Having been mightily impressed with Jonathan Tan’s performance as Smee in Peter and the Starcatcher (cross-reference below), it seemed an ideal time to have a conversation with the Shaw Festival company member (now in his fifth season) and trace his path from Malaysia to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Just in from weeding the garden (nurturing blue tomatoes, no less) we spoke on the telephone and discovered that we had much more in common than a love for great theatre.
JWR: After arriving in Scarborough in 1988, how or when did you realize that a career in acting was in your destiny?
JT: I don’t remember too much about the earliest days except that both my parents—a typical immigrant story—had to work menial jobs until they’d requalified in their fields [mother an English teacher; father in human resources management]. But I will never forget being pulled out of school [Grade 2] by my dad and taken downtown to see a performance of Les Misérables [instigated by his mother’s class field trip and thus began a celebrated penchant for truancy—most frequently at Western University so as to sing more often than study for an eventual degree in Music Administration—thank goodness, in retrospect]. During the performance, I remember bawling and sobbing until I was blind; I didn’t understand the whole story but was moved by the notion of people wanting to do good.
I can also recall playing an angel in a Christmas concert in elementary school where I didn’t say a word but was worried that my arms would drop and ruin the image [your reporter was a silent tree in his first venture on stage]. Then, in Grade 8, I was cast as Elton John in a teacher-written pageant. There wasn’t going to be any lip synching, so my voice got me the part ahead of another boy. But in the performance when I was revealed as Elton John [apparent wax figurines coming to life], I wondered why the audience burst into laughter, then vowed to win them over with my singing. That reaction kind of hurt [thank heaven colour-blind casting has managed to eradicate the majority of racism on stage; but nirvana is still a ways off].
In high school I spoke my first lines in a play which featured a bully director. I got angry over the verbal abuse of the stage manager, who finally burst into tears, so I told the teacher off. I was immediately kicked out of the show and suspended but the rest of the cast went to the principal and said that they wouldn’t go on without me. That was the first time I realized what a unique and singular family my fellow actors can be.
Then it was off to Western University where my parents were relieved that even though I loved music, my degree would be something more stable than performing. [The eight-member class had the very bad luck to graduate just as the music industry was launching into the digital revolution that largely sidelined music companies and the possibility of employment.]
One day I literally stumbled into the opening meeting for a musical. Seeing some of my friends there, I decided to stick around but had to ask, “What’s a Cabaret?” Even though I hadn’t planned on auditioning, I got the part of Emcee and the opportunity to work with Joel Ivany and Susan Eichhorn.
JWR: So you graduated with a diploma, but, in fact the real learning was in the extra-curricular activities, including the lead in Sweeney Todd. What were your next steps towards the Shaw Festival?
JT: Back in Toronto, I kept auditioning, found a voice agent [and winning his first such audition, becoming the aural persona of Lee Ping in the animated series, Detentionaire, first airing in September, 2011; Tan’s previous brushes with authority gave him an ideal background for the detention-focussed storyline] and enrolled in Sheridan College’s theatre program. I also worked with the Young Peoples Theatre playing a Scottish shepherd boy [a wide variety of accents are in Tan’s skill sets—hundreds of hours in front of the TV with his younger brother, no doubt, contributing to Tan’s variety of dialects and comedic timing chops].
While dreaming of one day being in Shakespeare’s plays, it was about this time that I saw a production of Saint Joan [starring Tara Rosling, directed by Jackie Maxwell—cross-reference below] that immediately changed my mind about Shaw. That was fortuitous, because at Sheridan, in your second year, the tradition is to decide what you are really bad at doing and work on that with the faculty. So I chose Dauphin [character in Saint Joan] to improve my acting and when I had the chance not long after to audition for the Shaw, I had a monologue from the mandate ready to go.
I recall that a lot of the audition time with Jackie was more of a one-on-one conversation, discussing why I wanted to join the company; for Paul Sportelli (music director) I sang “She Loves Me” which is another staple of mine. I’ll never forget being about to dig into some Mediterranean-style chicken with a friend back in Toronto when the phone call came with the news I’d been hired—and now it’s five years later.
JWR: And what a variety of parts you have played these past few seasons: acting, singing, dancing, and tickling funny bones. Thinking of the latter, what makes you laugh?
JT: I like absurd and the unexpected; non-sequiturs and dark humour. Playing Sweeney was deliciously macabre, becoming a throat slasher then baking the clientele into delectable pies [I could have sworn I heard Tan smacking his lips in this remembrance]. Slightly inappropriate humour is also high on my list [that revelation rendered with an unmistakeable sparkle in the proverbial eye].
JWR: With your career securely launched and ever-growing experience, where do you see yourself going from here?
JT: My goals are less and less defined, I prefer to go with the flow. I continue to reflect on the thought, “Now that you don’t have to worry about being right, you can be good.” At this point, I hope to stay at the Shaw for many years to come.
JWR: Here’s to that, for with talented actors such as Tan being carefully nurtured and challenged by directors and colleagues alike, audiences are assured of many excellent productions on Niagara’s finest stages for the foreseeable future. JWR