Arts

Ins Choi, Canadian theatre's breakout star, on why he chose the Fringe festival — again

Ins Choi, the actor and playwright behind Kim's Convenience, is performing one-man show Subway Stations of the Cross at the Edmonton Fringe. He tells CBC Arts why the alternative festival is the place to be.

He's an acclaimed playwright. He has a TV show on the way. Why's he doing the Fringe?

Ins Choi in his one-man play, Subway Stations of the Cross. (Courtesy of Ins Choi (inschoi.com))

With Kim's Convenience, the 2011 Fringe festival hit set in a Korean family's corner store, Ins Choi established himself as a rising star of Canadian theatre. 

This summer, though, Choi is focusing on another family business. His own.

Kim's Convenience saw two sold-out runs at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre, and was performed by companies across the country. Choi won a Dora Mavor Award, and a TV adaptation is coming soon to CBC. During a break from performing at Edmonton's Fringe Festival, where you can see him in one-man show Subway Stations of the Cross through August 23, Choi explained why he came back to the fest.

"Well, I'm married and I have two kids. They're ages seven and five, so one thing was I wanted to spend more time with my family and show them Canada," says Choi. Wife, son and daughter: they're all along for the great Canadian road trip, travelling west from Toronto, and helping dad with the "family business."

"The kids, they pamphlet really well," he jokes. "No one can reject cute kids."

"A year ago, I was like, 'How can I do this? How can I take time away, now that they're in school?'

"So it dawned on me that doing the Fringe would be a good fit," Choi explains. "We're camping across Canada. We just got back from Banff.  As an artist it grows me, because it grows me as a father, as a husband, as an adventurer!"

That's fitting, since the play he's touring, Subway Stations of the Cross, centers around a key moment in Choi's personal growth.

The show, staged previously at Toronto's Soulpepper (where Choi is a member of the company) and Vancouver's Pacific Theatre, captures an encounter from Choi's student days, one that inspired him to become a writer.

It was his first month at York University, and with a few days off for the Yom Kippur holidays, he hopped a bus to New York City. Choi saw the sights, took in some shows. "And then this homeless man approaches me."

The stranger began rambling at Choi. He touched on religion, politics, mythology, UFOs. To anyone else, it would be a cornucopia of madness. Choi's reaction? "He ended up blowing my mind for like an hour."

"As soon as he finished, I honestly was like 'I met a prophet. Or I met an alien. Or all three,'" Choi remembers. "I really did have this religious, mystical kind of experience. So I've just been trying to figure it out. And part of that 'figuring out' was me creating a show."

Ins Choi has performed, and developed, Subway Stations of the Cross in churches all over Canada. (Courtesy of Ins Choi (inschoi.com))

After the encounter, Choi began writing. In that sense, Subway has been in development for more than 10 years – but the playwright says he's only reached the "final version" this July. He perfected the show, he says, during the Winnipeg Fringe. (There's another reason why he hit the road this summer.)

Choi breaks down his edits. Gone are the musical numbers, he says, and the show is now in two parts. Previous incarnations focused on Choi's performance of the mysterious stranger. Now, he opens with an introductory act where he plays himself.

"It's kind of stand-up comedy," he says. "It's just me introducing myself and my life," including his religious upbringing. Choi comes from a long line of Korean church pastors, including his father, grandfather and assorted aunts, uncles and cousins. "In Winnipeg, and what I discovered after doing the show at Soulpepper, is [that] I was missing my personal connection to this story and what I'm trying to say."

What follows is his transformation into a street prophet, a man who looks a little like Captain Jack Sparrow, but talks in the cadence of a spoken-word poetry slammer. He's also an outsider — an amalgam of outsiders, really, representing so many voices rarely heard on stage: he is non-white, mentally ill, homeless, Christian.

In turn, Choi wants this play to reach as diverse an audience as possible. That's another reason why he's doing the Fringe. Theatre company productions are expensive, but most people can afford tickets to the low-budget shows at the festival.

"A show like this should be 10 bucks, 20 maximum," he says.

"I want people from all walks of life to access it."

Subway Stations of the Cross. Featuring Ins Choi. Written and directed by Ins Choi. To Aug. 23. $12. The Sanctuary Stage at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 10037 84 Ave NW, Edmonton. www.fringetheatre.ca

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