Season 2, Episode 2: Community and Adaptability in the Performing Arts with Howard Dai

January 10, 2024


Stacey Copeland: [accompanied by background music] Welcome to FCAT after school, a podcast project from SFU’s Faculty of Communication, art and technology. In each episode we join student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation and gather advice for the next generation. In this episode SCA or school of contemporary art student, Zoe Braithwaite sits down with Taiwanese actor, theatre artist and SFU alumnus Howard Dai. Howard discusses their experience working as a global theatre artists today from the new found opportunities that have emerged post pandemic to the challenges of adapting performance to the now all too familiar Zoom video format. In conversation with Zoe, Howard shares his insights on the importance of community and collaboration. As an SCA alumnus here are the school of contemporary arts own Zoe Braithwaite and Howard die on FCAT after school.

Sound Effect: [tranquil music]

Zoe Braithwaite: I don't think any clock at SFU works. They never move.

Howard Dai: Do you think maybe that's, do you think that informs work?  Do you think that? I think everything informs when you live in this building. I think everything informs how you make work. Like, you never know what the time is, what the clock is. Maybe that informs how you work as an artist, like you never take breaks or something. I don't know.

Sound Effect: [Piano chord]

Zoe Braithwaite: Okay, so Howard, welcome back to the school of the contemporary arts. For those listening we are here in the music studio at the Goldcorp campus on the unceded ancestral lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations. My name is Zoe Braithwaite, I'm a current third year theatre performance student here. And the SCA  host for this season of the FCAT alumni Podcast. I'm joined here today by the incredibly talented Howard Dai. Howard, would you like to introduce yourself?

Howard Dai: Thank you. Yes, I'm Howard Dai. I graduated from SFU theater a few years ago. Um, I perform mostly, I do theater in Vancouver for the most parts. Perform, and I also do some writing, some directing, some devise creation work, and some small design and technical work as well. Just a bit of everything, whatever, whatever will hire me to do things.

Zoe Braithwaite: Well, thank you so much for joining me today.

Howard Dai: Thanks for having me.

Zoe Braithwaite: So yeah, I guess, you being back here at SCA, I wanted to ask, you know, how does it feel? Um, it's gonna lead to my next question. But just so far, how does it feel to be back in the space?

Howard Dai: You know, what I love the most about the space?

Zoe Braithwaite: What?

Howard Dai: Or just the building? Is this building really has the, maybe, the best rehearsal studios in the city. Because when we were here, when I was here as students, we get access to these rooms, and you book it. Like, basically it's available whenever there's no classes, it's available to use.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah exactly.

Howard Dai: And it's really like, now that we don't have access to these spaces, we realize how valuable they are. And really is it's a bit wide open space. And then there's often sound board, or lighting for you to use, to play around. And you can't find that anywhere else in the city, without paying a lot of money. It's either really, rehearsal spaces in Vancouver are really in demand, or even if they're not pricey, they're just like always, full the whole time. So you can like squeeze them at an hour, two hours blocks, but it's never enough time for you to do anything. And so whenever I'd come back and look through the window, I just miss being able to come in here and use this space.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah. That's so fun to think about because I feel I and most of my peers are so tired of being in the space, like all day, every day. And so it's good to remind ourselves, this is a very cool opportunity. And we should be very grateful for it. I mean, we're paying to be here. But-

Howard Dai: Yes.

Zoe Braithwaite: [laughs]

Howard Dai: It makes sense. Yeah, like you spend,

Zoe Braithwaite: All day.

Howard Dai: All day every day in these studios, right?

Zoe Braithwaite: [laughs] Yeah.

Howard Dai: And um, yeah, it really informs how you make work.  The way we’re trained is very architecturally informed.

Zoe Braithwaite: Totally. Yeah.

Howard Dai: We kinda consider space as part of the parameters when we make work. And so coming in here, doing the work we make, in a way because the space is so big, and you have we have the luxury of the space that it's often it's not really a container, like it doesn't really restrict much and for the most part, anything you want, you can in do these spaces.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: And so I think that also allows SFU grads maybe to use a space well and also, like, be able to do, like, site-specific work because they're trapped in the box the whole time and they're often thinking outside the box. But it's just interesting to come back and consider how we make work in relation to the space, knowing the space we had access to.

