work often starts from considering an object or concept and then creating a visual world around that. Writing comes later in the process and often happens simultaneously with staging. In The Chemical Valley Project, both the object puppetry and projections are essential elements of the show, and fully integrated into the script. By integrating these elements, I don’t necessarily see this as a “play” or “drama” so much as it is a performance.
“Are we allies? Bystanders? Or just colonizers with Chinese last names?” These questions in your LooseLeaf piece really struck me, especially after you talk about uncovering more about yourself and how “colonization is a complex concept for Hong Kongers, who often wear their British ‘roots’ as a matter of distinction and pride.”
How do you navigate these tensions of being a settler of colour on this land and a colonized in your mother country, when the idea of “colonization” itself signify seemingly contradictory meanings? How do you think we can respectfully reside on stolen land?
Wow this is a big question. Let me take a step back (in time) and say that the first step in making sense of how we ought to live on this stolen land is to understand your own history. We cannot be in relationship with Indigenous peoples and with this land if we don’t have a strong sense of who we are in the first place.
That realization came along after I spoke with Dr. Jill Carter, an Anishinaabe-Ashkenazi Eelder and a professor at U of T. In our conversation, which is detailed in the show, Dr. Carter asks where my family is from and remarks that Hong Kong, like Canada, is a colonized place too.
That realization led me to deeper questions about place, identity and relationship to the concept of Canada.
It’s definitely been interesting investigating what it means for my family to be from Hong Kong and now to live here. Through three generations we moved from being colonial subjects to settler-colonizers.
I think it’s now every Canadian’s duty to work against the systems that have oppressed Indigenous peoples in this country, in whatever way we can.
And listen to Indigenous voices and leaders.
That’s how to begin being a good guest on this land.
Recently, what questions or themes have you been thinking about, and want to explore further?
White supremacy. I think that’s etched in a lot of our minds.
There’s been so much horrific, unjust violence against black, brown and Indigenous bodies.
As POC, we’re tired of being asked “where are you from?”
But in reality, I think that’s a crucial question for a lot of Canadians.
I want white Canadians to ask themselves, “where are you from?”
And to realize that we’re all from somewhere else, guests on Indigenous land.
And I think we should all ask, why do we have the life that what we have?
It doesn’t take too long to find that our privileges come from the often unseen and unacknowledged labour and disadvantage of others – in this country, that’s often Indigenous folks.
On a less serious note, artistically I’d love to continue to explore perspective and scale — playing with even larger projections and imagery, or going down to extreme miniature.
I want to make work in non-theatre spaces and really test what it means to be in relationship with an audience. I want to challenge by own conception of status quo.
What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?
I’m not sure! Haha. I’m currently working with Why Not Theatre as an Associate Producer – they’re a really dynamic company that focuses on putting marginal voices on stage and provoking Canada’s theatre ecology. I’m really proud to have worked with them on a national tour of Prince Hamlet, a Shakespeare adaptation that featured Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio and a nearly all gender-bent cast led by Christine Horne as Hamlet.
I’m also gearing up to help produce the world premiere of our Artistic Director Ravi Jain’s adaptation of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata at the Shaw Festival in 2020.
Beyond producing, I’m collaborating with a dear friend and incredibly powerful artist Philip Nozuka on a new work about internet culture and authenticity, and I’m just starting work on another piece called Siu Bah, which is anchored in Chinese myth and my family’s history in Hong Kong.
And, I guess, continuing to tour and perform The Chemical Valley Project!
Lastly, what does being a “Canadian” artist mean to you?
When I was a kid I really clung to the idea of being “Canadian.”
It was an important part of my identity and I latched onto nationalism and our national myths.
I think that was because I couldn’t find a way to connect with my Chinese identity.
Now a mountie outfit, a maple leaf, and a Hudson’s Bay blanket don’t resonate in the same way. My relationship to “Canadian” has become more complicated for sure.
My relationship to the word artist, on the other hand, has become a bit clearer over the past few years, although it’s also in flux.
Ultimately, both of those words – Canadian artist – are words of responsibility for me.
Both words challenge me to remain curious, never complacent.
Listen and read Kevin’s piece on LooseLeaf Magazine Vol.6 here.
To learn more about Camellia Koo, visit her website.
New feature of Creator to Creator II every other Wednesdays!