Theatre Grad Aaron Jan talks goals, gets real about ego & shares moments at YorkU that changed his life and path

Written by: Aida Oquendo Peña

Career and Creativity Path

Two years after graduation Aaron Jan (BFA ’16) has already reached his first personal milestone — making a living as a freelance playwright, director and dramaturg.

Photo of Aaron Jan by: Graham Isador

Photo by: Graham Isador

He has worked with many of Toronto’s most successful indie theatre companies like Cahoots, Fu-GEN, Canadian Stage, Factory Theatre, Native Earth Performing Arts, Tarragon Theatre and Theatre Aquarius.

While those companies have done a lot to build out his resume, he is still best known for his work with Silk Bath Collective, a company he co-founded with fellow alumna Bessie Cheng (BFA ’16) and Gloria Mok, a collaborator they met through Fu-Gen. The collective’s work has been shown at the Toronto Fringe, the Next Stage Theatre Festival and most recently with Soulpepper Theatre Company who presented the world premiere of their new show Yellow Rabbit.

“I’m working and getting compensated for it,” Aaron said. “I think that’s the largest milestone for me; I was always concerned that I would be a hobbyist who only did profit share gigs.”

He credits the Devised Theatre program with preparing him for the realities of Toronto’s independent theatre scene. “It taught me how to be scrappy,” Aaron said. “By the time I graduated from York I was ready for the Toronto theatre scene because I knew that in order for things to happen, I had to generate them myself. I was ready to apply for grants, ready to scour for rehearsal space and ready to just make things happen out of nothing because I had been doing that for four years. You can wait for an opportunity or you can make it yourself.”

University Experience

Photo of Aaron Jan in Devised Theatre class 2013. Photo by: Emily Boyle

Photo by: Emily Boyle

“York felt like home.” Aaron said. “The moment I walked onto campus, I felt like I belonged. I really liked the university-city vibe the campus gave off.”

He choose York because he knew Theatre was his path and York was one of the few universities that offered playwriting and devised theatre courses, both of which he was extremely interested in at the time.

Aaron admits that his biggest challenge in starting university was his own ego. “In my second-year devised theatre class, I was convinced that I was the best theatre maker there ever was.” That ego came out through a disdainful comment in class, one that his instructor LJ Nelles called him out on, not in anger, but to clarify what he really meant. It made Aaron realize he was becoming the sort of arrogant artist he hated. “Making me articulate what I actually felt, LJ helped me discover what I was doing was wrong. Seeing the effect my words had on my classmates changed the way I collaborated and behaved as a theatremaker.”

Since that breakthrough moment, Aaron has adopted a spirit of creative generosity. “We can’t do this alone, and I’m super grateful for LJ helping me realize that before it was too late.”

Another turning point for Aaron also happened in his second year.

“We were studying Gilbert and Sullivan’s the Mikado. Until that point in my life I had (thankfully) never experienced overt racism before or been in a situation where the colour of my skin was used against me. While my classmates found the show amusing, I found it as a “historic piece of theatre” both shocking and offensive – particularly the depiction of Asian men. My professor, Marlis Schweitzer noticed that I was upset during the lecture and asked me to voice my concerns in front of the class. While my mostly Caucasian classmates teased me for being oversensitive, it reaffirmed something that I had kept separate from my work thus far: I was Chinese and had different experiences from my peers. This was an unavoidable fact. I’m thankful for Marlis for picking up on my frustration with the material and allowing my voice to be heard.

“York taught me that my voice and my individual perspectives were what made me unique as an artist – that success wasn’t necessarily doing what was most popular, but what you believed was right, fascinating and inspiring.”

Words of Wisdom

“If I were to do this again, I would be a lot more humble and way more open to people, especially those who I didn’t agree with,” Aaron said. “I talked and spread a lot of crap about people behind their back in university because I was insecure and felt threatened by them. But then I realized that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Make friends! You’re here to meet new people and learn.”

For someone who aspires to be a theatre creator, Aaron says seeing shows is essential. “See as much theatre as possible. Learn about what you like and what you hate in this city. Find who your heroes are in the community. Get involved. Connect with them, volunteer at their functions, talk to them as people first, not artists who can hire you. Go into meetings with actual questions. Let your curiosity be your guide. Make a series of tangible plans and goals for yourself. Create 5 years of projects that you can work on when you’re not hired. Actually practice your art and keep training. Don’t be one of those people at the bar who complains about how they can’t get work.”

Aaron values the genuine friendships and relationships he’s developed in the industry. “Part of feeling like you’ve “made it” or that “you’re successful” is that you feel a part of the arts community. I can say with confidence that I do.”

Aaron Jan Territorial Tales Canadian Stage Shakespeare in High Park. Photo by Nathan Kelly

Photo by Nathan Kelly