Sound Effect: [piano chord]

Zoe Braithwaite: I know you had a long running in creating and performing your project "New Societies" and I'd love if you could talk to that relationship between what we know theater to be and how that transforms with the openings of game design; and how it transforms on the digital platform to live spaces.

Howard Dai: I had the feeling that I was maybe going to talk about this. So under this shirt, I have my "New Societies" shirt! We went on tour this summer and so we got this merch made, it got all of our tour dates on the back.  Yeah, "New Societies" um just for a bit of context, this was in 2019. So the main kind of, the concept, master brain behind this project was Brian Postalian, and he was here at SFU, doing his MFA in Interdisciplinary ...Studies- whatever the MFA offers here in SFU; and his concentration was in game design, game theater design. And in 2019, I think was the year, where he was forming this thesis project called new societies. And it was this large scale, interactive board game experience, where we kind of questioned the idea of utopia and how people can come together to build their utopia. And so he pulled in many of his other MFA cohort, and mostly BFA theatre students, and design students to come in. And so there was cast of 11, 12, there was a team of like 13 or something when he first did it here at studio T in the fall of 2019. And then in 2020, over the pandemic, we kind of just had a conversation about, all of us had a conversation about what it will look like if we do it, if we did it online.

Zoe Braithwaite: Mhmm.

Howard Dai: And just to say like Brian was leading the project, but it was kind of co-created by everyone else on the project, because we spent a few weeks in the summer 2019 and then right before the show in the fall to kind of design this game together. And what was really interesting is that it felt less like a theater rehearsal, but more like a board game,

Zoe Braithwaite: [giggles]

Howard Dai: Design meeting. Because we were there, we spent really many weeks there with the whiteboard, and figuring out almost equation of like how the points will work. And we had, like I brought in a box of poker chips at one point. We like, workshopped all these ideas of what the team will look like. And so it started with an index card, which is like, I remember we had index cards, and we just with Sharpie drew like one stripe or three stripes, we made one to three points,  because that was the cards we were going to draw and we went from there. And like, beautiful design, by Christian Chang who was a production student here, and the scenographer of the show, who together with Brian designed intricate pieces. And so it really became a board game project because we have these custom made things that went along with it. But what was really special about that project was that you can't really do it without the performers, without the facilitators.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: And so it was really a hybrid of live theater performance and the board game experience. And so yeah, in 2020, we were kind of like, mind melded and figure out a way to transition that adapted into online, and it was again an effort between everyone involved on the team. And so these are all like theater students, who we all had experienced during the in person already and trying to retain what was, trying to retain kind of the core of the show, which was how to get people talking to each other and interacting,

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: with one another and how to maintain these like, because it really feels a conversation piece, I feel like the meat of the experience is we ask these provoc-, evocative, evocative questions in circumstances to the players and they have to work together or against one another, however they like to, but to kind of consider these sometimes the mirror, these mirroring events happening in our real world, but setting this kind of fictional game worlds, and, so them having to like, you know, figure out what they want to do, where their values lie, and how they collaborate with one another. So we were able to retain that, to, to bring it online. It's still tricky, because we did it first over zoom and with everyone zoom etiquette, what everyone had  learned is that you just mute your microphone.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: When you're not talking and the thing that really,

Zoe Braithwaite: [laughs]

