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Posted July 6, 2023

The Interview – Marjorie Chan

Marjorie Chan

Born in Toronto to settlers from Hong Kong, Marjorie Chan is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist who is also the Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille. She primarily identifies as a writer with specific interest in contemporary opera and collective forms, while also maintaining an active practice as a dramaturge and director. Marjorie’s plays include China Doll, The Madness of the Square, a nanking winter, Tails From the City, and Lady Sunrise. Her award-winning libretti for operas include Sanctuary Song, The Lesson of Da Ji, M’dea Undone, and The Monkiest King.

Marjorie, you are a theatre Renaissance woman! You’re a playwright and librettist, you’re a director, you’re a dramaturge, you’re an actor, you’re currently the Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille, and you also mentor young theatre artists. You’re obviously a very busy person! What projects are you working on currently?

In my personal projects, I am adapting the award-winning novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien into a libretto for composer Tim Brady of Montreal. I feel really lucky to be trusted with this incredible book and tasked with finding the right way to communicate it in an operatic setting. After the first draft of this libretto, I have a few plays in amorphous shapes that need my attention.

You have received numerous awards for writing; for example, your play China Doll, which explored the early seeds of feminism in China, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and your opera The Lesson of Da Ji, with composer Alice Ping Yee Ho, won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Opera, as did your family opera with composer Abigail Richardson, Sanctuary Song. How do you think this kind of recognition helps theatre artists?

I think recognition of a work can be affirming and empowering. Certainly, there have been moments in my life where such acknowledgement gave me the self-confidence to continue on. It is so difficult to make anything—never mind to make something extraordinary—artists should feel emboldened by an award. At the same time, any accolade is a snapshot in time of a particular jury and a particular aesthetic. So, artists can’t get too high, or too low about any such recognition. Hold it, celebrate and be proud, but then move on and put your energies to another awesome thing! (By the way, admittedly It is also nice to have something on your bookshelf to show your family who might not understand the work that you do!)

Theatre Passe Muraille holds a regular “Meet Marjorie Day,” where artists chosen by lottery can come in for ten minutes to introduce themselves or showcase their projects. Two questions: Any fun stories you can tell us about Meet Marjorie Day? And also: Shouldn’t this be a reality show?

I don’t know if we have any fun stories, but we appreciate that artists need a more open and freeform way to connect with Theatre Passe Muraille. The first Meet Marjorie was planned just before the pandemic. Faced with closure, we made the experience virtual and we decided to see ALL 150 or so applicants. We felt it was the least we could do as the theatre world was shutting down. We have met artists we have hired and programmed. There is no agenda for the program, but just to see what relationship develops.

Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights who may be reading?

The most important thing I would want to convey is to know what it is you are trying to communicate with your work. Why is it so important to you? Why does it need to be shared at this time, in this context? It seems obvious but knowing why you are writing a particular piece will always be the touchpoint as you continue to work on it. Without knowing the answer to that question, it is like trying to drive without fuel; you will sputter and be by the side of the road until you can fill the tank again.

I believe that you live with an internet-famous fellow named King Louie. Do you have any stories for his fans?

King Louie does indeed have his own Instagram: @kinglouiecat. He is a funny, gregarious 25-pound cat who has a lot of opinions and is often getting into things. He is not inherently naughty, but he does have a mind of his own. He plays with my phone if I put it down and has, on occasion, taken selfies of himself, which are always hilarious to discover. Once I was moving some books from one shelf to another, and perhaps this gave Louie an idea. I went to the bathroom, and I heard thumping coming from the living room. When I returned, Louie was beside the book shelf, systematically pulling one book at a time to the floor. I watched speechless, as he cleared most of the books I had just put there, and then climbed onto the shelf and promptly took a nap! The book pile stayed on the floor for a few days as he made that his preferred napping spot. That’s pretty typical of life with him.