By Cathi Winslow
No one is born with the ability to write well. We learn to write by writing. Toronto theatre artist Jeff Ho will visit Thunder Bay on October 12 and 13 to share excerpts of his own work and help us learn new ways to approach our writing.
When Jeff Ho began writing his first play, it took him a long time to realize what he had been missing—not only in his work, but in his life. He graduated from the National Theatre School in Montreal with an impressive résumé of acting credits. However his training was devoted to how to interpret a play, not how to write one.
“It took quite a little while,” says Ho, “to believe that writing was something I needed.”
He didn’t feel equipped for it and had to muster the confidence that he could succeed. He worried that no one would think his writing was any good. “That need to work, be affirmed, make a name—all those fresh grad things felt very high stakes.” Ho learned to write by doing it, discovering along the way how much tenacity, perseverance, and sheer faith is required to move a play from page to stage.
Before theatre school, Ho studied classical piano, and so he decided to incorporate his own compositions as well as those of Chopin and Rachmaninoff into his play. He says, “Learning to marry all the different artistic facets of my upbringing—music, writing, and acting—to create a unified and cohesive piece of theatre was an enormous experiment.” He established rules for how piano music would speak in place of the male characters. His journey was sometimes daunting and humbling as he discovered new ways to combine his creative skills. The process required patience. “It was a lot of trying things, till something theatrical and potent revealed itself.”
Ho created his play as a way to honour the matriarchs who had held his family together through dire circumstances over three generations. He created characters based on his mother and grandmother, and discovered how deeply they were ingrained in him. “I learned how the way I love, laugh, and live have all been informed by what my mother and grandmother faced while they were loving, laughing, and living.”
Ho’s experience as a performer helped to inform his play. He used acting techniques to develop each of the characters, then sat down to transcribe his improvisations. He wrote scenes that he would love to dig into as a performer, such as a fight scene or “something really juicy”. If the words felt “clunky” or unwieldy in his mouth, then he knew a rewrite was needed. Sometimes a scene looked like it might need more work, but performing helped to reveal its strengths. Ho learned that “if something felt underdeveloped on the page, but left lots of room for silence and stillness in performance, that was actually a gem to keep.”
As he worked with a dramaturge to develop his play, he uncovered many subtleties around creating text for himself to perform. He says they all stem from the same core: to share a story on stage that is full of power and beauty.
“Whether we acknowledge it or not, like it or not, see it or not, theatre is all around us: the courtship of young folks at a club, dancing around each other trying to catch each other's attention. Our politicians and their speeches. Teachers in front of their students. A chef presenting a dish. A driver trying to get out of a speeding ticket from the officer. We are constantly shifting our personalities within each specific encounter in our days, and that is theatre.”
Ho’s advice to writers:
"Learn to be patient with yourself, because not everything will come at the speed you'd like it to. And be open to learning, every day, everywhere: curate your curiosity, as artistic inspiration can flow in from a walk, an encounter with a stranger, a thought in the shower, a song that won't leave you alone. And then, create with all of your being. Don't compare yourself to others; there will be younger, hotter artists every year. Do your work, and love your work, that's your prime responsibility."
Jeff Ho will share excerpts from his first play, as well as his most recent play, on Friday October 12 at 7:00 pm, in the Jean McNulty Recital Hall at Lakehead University, presented by 10x10, NOWW, and the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada. (Free admission)
On Saturday, October 13, you are welcome to participate in playwriting workshops at Urban Abbey: Monologue Boot Camp at 10:00 am (free admission) and Playwriting Master Class at 2:00 pm ($10 registration). More information at www.10x10tbay.ca/workshops
Cathi Winslow is a playwright and musician with an extensive background in theatre, music, dance and creative writing. Her original plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles and Thunder Bay. Cathi is the Artistic Director of the 10x10 Play Showcase. She is delighted to represent Northern Ontario at the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada.