**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), a Toronto-based theatre artist, originally from Hong Kong. Acting credits: Orestes (Tarragon Theatre), trace (Remount — NAC/Factory Theatre), Ophelia in Prince Hamlet (Why Not Theatre, national tour: Canadian Stage, PuSh Festival, and National Arts Centre), trace (Factory Theatre/b current), Hana’s Suitcase (Young People’s Theatre, tour: Toronto, Montreal and Seattle), Unknown Soldier (lemonTree creations/Architect Theatre), Murderers Confess at Christmastime (Outside the March), Kim’s Convenience (CBC), The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), and Orphan Black (BBC America).
As a playwright, his works include the critically acclaimed Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land), produced by Saga Collectif; Antigone: 方, produced by Young People’s Theatre; and trace, produced by Factory Theatre and the National Arts Centre. His work has been developed by the Stratford Festival, Tarragon Theatre, Young People’s Theatre, Human Cargo, Factory Theatre, Cahoots, the Banff Playwrights Lab, Nightswimming Theatre. His plays are published by Playwrights Canada Press.
Jeff is the Company Dramaturg with Outside The March. Jeff is grateful to have been honoured with a Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best New Canadian Play (Iphigenia); the Jon Kaplan Legacy Fund Award for a Young Canadian Playwright; the Bulmash Siegel Playwriting Award (Tarragon Theatre); nominated for four Dora Awards, and recipient of a Harold Award (House of Nadia Ross). He is a graduate of the National Theatre School.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
I’m Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho), and am a first gen immigrant from Hong Kong, and currently based in Tkaronto with my man and my hilarious cat. I started writing plays as a student at the National Theatre School… we had this solo show class where I wrote two short somethings, and could only perform one of em. The rejected one lived in a really messy drawer for about a year, until I mustered up the gut to read it aloud to Nina Lee Aquino, which then found it’s way into working with Iris Turcott at Factory, which then found it’s way into being my first full length play and production, trace. I would not be a writer without Nina and Iris. Since then, I’ve continued writing new things, and also really taking a look at the western “classics,” especially the Greeks.
Can you tell us about your process when bringing a play from an idea to a completed script?
I think like so many other artists/writers, each new project demands a different process. I think I chased consistency or stability (haha!) to my own detriment for so long. Now that I’ve had a few years, I think I’m much more open to just working/writing while also making dinner, or petting my cat, or commuting somewhere — basically, living, and staying open in the day to day and letting that distill into words on a page. The idea comes fast, and I find a way to capture it — I’ve written full first drafts through texting it to myself, or I scribble it down or I voice record a line. Then I just leave it, and keep at living until the next and the next and the next. With time, patience, rigour (sit, stand, whatever — just find a way to write — ANYTHING), support (with each project having a different level of support of collaborators/commissions/companies — sometimes none at all to start with), the play comes together… then the rewriting begins, the chats begin, and outside voices come in. Then the beautiful beautiful collaboration happens — and that’s the thing I love (and miss) most about in person rehearsals.
You’ve said that you use history, politics, and culture as a “structure” on which your stories hang. Can you tell us more about the value and challenges of having your stories grounded in reality?
The value is that when stories grounded in culturally specific history, politics, and culture land on an audience — it resonates deeply and generates conversation. That conversation branches out into thought, reflection, and hopefully, ACTION in life.
The challenge is to resist controlling the conversation, or to offer easy answers — because damn, life is anything but that. Opening up questions that unsettle, that excite, and that punctures pressure points — that’s also challenging (in a joyous, life affirming way).
What do you hope to express through playwriting?
Above all else — love. It takes time to learn to love, and it takes time to share expressions of love. I came into the theatre, to prove a point — and that was unsustainable. I love the art, but the desire to “get there,” (which means what, exactly?), overtook the love and childlike leaps of faith one needs to access worlds and beyond. You can love cruelly, you can love rigorously, you can love tightly or fearfully or cynically — but you can still love. And what I mean by love, is to be able to wake up every morning and feel a purpose through a day and pursue it. Especially when I write tougher, more unsettling pieces, the care and forgiveness needs to be in the space — to love life so much, that you shine a light on hard truths unflinchingly. Or especially during this pandemic, when every page of new writing faces an uncertain future on the stage — it’s the love of doing the thing, and the hope and faith for our theatre communities to return healthier, more equitable, that sustains my process.
What are you working on now?
One that’s coming up super soon that I’ve been working on for a few years (pre pandy): a double whammy of my adaptations of Antigone and Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) will be published in November with Playwrights Canada Press. Super excited for that. I feel fortunate and grateful that a few other writing projects have kept me in conversation and collaboration with the community. It’s been a tough time for so many creators, and I hope if you’re reading this, that you’re well, and taking care and finding ways back in (or navigating deeper) into your projects. See you at the theatre (LIVE! and digital, all cool) sometime!
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
So many, but off the top of my head:
Incendies / Scorched — Wajdi Mouawad, paper series — David Yee, Fine China — Julie Phan, Black Boys — Saga Collectif (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah M’Carthy, Thomas Anthony Olajide, Virgilia Griffiths), The Madness of the Square — Marjorie Chan, Selfie — Christine Quintana, bug — Yolanda Bonnell…. and like so so so many more.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.