Multi-talented Romeo Section Star Fei Ren Talks Behind the Camera
I recently found out that she directed a show that is now being played at Dusty Flowerpot Studio, 2050 Scotia Street, Vancouver BC from December 5 to 15, 2018.
Of course I can’t let her go without doing an interview…
Tell me a bit about your background, and how you got into directing?
I was born and raised in Zhengzhou, China. My parents sent me to Vancouver to further my education, and I did fulfill their wishes and graduated UBC with a Psychology degree. However, during the university years, by accident, I started modelling.
Modelling changed me a lot in various ways, one positive impact is it rekindled my passion in performing arts and gave me confidence to make my own choices and follow my passions. Transitioning into acting seemed like a natural and clear step for me. So I started training! As of now, I have been acting for almost five years.
Directing was kind of similar in a sense, I kept following my curiosity for the craft of acting. I was really nerdy and learned many different tools thought training with amazing teachers from studios in Vancouver and New York. I had basically this tool box with a wide range of techniques, that I started to share and used them to help coach fellow actors. Through the process, I recognized I really enjoy coaching actors, and are quite efficient at it.
Around the same time I was also filming The Romeo Section for CBC, where in each episode I was working with a different director. Chris Haddock, the executive producer of the show, was very kind to me. He’s a real genius. He encouraged me to shadow some directors when I was not filming. Especially following some amazing female directors on set who were doing a great job really inspired me to expand and challenge myself in this new arena.
My first experience as a director came when my friend Kevin Kokoska wrote a beautiful play called The Mirror Test, and wanted to put it up at Annex Orpheum Theatre. We worked together, and it was a success. During the process I also had support from different mentors, teachers and fellow actors, there is a real community here in Vancouver, and it great for new artists to grow!
Tell me a bit about Commencing, what are you most excited about? What made want to direct this play?
Commencing is a quirky dark comedy, a two women show, set in the 90s. When I first read it, it reminded me of one of my favourite sitcoms, Friends, that I watched countless times. I instantly fell in love with the characters fighting through their differences to find a deep connection, a sisterhood, through compassion, being authentic and forgiving.
It’s witty, charming and very funny, and I think their struggles are still very relevant today!
And this is an important time to tell stories like this one, as a reminder to not see each other through labels and differences. We risk of closing ourselves in our own bubbles, there is a real need of extending compassion to others, finding ways to communicate and build real connections, despite the things that might divide us.
This run of Commencing stars Panthea Vatandoost and Julie Disher. We met in the amazing Railtown Studio, trained with Kate Twa and John Cassini. Panthea started Medusa Theatre Society, and Commencing is the first play for this non-profit, and it fits perfectly what Medusa wants to do. I was hired to work with these two very talented, fierce actresses who have perfect chemistry for the play. The casting couldn’t be better. So here we are, commencing together for this all female production!
Who/what inspires you? Why?
Seeing a person overcome obstacles, whether they are inner obstacles or given circumstances always inspires me. It gives me hope to see how people’s strength can win over fear and that we can find solutions for even the most daunting challenges. It’s something that gives me the confidence to overcome small and big ordeals in my own life, and live passionately and fiercely.
People who are very good in their fields, and manage to still be grounded, humble and generous are another thing that I admire in humanity. And as I am talking about this, I feel grateful because I am surrounded with people like that. Sometimes it’s also a matter of knowing which people to let go though.
What are you up to when you're not directing?
I do acting training, go to auditions, standard acting fare. I eat quite a bit too. And modelling.
I was clowning intensively in the fall, learning with David MacMurray Smith. It’s an enlightening experience and lots of laughters! I was challenged, clowning is not easy; but it was great for my personal and professional development.
I also just finished filming a Netflix action thriller Polar alongside Mads Mikkleson and Vanessa Hudgen. The director Jonas Akerlund is a visionary. I will be able to share more about the movie in 2019. Stay tuned.
What's one fact people might not know about you?
I trained in speed reading, and the fastest I achieved was 1400 words per minute, in Chinese. Back in China, everything is a competition. But unfortunately I read very slowly in English.
What advice would you give to a talented, driven actor/director who’s just starting their career?
