Fourth-year Theatre student Alex Colle sat down with Yu Liang, a first-year International student from China currently studying Theatre at York. This interview is the second in a two-part series.
ALEX: When you came to York, what did you apply for?
YU: Theatre, Dance, and Visual Arts.
ALEX: What was that process like?
YU: I still feel it’s amazing. When I applied, I just wanted to apply to a school that could teach me performance theatre. Then I saw York had theatre, had dance, had art, and had film! When I came to Canada, nobody told me about the arts school at York.
At the beginning, my English was not very good. I had to go to a language school. It’s run by Chinese people. They’ve lived in Canada for 30 years, but they still didn’t know about the arts school in Canada. I had no information. I just applied for the school and came to do the audition. But when I read the instructions for all of the auditions, I felt a great pressure. For theatre, I had to say two monologues in English and the interview was in English. For dance, I had to learn some dances in just three months. They would ask me to do dance ballet and contemporary dance and world dance and improv dance. For visual arts, I didn’t paint any colour paintings. I draw Chinese tradition paintings a lot. It uses just brushes and ink. Quite different from Western paintings. I had some sketches, but I didn’t practice too much.
So for these three programs I didn’t have any confidence to get an offer. I just tried my best. For Theatre I searched the monologue. Back in China when I read monologues, it was in Chinese. I found the translation and recited them again and again and again and again. I practiced in front of my teacher. I asked her to correct my accent. For Dance, I watched ballet videos and I practiced my own contemporary dance. I just followed my feeling, what I wanted. When I dance, I really, really like the feeling in myself. For Visual Arts, I didn’t prepare the portfolio until the night before the interview. All my paintings are in China in my parents’ apartment. I asked my parents to shoot the photos for me. They just took a picture and sent them to me the night before the audition. The next day I went to a printing store. I finished the portfolio at 12:00pm and the audition was at 1:30pm and I lived in Mississauga. So I called an Uber and got here.
The Visual Arts interview was the first interview where the professor told me that they wanted me to come and study. I showed the portfolio to him and just explained what is my feeling when I draw those paintings. I bring lots of emotion inside the painting. It’s about something I really care about. The professor said it was really warm.
First audition was Dance. I came here in the morning and I was very scared. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t understand much about conversation. Fortunately for professors in the dance program, they don’t talk much about English. I think maybe most of them are Italian. So when they speak in English they will block a lot. I just tried my best to follow the movements. I think why they gave me an offer was because of my improv dance. I brought myself into the dance and almost forgot the environment. After the audition one professor shook hands with me.
The Theatre audition was the most exciting one. I came late. Maybe half an hour. And when I came, the Chair of Theatre stood in front of the door of the JGG and I apologized a lot and she comforted me a lot. When I came inside, Peter already finished the instruction. All the parents stayed in the seats and all the students came to follow the upper year students to visit the school. I felt like, “Wow! The lighting lab! WOAH, the costume lab!” And for several Theatre students, I couldn’t understand the instructions from their mouths, but the feeling made me feel right. I thought, “I picked a very good place.” In the audition, first everyone played the basketball game together. I’m not a very, very dominating person. When I caught the fake ball, I didn’t run forwards because I was scared. I always delivered the ball to other people. But when I did it, I didn’t think. I just followed my senses.
Later was the monologue. I prepared my monologue so that each piece was 3 minutes. Fortunately, I was not the first one. When I saw the first one, their performance was very short. They asked them to continue the next one. That gave me some time to pick up some pieces of my monologue, so that when it got to my turn, I spoke the interesting parts. My voice was really, really low because when you can’t speak a language very good but you want to pay attention to your emotion, the voice will be a little bit lower. When you focus on the emotion, you can’t focus on the voice. When you focus on the voice, you can’t focus on your emotion or spirit. I was in that situation. But when I did the performance, I couldn’t realize what happened in front of me or surrounding me. The same thing happens to me in acting class sometimes or during my playGround performance. When I pay attention to the performance, I can’t see or realize other people. In front of my eyes I only see one small part. Other parts become blurry. My feeling was like that.
But two pieces…there was no comedy. No happy part. So they asked me to sing a song to make everyone laugh. Very difficult. I’m not good at telling jokes, even in China. I never amused people with jokes. For performances in China sometimes the scenes are really funny because I speak them in in Chinese and I know the plot and I practice a lot. But here, I have to make everyone laugh immediately with no rehearsal. They allowed me to sing the song in Chinese words. I just started expressing myself. You throw yourself. Totally throw yourself out there. When I finished the songs, my eyes are closed. I heard very loud laughing. But still I was not sure what was the result because sometimes people are very kind and they laugh and they help you. Was it really funny? I didn’t know. But later while doing the interview, the professors told me I did a very good job during the performance part. But I still wondered if they were saying polite words. In East Asian culture, people will always appreciate you even if there’s nothing is appreciate.
They asked me about why I came to Canada to study theatre, and why I came to the university to study theatre instead of some college since I already had an undergraduate degree. My answer was that in China, for the theatre students, usually people are just taught the same way. They teach every student the same way. They make every student into the same way. Same looking, even. I felt that’s not the right way. For learning arts, if you want to learn deeper you will touch the truth of the history of what happened. It’s about humans. And if I want to go deeper, I will learn the very detailed side of humans. We can’t touch that in China. If I want to be an actor, I have to start from the beginning because it’s a more healthy way to practice theatre.
ALEX: What made you want to choose theatre over art and dance?
YU: It was a very hard decision for me. But before I came abroad to study, theatre was the thing that I wanted to study. In the Western world, every dancer learns ballet from a very young age. I didn’t have that advantage. For visual art, it was more about entertaining myself. But for theatre, it heals me a lot. It means a lot to me. Sometimes in meditation I can find Zen. I can also find Zen inside performance, inside playwriting, inside directing…no…not directing. Directing is much chaos.
So I followed my original idea. For dance and painting, I can learn it in class. For theatre, I want to pick up the career. For dance, it is more about exposing my emotion. If you have a very strong emotion…very sad, very happy, very angry, or very excited…sometimes you have to release it. I really like dance, and I can perform dance too, but it’s too late. I’m such an adult. For an adult, if you learn dance, you can do it, but it’s very hard for you to be excellent if you start very late. Unless you practice and put lots and lots of effort, then there might be some hope. But that means all the things you will do…means putting all your energy inside of it. So comparing with these different things, I chose theatre.
But it was a very dangerous choice. If you do visual arts, you don’t need to rely on the words. You’re relying on the painting. You’re relying on the visual elements. Even if your English is not very good, you still have a way to communicate or you still have a way to do your work. For dance it’s very similar. Body language. The body is like a painting. But for theatre, you rely on the words. So for me, before I chose theatre, I really thought about that. Can I really suffer the pressure? And then I realized one statement from my friend. He studied theatre directing in the States for two years. He said, “For people who want to go to abroad to study arts, you have to know that it’s about death. You work hard like you’re facing death, and you always have to throw yourself at it totally. Every day you are dealing with death.” No relaxing. No easy going. Then I realized his words. I just have to work hard. The system is more fair here. People know what is good, what is bad. We’ll respect each other. If you work hard and you’re smart enough and you’re trying every way to show up, there’s a possibility for you to be accepted.
ALEX: Describe your first year at York. What has that been like for you?
YU: I never thought I could have any experience like York. I get so much respect. When growing up in China, lots of times I was laughed at by people saying I was stupid, that my brain is simple, too naïve. But here people appreciate. If you’re a kind person, if you believe in other people’s words all the time, that’s the thing people appreciate. And also if you’re honest all the time.
After I first arrived here, as an outsider I was worried about racism. Even now I worry about racism. I worry about people discriminating me. But to my surprise, people will enjoy talking with me. And they enjoy knowing my story. And sometimes they like to help me. And also the professors during the auditions they say it’s their pleasure to meet me here. I have never got any words from professors like that before. This sentence I only heard from lovers.
And I got the Merritt award. It’s nominated by the department and professors. Only one person gets it every year. I feel a huge appreciation because for international students there’s no chance to get scholarships. Only very, very few awards.
And some professors like to become a friend of mine. They invite me for coffee. I always talk with Rachel Katz. She likes to listen to my words or to guide me out of troubled feelings or give me some comfort or advice. And also James was one of the auditioners and when he sees me on campus he’ll talk to me in a very, very, very excited way and sometimes he say hi to me. He’ll say, “Hey, sir!”
The time for me I knew York Theatre is really excellent: the first lecture of Peter, he says the biggest sin in theatre is wasting the audience’s time. Then I knew. This is the right place.
ALEX: My next question was going to be about what you love most about York, but I feel like you have already talked about that.
YU: Lots of students who come to study abroad…it’s very often people will feel lonely. But I feel like I picked up a good program. They encourage you to make friends with everyone. Classmates, professors, theatre industry workers in the society, or other kinds of artists. Dancers, painters, musicians.
The other thing very important to me about theatre is life. Our textbooks and even Peter talks about how to become a human. The performance brings you to observe the details in life, and tells you why we behave like that in the daily life. And it tells me some very important points when you work with people together. I have become more and more open than before and more and more confident than before and more brave to face the facts.
I was very lonely in my childhood. I always expected some textbook to teach me how to deal with people. But in China, everyone just learns physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, literature, English, history, geography, politics. No one told me about the art of life. So when I started here, I felt like, “Oh! That’s the thing that I wanted to learn when I was 14 years old!”
ALEX: What do you look forward to in the future?
YU: I want to go as many places as I can to see what the world looks like. How different people spend their life. And then I can know more about myself.
Life is very short. This is the point that I am starting to understand my life. Start to have the courage to quit a job, go abroad, to go to many places. But if I can work in the theatre industry or become a theatre teacher or actor or theatre worker, it will be easy to go to different places. In different countries I will stay for two years or three years to see the world.
You don’t know when you will die. Maybe tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. Your airplane might have an accident. The train might have an accident. Your ship might hit an iceberg like Titanic. That will be your final day. And for me every day, every time, every moment, that might happen. When that destination is close to me, I want to feel less regretful, less pity. So I try to do my best every day. So when the final day comes, that’s the way that can help me to feel less sad. Every two days or three days the feeling about fearing death will come to find me. Just today, it happened again. Suddenly, I think about death. It’s so scary. It’ll always come back to find me. But when they come back to find me, I think, “Okay, work hard.”
I can feel I grow up a lot when I go back during the Christmas days. I became more confident to talk with people, to meet my friends. When I come back to York, if I have a chance, I will introduce Chinese traditional opera or Chinese traditional painting or some music or the different cultures because they are very, very, very great things. I also want to do something to combine the Chinese arts with the Western arts together. It’s hard to use the language to describe what kind of benefit you can get, but there is another kind of wisdom that sits inside. Wisdom belongs to all people. That’s why for artists, they are glad to share different cultures. When you jump out of your system, when you have another viewpoint to look at the world, you will figure out another way to solve a problem, or you can find a new way to benefit all people or all animals. Living creatures and the earth.
Humans will die eventually. Maybe 1000 years. After they die, all nations will disappear. There will be no reason for holding another nation or fighting for a nation. After 10,000 years, all the human things will all die. You only come to life for a few decades. So see the world, know something, experience something. Then come back to the unconscious.