Howard Dai: The experience of that shows with you in person, you're sitting next to one another, and you've started to chit chat with your fellow players, and then something will come up and you're like, you're all talking over one another about what to do and what zoom, it felt limiting in a way where we still tried to do a lot of that, but people are being polite. They're like not talking over one another, or if they do like you can't hear anything because it just cancelled out. And so I think we had a good run, but we still like to do the best we can and we had a good run. And then this past summer, we had the opportunity to go on a tour to Ontario, to three cities. We did it in person again. So that was interesting to, instead of reverting back to what we did in 2019, it was really adapting it back down to in person, just we had discovered quite a few things that was really helpful and effective in the online version, and it will bring it back again. And it was nice to again, that was May, that was the first time, even though we've been doing the show online, the first time, we all kind of same room together again, after two, three years. And these are folks that like, we've known since 2019, or even before that, it's all SFU theater people.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: And so it's nice to be in a room again. And,and even for me, like, I have so much fun doing that in person show because for me, part of the joy is also this ensemble that we've created together over the three years and even just, I am able to perform the show, knowing that I truly, truly everyone else had my back.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: Everyone else has been doing the show for three years. And we all know the show inside and out so well. And it allows for this flexibility, where there's just a lot of improvisation that show where someone can give you a proposition that and like make up something. And I can go back and just tell my collaborators, just like, there was a point of the show where we all came to the center, and we did you talk to one another to check in and I just told them a few words, and they know exactly how to handle it. And so it really allows me to be free to play because I know everyone else will have my back. And, and yeah, so for me, I think for the audience and for me performing that show, really, the joy of it is the ensemble getting to be in the same room and life creates, and play with my collaborators in real time.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah. That's so exciting.

Sound Effect: [piano chord]

Zoe Braithwaite: I feel like for myself, I started this program when everything was online. And so the very beginning of building your cohort wasn't there. Because again, like you were talking about, like on Zoom, this whole thing of mute your mic, don't talk unless you have to. And so there's so much of that, like, bonding that felt like it was missing. And so, I mean, now I'm here, in my, halfway through my third year; nearing the end of this program. And I feel like "oh my goodness", there's such a weird gap between it all. I feel like just now am I having that experience of like, I don't know what the right word is like jiving or meshing with my people where I can have that like, look at them, and know what's going on, you know?

Howard Dai: Right? Yeah.

Zoe Braithwaite: Which is exciting now, but then it's like, oh, well, no, now that everything's ending, this feels so like, unknown. What happens after this? Does it go back to before when we don't really talk to each other? Unless we have to, do, does that stay alive? And I mean, I think you can offer some good wisdom to this as someone who, as we mentioned, graduated in COVID, kind of being thrown into a time of “how do I go about navigating any of this?” I mean, how do you navigate the unknown?

Howard Dai: I, uh, was lucky that, I mean, my cohort, are all very, like we, we kind of kept things going, or at least with a lot of my collaborators, we have been finding ways, ways to just dip back into studios. And I think it because it happened so quickly at the end of our program that we didn't get a proper send off, in a way, that we were craving ways to just get back in the room together again.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: And so now whenever we get a chance to kind of go back in the room together and make things and, I think I mean, this is I also like I'm always looking at a silver lining. I feel really lucky coming into that, out of the pandemic at least two years 2020-2022. There was a lot of residencies to opened up, started with online residencies. But then, yeah, they're just like all these like, arts recovering funding, and all these things that have been supporting the artist and I felt like and I wonder also, because I haven't graduated, I didn't graduate until the pandemic, so I don't know whether there was actually more opportunities compared to pre pandemic. But it really did feel like there was quite a bit of, especially, residencies floating around and it all started online where you started with Zoom chats with mentors, etc. But I also find it really lucky that I feel like Theatre in Canada is quite a small community in that once you get quite established, you can go back and forth between other Canadian cities quite a bit but over the pandemic, there's a lot of opportunity that became national, like in Toronto that became available to us, otherwise,

Zoe Braithwaite: Right.