Acting and directing, like many artistic disciplines, they are fun, cathartic, and at times very gratifying. However, it also comes with lots of noise, distractions, and rejections. It’s an art, so there is never a point when you’re done or mastered it, you can always keep refining.
Personally I work a lot on expanding and deepening my craft, and this helps me to stay grounded. I’ve seen it over and over again, that the best work happens when the artists are generously, selflessly serving the characters and the story. Being ego-less is the hardest part.
But I think if the passion is there, that helps a lot in putting in the work that is required. Then your career will naturally happen and you will be able to seize the opportunities when you are ready for them. So keep focus on improving yourself, keep expanding, and just do it!
Also, being too critical, having too much self doubt can really hurt. I learnt a big time to stop getting into my own way. Oh, and also celebrate each milestone along the way is important.
Can you share the biggest obstacle you've faced in your career, and how you overcame it?
Self doubt. It follows you at every step. For example recently, when I booked the biggest project I’ve auditioned for thus far. I got really insecure, and distracted with the egotistical side of the business. I started questioning every choice I made about my character. Couldn’t sleep nights after nights. Then I asked Christiane Hirt, an amazing teacher who taught me the Meisner Technique, to help me. I went to her with my biggest, scariest scene, told her all my doubts and anxieties around not being able to fulfill this role. She just had me lay down on a matt, and asked me to breath and find my power animal. Then she told me “just focus on the work! Go to set, work, then leave. Nothing else matters.” Everything suddenly became simple, and I was able to channel the energy back to serve the character and the story, quieting the ego noise. I also have amazing friends and my partner, who are constantly showering me with authentic positive and constructive energy! So surrounding myself with good people, and focusing back on the work is what helped me.
What’s your process for preparing for this play? Are there any routines or habits you practice to approach it?
We did table read, breaking down the beats. We did spend a fair amount of the initial rehearsals doing exercises to explore the characters, physically and emotionally. Then we did a lot of text work, combing through all the intentions, needs, relationships, shifts and subtext of the different beats.
After this developmental stage, the actors are stepping into the characters body, and instincts start to fly. I find my job as a director during this phase is to create a safe creative space for them to explore and try new things, or “fail” and “be bad”. It’s a highly collaborative and fun stage, because magic happens when they start to be free and play!
The final stage is more technical and I focused on the rhythm of the comedy. We fine tuned the blocking choices. Overall, this entire routine is an extension and combination of techniques I collected from various teachers, directors and mentors I’ve worked with. You have to find what works best with the talent.
What qualities do you think make a great actor/director?
Great artists are usually humbled by the stories they told and characters they played. They can have the best skills, the biggest charisma, but they don’t dare to think they are superior than the craft and the story. They authentically serve the story and the message behind it. I think that makes a great actor/director. Being a calm leader and a reliable team player is important as well, because everyday there are problems to solve and emotions can run wild.
Are there any other projects you're involved in or looking forward to, besides what you’re working on now?
I’ll be acting for a play called “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill, and I can’t wait to explore more in clowning, directing and writing. Also, the movie Polar gonna be in theatres next year and on Netflix US, so stay tuned!
More Information about the Commencing
1997. Kelli is impatiently awaiting the arrival of a hot blind date set up by a colleague. The evening, however, does not pan out how she'd hoped, and instead of spending a lovely evening on her first date in a long time, she finds herself arguing her values with Arlin, a disappointed lesbian. Mutually appalled, yet appallingly intrigued, they proceed to pull the screws loose on both straight and gay women's culture, to find the common ground beneath in the search for love and self.
Director: Fei Ren
Stage Manager: Emily Doreen Wilson
Starring: Panthea Vatandoost as Arlin, Julie Disher as Kelli
Location: Dusty Flowerpot Studio,
141-2050 Scotia Street, Vancouver BC
Accessed through the back alley.
Wednesday to Sunday, Dec. 5th - 16th Doors @7:30, Show @8pm
Matinee on Sat. Dec. 15th Doors @1:30, Show @2pm
Tickets are $15 online and $20 at the door. Due to limited seating, I'd recommend getting your tickets in advance to guarantee a seat.
Here's the link to the tickets for your convenience:
And here is the link to the Facebook event for more information on the show, and to share with your friends: