By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“It’s pretty much what I’ve always wanted to do!” says a genial, amused voice on the phone from Toronto. “Talk directly to the audience about my life. And make people laugh….”
That double-barrelled thought has propelled Ins Choi across the country once more, back to Edmonton, back to Fringe Theatre Adventures, this time to winter festivities in an arctic place. Yes, in the Chinook Series, the playwright who brought Canadian theatre and then Canadian TV one of their biggest homegrown hits ever — Kim’s Convenience the play and Kim’s Convenience the CBC series — is back onstage himself, in person. And in a free-wheeling, elastic-sided show of his own device, Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words.
“It’s taken me back to my roots of writing as a kid,” says the good-natured Choi. “I majored in writing; I was always writing poetry, journals, little bits of things, in secret. Then I got into song-writing…. I was such a shy kid; I never shared my poetry and songs till I got into acting.” He laughs at the thought of his introverted younger self, in those days before he found himself at York University’s theatre school. “Acting and theatre got me out of my shell.”
Choi has said he credits this entry into “showbiz” to his dad, the pastor (now retired) of a Korean immigrant church, a funny and engaging storyteller who tried to affect his audience and generally make their lives better.
A veritable poster child for the multi-hued multi-ethnic reality in this land of newcomers, Choi has found much to inspire (and amuse) him in memories of growing up in Toronto. He’s the son of Korean immigrants; their first Canadian home was with cousins above their convenience story. Home and church: Korean. School and hockey and everything else: English. He tapped that immigrant experience for his charmer of a comedy — amazingly, his first play — about a fractious Korean-Canadian family who run a corner store.
Citadel audiences saw the hit Soulpepper production of Kim’s Convenience on a cross-country tour in 2014, between sold-out Toronto runs that broke every box office record for the company. In earlier incarnations, Choi himself played the estranged son; he opted out of the tour when the conflicting demands of TV production and family life proved insurmountable.
A year later, Choi was onstage himself, though, in his highly unusual solo play Subway Stations Of The Cross. It sees the world through the eyes of a homeless performance poet, a ragtag urban wilderness prophet and mad genius who delivers a barrage of free-associating, intricately rhymed poems, part ancient truth part social commentary. Choi brought it to the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringes in the summer of 2015. “I have great memories of Edmonton,” he laughs. He and wife and their two little kids camped, “in a little trailer we hauled with our little car.”
“We saw elk, we saw the northern lights…. I’d do my show, hang out with people at the Fringe…. A huge memory. I saw Andrew Phung do his improv show, and afterwards went up and introduced myself. I thought he’d be great as Kimchee in Kim’s Convenience. And six months later he was!”
Ins Choi: Songs, Stories and Spoken Words, pilfers some material from Subway Stations of the Cross, says Choi cheerfully. But it has other roots too. “On Mondays and Tuesdays I’d go along to open-mike nights at the Free Times Cafe at College and Spadina. And in a tiny spot in the back, I found myself among a bunch of other singer-songwriters…. We’d do two or three songs every week — for each other. That was the audience!” he laughs. “It was kind of embarrassing; you just hope there’s real people out there…. Anyhow they appreciate my songs.” Almost invariably they had comedy to them.
Occasionally he was invited to participate in cabaret evenings. So he’d have to introduce his songs and poems.” And slowly, “very organically,” the new show emerged.
Choi did his “first test-drive of this weird concert/ cabaret/ stand-up thing” in Saskatoon when he was there for the Word on the Street literary festival in September. He rented a little church hall venue for a night, and was amazed when 60 people came out, “my first audience!” At the Q and A afterwards, they asked him about writing Kim’s Convenience for TV.
“Over time some of the introductions have developed, and the stories are a bit more robust,” he thinks. “Like the origin of my name, or the fact that Bruce Lee was the first Asian man I saw on TV, and how that influenced me.” Choi’s comic song Bruce Lee’s Best Friend is a tribute.
Edmonton is “the first time I get to do the show more than once!” Choi says happily. The Chinook gig is also his chance to sneak away from TV and its insatiable appetite for more and more episodes: Kim’s Convenience is currently running season three, and a fourth season has the green light. Choi and Kevin White write some of the episodes, and they edit and shape everything about the series. “I’ve been itching to get back onstage, but the TV schedule is against it,” Choi says. “I’ve been pushing away a little bit…. Most of my year I’m surrounded by writers, and key execs. And CBC folks. And heads of props. I’m making a lot of decisions, and that’s OK. But I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
“Initially I wanted to learn everything (about TV); I figured when was I ever going to get this opportunity again. That first season was just crazy!” He sighs. “The energy it takes to be a show runner, and trying to balance family home life. And friends: I have no friends!” He’s amused by the thought that he might be the only theatre artist in Canada who likes theatre “for its hours and its benefits!”
And he reflects on the way that, from the start, Kim’s Convenience, charmed and resonated with people of all ages and ethnicities. “It did hit a chord,” Choi allows, modestly. “It’s a good play but it timed well,” in the way it synchronized with a frustration in the lack of diversity on the country’s stages.
The immigrant experience repertoire is full of darkness and angst. By contrast there’s a kind of sunny sweetness to Kim’s Convenience. “My dad would tell me stories of the Korean War, his family in North Korea walking over hills and mountains to freedom in South Korea,” Choi recalls. “You’d think it would be filled with tears. And there were tears. But also in the telling of that story there were so many funny moments, moments of people being generous and hilarious; my father at 13 and his brother coming up with weird songs and games to entertain their siblings on the way….”
“It’s influenced me a lot , not only in my writing but in how I live my life…. Human decency goes a long way. Dignity, being courteous. A smile. A door opened. They speak volumes.”
When Choi emerged, clutching his degree, out into the so-called “real world,” he didn’t exactly find the nation’s stage doors flung open to him as an artist of colour. He tried film and TV, and found an assortment of Asian waiters and gang members to play. There were zero takers for a comedy called Kim’s Convenience. So Choi took it to the Toronto Fringe, where it won both both “best new play” and “patrons’ choice.” And things changed after that.
If he were graduating as an actor in 2019 would Canadian theatre be more welcoming to an artist of colour than it was to him a decade before? Choi thinks so. He points to the work of Asian-Canadian playwrights and actors on the country’s largest stages. He notes artistic director appointments at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Kelly Thornton), Factory Theatre (Nina Lee Aquino), Soulpepper (Weyni Mengesha).“There’s always more to do, but it has been visible at that top level.”
And here’s the thing: the people want to see it.
Ins Choi: Songs, Stories, and Spoken Words
Theatre: Fringe Theatre
Created by and starring: Ins Choi
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Feb 14 to 16
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca