4 Questions: Bessie Cheng
This article is the first in our series 50 Years of Disruptors, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
I’m Bessie Cheng and I’m a playwright, actor, and theatre creator. I graduated from York in 2016 in Theatre Studies, with specializations in Devised Theatre and Playwriting.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
My favourite moment would have to be in the winter of my 2nd year. I had just gotten into Devised Theatre and we were working on a project where we adapt A Streetcar Named Desire as a physical theatre piece. Leading up to this, I was feeling really disconnected from the program and the people in it. I wasn’t making a lot of friends, and I was really intimidated by folks in my program because I felt like I didn’t have as much talent and experience as my peers. I lived in Winters residence in first-year but no one really knew who I was. I was holding back artistically and I was struggling with believing in myself and my art. This project was crucial because it really showed my peers and my prof for the first time who I was and my capability as a creator and performer. It was also the first time that I worked with Aaron Jan, my fellow collaborator that I still work with today. This project turned out to be the seed in inspiring Silk Bath, which is co-written by me, Aaron, and Gloria Mok (another collaborator that we met through fu-GEN’s playwriting unit). Silk Bath ended up premiering at Toronto Fringe in 2016, and then it took us to a nearly sold out Next Stage Festival run, a residency at Tarragon, and now we’re gearing up for a really exciting production this fall (that we can’t announce just yet…)
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
It was Judith Rudakoff that taught me that artistic directors in the city are almost always willing to have coffee with you to chat about your work, you just gotta ask! Being in an almost bubble in school, I was nervous in reaching out to artists in the city because I felt like they were all super busy (which was true), and they had no interest in me as a student/emerging artist (turned out to be not true!). I’m constantly amazed by the amount of generosity when it comes to established artists giving their time, mentorship, and sharing valuable opportunities. They want to help you and they want to see you succeed because they were once in the same position as you.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
From playwriting, I still utilize the skills and tools I learned from Judith’s class in my writing today. I often find myself digging out my old notebooks and flipping through notes that I took in class. Devised Theatre also taught me how to be super scrappy, because indie theatre often can be low-budget gigs where one person does three jobs, and you really have to maximize your results with very little resources. By learning different skills from all aspects of theatre, I’m able to help out in different spaces when needed.
Overall, York has provided me with a lot of skills and connections that shaped and continues to shape my career today, and I’m really grateful for my time there.