**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Julie Phan (潘家雯), an emerging playwright in Ontario. If Julie Phan (潘家雯) was a piece of art, she would be the sponmonkey ads for Quiznos subs. She is a Hoklo-Vietnamese playwright, actor and pole artist based in Toronto and Montreal, and is about to enter her final year as a playwriting student at the National Theatre School of Canada. She is best known for disappointing her father and her work with fu-GEN asian theatre company (double bill, fearless). For up to date information on Julie Phan’s (潘家雯) latest projects, follow her on Instagram @juxphan.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
One of my first acting experiences in high school was this board-wide festival my school was involved in for student-written plays. Some of the grade twelve students who wrote plays were chosen to participate in the Young Playwrights Unit (YPU) at Tarragon Theatre because of the partnership between the theatre and the festival. I thought it was a really cool opportunity and I wanted to do it too so I wrote a play for the next year’s festival and was offered a spot. I almost couldn’t do it though because my dad wouldn’t allow it because it was on a weekday (Thursday evenings after school) and all the other commitments I had (which included the trifecta of mandatory extra curriculars for children of Asian tiger parents: piano, Chinese school, and extra math tutoring). I actually cried to my Grade Ten drama theatre who then called him to convince him to let me go because it was such a great opportunity. He only allowed it when he was assured I’d be escorted by a group of my friends (who wouldn’t let the opportunity slip by me) because he didn’t trust me to be able to get there on my own. He thought I’d get kidnapped on the subway or something. Shoutout to Ms. Burt, Haley, Sam and Colwyn. At Tarragon, I was able to keep developing the first play I’d ever written and by the end they hired professional actors to do a public reading of my script. It was a really dope opportunity in general but especially for a fifteen year old girl. I think getting to work with people as supportive as Anne Wessels, Paula Wing and Caitie Graham so early on really fueled my creative drive and I haven’t stopped writing plays since.
What drew you to writing theatre?
I write theatre for two main reasons; the first is because I was dissatisfied with the roles I was given as an actor. This is a common experience for many actors of colour, but I was aware of this and disillusioned pretty early on. I write plays that I can and want to perform in — which is my second reason. I want to be invested in that kinds of stories I was telling: I was often getting stuck in telling stories I wasn’t excited by at all. It fits me more to think of myself as a storyteller and theatre creator: I think that playwriting is a part of what I do, and this practice can combine with literally anything (acting, pole dancing, music, martial arts, eating food, etc.) to become a piece of theatre. What I think writing for theatre allows for in particular is an amount of freedom in the form and landscape that grants you room to explore, try new things and experiment (in ways that I feel TV and film don’t really allow for).
Your play, 加油 (used as a phrase to express encouragement along the lines of “keep going” or “you can do it”), that you wrote at the National Theatre School in your first year, explores in part “the validity of a person’s opinion on the politics of a region they’re connected to by culture but [physically] separated from”. How do you use theatre to explore this complicated topic?
It actually makes me really sad to think about this. At the time when I wrote this play, it was at the height of the 2019 protests. I had a lot of hope. Since then Hong Kong has undergone so much rapid change, it’s difficult to keep up with. The movement was stalled by the pandemic and I feel like that killed it; the state took advantage of the pandemic to arrest some of the movement’s most prominent activists and any attempt to speak out now is quickly squashed. It’s really depressing to think about, it feels like I’m mourning the loss of culture and my mother tongue (Cantonese). That’s all to say, I don’t think this play really reflects the way I think about how to speak about politics in theatre anymore. The project itself had too many restrictions and I ended up being pushed towards a direction I didn’t want to go: it became less about exploring the changes I was experiencing in my own life and the vulnerability that came with it and more about tracking every emotional change, identifying every beat and “both sidings” the issue. Ultimately it didn’t really use theatre to explore this complicated issue: this play was too digestible — and the state of Hong Kong is anything but that, and I’m still trying to understand what happened and what will happen. To do that, I’ve refocused on trying to understand China, how the CPC works and how it got to how it is now. Doing this is a draconian task, I don’t think it can ever been understood in its entirety; but at this point in time, my plays try to make sense of it the best I can, using whatever means I can (from pop culture to lecture notes, recipes, music, journaling while high, news articles, reality television, Barbies, etc.). I liken my process now to collage or pastiche, where seemingly unrelated things are stitched together, circling around a topic, trying to make sense of it. This is how I use theatre to try to address such a complicated topic: I acknowledge that there is no way to come to a real conclusion, and instead I allow everything to exist together even if it all contradicts each other and it’s mostly messy.
What has your experience as an emerging artist been like, and what kinds of supports have been beneficial as you build your career?
When I was sixteen, I put my name in for the Toronto Fringe and I was drawn. I think that decision changed my life. Even though I had never produced a play before, I had no idea what I was doing, and I wasn’t even really sure if I was like, legally allowed to do it because I was hiding it from my parents. Through the Toronto Fringe, I was connected to people who helped me figure it out: I met Marjorie Chan really by chance because I wanted to work with an established theatre artist who is an Asian woman — we formed a relationship that I cherish and she is a lifelong mentor who believed in me even when I was scared and sad when we met. It was her guidance that ultimately allowed me to pull off the Fringe run of Fine China and she also provided the emotional nurturing I needed — she made me feel really proud of what I’d accomplished. My connection to her allowed me to meet David Yee, who has been vital to my development as an artist and as a person. He decided to program my show that winter (for some reason??) and pushed me to do theatre full time. In some ways, being an emerging artist has granted me a lot of freedom to experiment and do what I want, even if it fails, and somehow it’s gotten me in touch with so many people who are willing to help me. As I’m approaching my final year at NTS, I’m reflecting on how much I’ve grown as an artist over the last two years and how much I can continue to grow over the next year. I don’t think I’ll stop being an emerging artist once I’ve graduated, but it does make me wonder at what point I’ll stop being an emerging artist. I don’t have an answer, I’m just genuinely wondering what it means for an artist to be emerging if growth as an artist is lifelong. Who knows?
What are you working on next?
I’m about to go into my third year of playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada. The plays I’m working on for school include: my play for the New Words Festival (produced and performed by the graduating cohort at NTS) about the relationship between the boyband industry in Asia and late stage capitalism and the proliferation of Black culture in Asian popular music; and a TYA piece about a teenaged Chinese Canadian girl’s relationship to her mother explored through traditional Chinese vs “western” food and her love of Anthony Bourdain.
I’m actually not sure if I can announce what it is yet, but I’ll say now I’m slated to take part in a micro-residency that I’m really excited about to develop a piece that combines my practices of pole dancing and playwriting. They are two different ways if expression that speak to different parts of my consciousness: playwriting uses words to express my thoughts, but when I pole dance, I tap into a different part of my brain that wants to express my feelings and instincts in ways words can’t express. I started pole dance at a particularly low point in my life and it helped me start to feel more like myself again. This practice is now deeply connected to how I inhabit my own body, and it’s important to me to explore what my movements say about my instincts and urges, where they come from, and what they mean.
What is your favourite Canadian play?
You cannot do this to me, please. lol. There’s absolutely no way I can pick one, there are way too many. I can give you some of them in no particular order: Acquiesce by David Yee, The Madness of the Square by Marjorie Chan, ‘da Kink in My Hair by Trey Anthony, The Chemical Valley Project by Kevin Matthew Wong and Julia Howman, Obaberima by Tawiah M’carthy, Good Morning, Viet Mom by Franco Nguyen, Bliss by Olivier Choinière.
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.