Play the Dane: Breaking Acting Stereotypes

Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre shakes things up onstage.
Story Rickie-Jocelyne Sandhu
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An angel kicked open the doors of opportunity with the strength of a tsunami and the fire of a dragon. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have imagined that a person of Asian descent would play a lead role in a blockbuster movie alongside superstars such as Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. And yet a petite and athletic Asian woman with silky skin would adorn the silver screen. The angel’s name is Lucy Liu. She broke into the world of Hollywood by playing against stereotype. In fact, because the casting director was so impressed with her audition, they created a character in Charlie’s Angels for her. Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT) is a platform that allows Asian-Canadian actors to break from stereotypes. The President of VACT, Joyce Lam, is Vancouver’s own Charlie’s Angel. She is determined to level the playing field for Asians in Vancouver and shake things up in the theatre community. “How are Asian actors ever going to get better opportunities if they have no experience? It makes me angry to think that there is such a large Asian community and yet there are no roles or productions set here in Canada.” Traditionally, many never dared to dream of a career in acting, and those who did often gave up after years of struggling.

Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre

play_the_dane_6Joyce Lam and Tom Chin formed VACT in 2000. Their inspiration came from a Seattle Asian-American sketch-comedy troupe called OPM. Joyce was impressed by what the Asian community was doing in Seattle and felt Vancouver was lacking this kind of entertainment. She had an idea; she would bring OPM to Vancouver to do a show. Since money was an issue, Joyce and Tom went to NAAAP Vancouver, the local office of the National Association of Asian American Professionals. “We really wanted to do this, but we had no idea if we were going to make money or lose money,” says Joyce. “I was relieved but not surprised at the success of our first show. The production was a hit!”

I had the same routine everyday and I thought, there has to be more.

Tom, who is a comedian/actor/director, hosts VACT productions along with Joyce. Aside from his involvement in VACT, he is a teacher who uses humour to make learning fun for his students. “I’m extremely proud of the positive outcome VACT will have on the future generations. These kids will actually have a chance to make their dreams come true.” Considering that one in four Vancouver residents is Asian, Tom wonders why resources like VACT have been such a long time coming.

Acting Is Not A Career Path Most Asians Take

Tom has always done things that people wouldn’t expect, considering his Chinese heritage. Whenever people hear that Tom teaches French, they’re always surprised. “It’s funny play_the_dane_1the reaction people have; yes I am Asian, and I speak Chinese. But I am also Canadian, and French is Canada’s second language, so why would that be so surprising to people?” VACT has had a tremendous impact on the lives of Janet Ip and Ashley Liu, two young actors who volunteer their time year round. Janet’s voice is soft but filled with excitement. Her energy is felt from across the room and her comedic talents are evident from the get-go. Janet has the ability to make people laugh and smile. She is a doctor by day and an actress by night. Originally from Winnipeg, she was always involved in drama and school plays. As her father is a doctor and her mother is a dentist, they always encouraged the security of a career in the health sciences. “My parents, like all Asian parents, just wanted me to be happy and financially secure.” Says, Janet. “So, like most Asian parents, the idea of me going into medicine was ideal… Acting is not an encouraged pursuit among parents in the Asian community. However I love medicine and the act of helping people but there is a part of me that needs to explore my creative side. VACT gives me the opportunity to do this.” Although they want her medical career to come first, Janet’s parents love the idea that their daughter is involved in theatre. Janet also produces documentary films about health care. She is not sure what the future holds in terms of a career in the theatre. But for now, she is enjoying a lead role in the episodic play Sex in Vancouver, playing a character that is her polar opposite. “My character has an antagonist role. She is vain, manipulative, and very self-absorbed. I remember performing my first night, and I was dressed in a scandalous outfit and I thought to myself, I am so glad my parents live in Winnipeg. I couldn’t imagine how embarrassed I would have been with my father in the front row.” Janet is preparing for the next segment of Sex in Vancouver in August 2005. In April, they will be performing selected scenes from the first two play_the_dane_4segments for those who may have missed the first two episodic plays. Ashley Liu has put his engineering career on hold to pursue acting. As a student at Langara College, he is enrolled in the Studio 58 Theatre Arts Program. When Ashley graduated as an engineer, he went to work for a private firm. He felt unsatisfied, like Janet, about the direction his life was taking. “I felt like: is this it? Every day, 9 to 5. I had the same routine every day and I thought, there has to be more.” When Ashley went online to look for Asian theatre companies, he quickly realized there was only one. He contacted Joyce and offered to volunteer for anything backstage. One day, she asked him if he would be interested in being an understudy for one of the lead roles. Ashley accepted with great enthusiasm. This would mark the beginning of a love affair with the theatre arts. Ashley fell in love with acting and decided to pursue it full-time. He started by taking evening classes at Vancouver Film School. Eventually, he put engineering on the backburner and enrolled in the three-year play_the_dane_5theatre program at Langara College. This wasn’t an easy decision for him. He thought long and hard before making the leap to theatre. “I never thought about a career in acting as a child or teenager. I became interested in my 20s. This could also be because it wasn’t a typical career path for an Asian. Like Janet’s parents, my mother wanted financial security for me.” Ashley recalls telling his mother with difficulty; he wasn’t sure how she would take it. He sets his eyes on the table in silence for a moment. “Yeah my mom has been a great force in my life; she is proud of her engineer son. The funny thing is, she is coming around with the acting. It’s hard for her to understand the direction I am going but she ultimately wants me to be happy. I remember the first night I was performing and she was in the audience, and the character I was playing was a homosexual and dressed for the part. I was nervous, as it was my first night performing, but with my mom there I felt sick to my stomach.”

An Outlet For Asians In Theatre

Ashley laughs out loud. He overcame his fears and got into character, delivering a great performance that night. Ashley talks about how VACT changed his life and how fortunate he feels that there is an outlet for Asians who are curious about theatre. “It’s great. We are living in a time that change will occur slowly if people like Joyce, Tom, Janet, and myself – along with all the volunteers at VACT – continue to dedicate themselves to making a difference in the way the theatre world perceived Asians roles.” There is one thought play_the_dane_2that Joyce, Tom, Janet, and Ashley all share: “What about us: the Asians who are born in Canada?” They want to put a face to those born here with two identities. In Canada, there are Asians who don’t speak Chinese or Japanese; they communicate in English but have a strong sense of their Asian culture. Joyce concludes, “I want the next generations to be able to relate to Asian theatre here in Canada. There is plenty of material we have to offer as Asian-Canadians growing up in Canada, and none of it is stereotypical.” VACT is powering a movement in our city’s theatre community. Their success over the last four years indicates that there is a market for this kind of theatre. The first step was taken by one person with a dream to make a difference, the second step by a community united in a common goal. Perhaps one day we’ll see some of the actors who crept the boards with VACT lighting up the screen in film or television.