Howard Dai: we were gonna have to fly to Toronto to do things. But there was a lot of things, a lot of residencies that became available to Vancouver residents happening in Toronto. And so I got to connect with quite a bit of artists all over the country, which, thinking about it now; maybe I wouldn't have had a chance to do if it wasn't for the pandemic, because everything had to be online. And so I also felt lucky that like, I got create all these connections and like new societies, when we were online, When we went like one of the tour we presented in Ontario twice, but we were in our bedroom, going on a tour to Toronto,

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah. [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

Howard Dai: but we never left our bedroom. And so in the way it was, On my resume I have a credit in a Toronto theater,  without even having to go there. And so I also just like, always looking at silver lining, it just felt lucky that all these things became available to us. And I think theaters have recognized how valuable that is to artists that are often keeping all of these things or things that doesn't have to be in person, they're keeping it available to, to have more accessibility, maybe across the country. So I think there's a lot of residencies or things still available all over the country that is available to us. And so I will say just keep seeking out these residencies and not just looking in Vancouver because it's still quite small, but looking into other companies, or even in a state or even somewhere else that has international opportunity online.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah. Yeah, that seems to be the huge silver lining that's come out of all of this, is that interconnection, globally, because of the internet and realizing how much can exist in a digital space.

Sound Effect: [piano chord]

Howard Dai: I see a lot of shows, I try to see as many shows as I can. And that's one thing I like, really make sure I keep doing is I go interact with work that's been staged in the city. And this one is a small community as well. So it's nice to support your colleagues when they do work. But for me, I feel like that's the best way to,to like, I mean, one have a poll on what the city is looking at. And looking at the audiences and, oh, this is some-who's coming out to the shows? Are they liking the show or not? How is the show being done? And just walk amongst these people to figure out what the city is,  and what the rhythm of the city is like, right now tonight, when the work has been presented. And the more shows I see I feel like I learn things from watching shows, that people learn how to make movies from watching movies. I barely watch movies. I'm terrible at this. That's why I don't make movies. But I see a lot of plays and for me play, performances, dance sometimes, trying to see more dance, but it just like going out to see things and now often that's, that's, not possible for many people just for accessibility as well. But no thankfully, with pandemic there's also a lot of shows has also accessible online now and so just like exposing myself to work that's being done in a city I feel like really helped me as an artist. Not as a practice as per se but I feel like that's something that's really one of the few things, I, I really make sure I do, as often as I can.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, no, for sure. I was listening to another podcast this morning and they had reference this like, paraphrased Quentin Tarantino quote, that was like, "If you love movies and are obsessed with them, it's impossible for you to make a bad movie." And I think that's the essence of what you're saying is, yeah, by the constant exposure to work you learn so much.

Sound Effect: [piano chord]

Zoe Braithwaite: I know a lot of your work explores culture and identity, you know, some of which could be sensitive, personal material, you know, I think of the project that as you're talking about, like your writing, I mean, you wrote "Pineapple bun" and using like, bits from your childhood and memories. So how do you like pitch and market work like that without feeling like you have to commodify it and exploit it?

Howard Dai: Yeah, no, that's a good question. That's always, yeah, grant writing is often a yucky spot because it feels like sometimes you have to check boxes. You know, like with either there's like grant buzzwords or you have to kind of guess, because part of what grant writing also means is, what you would start with in grant right, is go look at the funding body and see reader guidelines and you look at their funding focus of the year. Often they will like poster like these four years, here's what we're wanting to fund and they give you like these big directions. And you kind of look at what they want; these are what the jurors will be given. They'll say, "oh, here's what, what we want to fund." And then if you look at the words they're using and you're trying to pick out those words and say, and use those words in your grant because that jurors will look at them and then go "Oh, I remember, like, that's the word I'm supposed to fund.

Zoe Braithwaite: [laughs]

Howard Dai: I'm gonna fund that word.”  right, and so it can often feel yucky. But, but this is again, what I really appreciated coming out of this school is being able to articulate your, what you want to do.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: Because I think there were many opportunities when I was in school to get to um question or to get to articulate what it is we're interested in,

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: why we do the things we do; and a lot of times, our, our class, our black boss or mainstage team with the research question.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: We don't know what the show is going to be, but it came with a prompt or a research question, going like, "here's what we're exploring." and we spent a whole semester exploring it and it culminated in the show, but really, it's all the process in exploring this one phrase, or this one topic with this one idea. And so, and it's through, you know, through the months of making that show, mainstage or black box, I'm sure you're familiar, you're, you have these discussions in the middle, you go back and talk about what it means, you talk about how this relates to thing, you talk about discovery that came out of that. And so it's being able to like, talk about the art we're making, that really feels valuable, so that even when we, when I started to write grants I can actually just sit down and just write without thinking about any, nothing about grants.  Just writing about what it actually means for me; why I'm doing this, etc. and so I think, for the most part, if you're able to articulate kinda truthfully what it is you're interested in, they are interested in that. They will, they will fund it, because, well not that they will fund it, but a jurist could see whether you're genuine and you're actually interested in something.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah.

Howard Dai: And, um, I also, like I will say, with grants, have got a lot of mentors. Graduating in theater school really helped me out. So, I did an internship with Rice and Beans Theatre for quite a while, still am associated with them. And they’re two SFU theater alum, Pedro Chamale and Derek Chan. And they, you know, 10 years ago, they graduated and kind of did the same thing to make their own work. And so working with them, they were really supportive and kind of given me, letting me read, look at their grants, but also just really cultivated me and, and helped me along with what is gonna make me succeed. And so I will say, like, this work we had to do on our own, but really just connecting, the mentorship really goes a long way.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah, that's awesome advice. Yeah. Things to think about, because that, it is, seems to be a bit of a taboo topic, talking about grants and how people go about applying for that.

Howard Dai: Well, but, yeah,

Zoe Braithwaite: [laughs]

Howard Dai: granted, we all need the grants to kind of survive -in Vancouver,

Zoe Braithwaite: Exactly, yeah.

Howard Dai: And I think maybe Vancouver, maybe in BC, compared to a lot of other provinces, and especially the States, I think, there is a lot of opportunities for us to make our own work. And, you know, in Canada Council for the Arts, and BC councils, have like specific grants, focused on new artists, emerging artists, so that we get like often like extra opportunities to get funded. And yeah, so I was really supported by mentors along the way or, or other colleagues who very generously shared with me their grants. And so now, you know, if other people ask me for my grants, I'll happily share with them just, we're not competing with one another in a way, like we're all trying to uplift each other and help each other out. And if one person gets it, that's a great win for the community altogether. Yeah.

Zoe Braithwaite: Yeah. That's a beautiful sentiment. I- It's really refreshing to hear that. Thank you, Howard.

Howard Dai: Thank you.

Zoe Braithwaite: Thank you so much for joining me today. It's really been a pleasure talking with you.  And where can people find you next on the stage? On the webs?

Howard Dai: You can find me on the web [laughs] I guess, I just try to, like, this really is one of the most.. website, it feels so narcissistic where you're like telling people, like who's actually going to read it? But that's where I post things. I'm on Instagram, it's my name without a D it's HowardAI, it's just one D My name. Howard AI. And the next time I'm doing anything, I'm not on stage for this, but I am, as part of this apprenticeship fund, I am assistant directing "Forgiveness' adapted by Hiro Kanagawa at Arts Club, that will go up in February, next spring, and it's with Arts Club and Theatre, Calgary, so I'll be in rehearsal for that middle of December, and then there'll be on stage early next year.

Zoe Braithwaite: [accompanied by background music] That's exciting! Okay, well, I will have to check that out, and hopefully everyone listening will too! Thank you so much.

Sound Effect: [tranquil music]

Stacey Copeland: [accompanied by background music] A big thanks to Howard Dai for joining us here on the show. You'll find links and resources mentioned in our show today and more info on Howard and the SCA program in our show notes. Our host for this episode was Zoe Braithwaite, production is by Zoe and me Stacy Copeland FCAT, after school respectfully acknowledges the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) q̓íc̓əy̓ (Katzie), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples on whose unseeded traditional territories our three campuses reside, and where many of the stories shared in our series take place. Make sure to rate and subscribe to FCAT afterschool in your podcast app of choice so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. You can also find us on social media FCAT at SFU. That's F C A T at SFU on Twitter and Instagram, a new episode of FCAT after school hitting your feeds January 4 after a short winter break, see you next time!

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