4 Questions: Sean Baek
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, 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?
My name is Sean Baek (BA Honours, Theatre Studies, 1997). I am a Toronto-based PoC (“Person of Colour”) actor, although I am not a big fan of identifying myself as a “category” like “PoC” or “visible minority.” I usually say simply that I’m an actor. I have now worked for over 20 years in Theatre, Film, TV, and Voice in most places across Canada, some parts of the U.S. and internationally.
I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid (maybe age 6 or 7?). But my parents’ wishes – yes, cliché – were vastly different. I strived to be a good child, with a few bumps here and there, so I did my best to “find my way” in something other than becoming an actor.
In my final OAC (Grade 13) year of high school, I had multiple aptitude tests and many meetings with my guidance counselor in order to decide what to do with directions in which I wanted to go and possibly for my Post-Secondary education. I was training in martial arts heavily at the time and I was entertaining the idea of becoming a police officer (OPP or RCMP) to help the community at large. But then I gave up on the idea of becoming a police officer because both of my older siblings were continuing in post-secondary education. After much contemplation, I finally decided to go to a university, and applied for the BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) program at York University – now The Schulich School of Business – with a guarantee of an Entry Scholarship. But, at the time, I was doing Waiting for Godot in my high school drama class, and at the last minute I changed the major from Business Studies to Theatre, and I auditioned for York University’s Theatre Program and got accepted.
My earlier stages of pursuit in acting began with what I consider (for myself) as a “failure,” a deep disappointment, lots and lots of self-doubt, and struggles. After completing my first “introductory” year in the Theatre Program at York University, I auditioned for the 2nd Year Acting Stream/Ensemble, and I did not get accepted. Much sadness, some level of anxiety, and long contemplation of whether to stay at the same institution or to go elsewhere (another Theatre school) followed. After much soul-searching, I made a decision to stay at York University, to study Theatre in the Theatre Studies stream, to learn as much as I can academically, to earn my degree, and then see what it’d be like for me in the real world. I had many great professors, amazing educators, and learned a lot in Theatre Studies. In retrospect, I think it was exactly what I needed – a broader perspective, if you will, into what I was getting myself into. Not getting accepted or allowed into the 2nd year of my studies in the Acting Stream taught me something so very valuable – experiencing, facing, and dealing with rejections. I started to develop that “thick skin” people so often speak of.
I started out as an actor in Theatre immediately upon graduation by putting myself “out there.” I paid close attention to what was going on in the arts world, specifically in the theatre world in Toronto. I greatly admired – still do – “independent” artists and their work.
My first ever foray into the professional theatre world started with my audition for the Mirvish-produced musical, RENT. The fact that they had “Open Calls” helped a lot. I did not have a representation (an agent) then. I submitted my headshot and resume myself. It was just me, my guitar, and the choice of songs I had in the initial stages of auditions. Then I received a Call-Back audition. Then another. I was even given songs from the musical itself to prepare for yet another Call-Back audition. My final, final Call-Back audition (I forget what number) was in front of a panel of close to about 20 people, such as the Mirvish Productions people, Casting Directors, NY Director, NY Music Director, Toronto Music Director, etc. I was the only Asian person in the waiting room full of good-looking Black male performers. I mention that because, in New York (on Broadway), the role I was being considered for – Benny – was cast with an African-American performer (Taye Diggs). I had heard that Toronto was following the similar, if not the same, casting scheme.
I did my very best throughout that process, but I didn’t end up getting the part. I was quite heart-broken, honestly speaking. But, with the help of the casting director who was working on that musical, I was referred to an agency and was able to get on their roster. So, something good came out of it. Plus, I was even more prepared for what is to come in my career – I was continuing to develop that thick skin required for this line of work when there are, still to this day, a lot of “things not working out” due to whatever reason(s). During the years following that initial “try-out” time period, I continued to work in and with numerous small to mid-sized theatre companies, as well as big festival theatres like the Stratford Festival (on which I will touch more for Question 3), and other theatre festivals (Toronto Fringe, New Ideas, etc.), TV shows, various national TV commercials, voice work for CBC’s radio dramas.
I am currently on a Science-Fiction TV show called KILLJOYS on Space Channel (Canada) and SYFY (U.S.). I play a recurring character named Fancy Lee (Seasons 1 through 5). KILLJOYS, Space Channel’s most-watched series in its history, has recently aired the finale of Season 4, and we have recently finished production for the 5th and final season. Season 5 is due to air in 2019. I have also made an appearance as a recurring character (opposite and alongside the Oscar-nominated actor, David Strathairn), in another Sci-Fi series, The Expanse.
I continue to split my time between Theatre, Film, TV, and Voice as much as I can. Most recently in Theatre, though unfortunate, I’ve had to turn down an offer for the world-premiere production of Picture This (Soulpepper) due to a scheduling conflict. Previous to that, I worked on The Last Wife (Belfry Theatre/GCTC Co-Production) in 2016. I have recently worked in Voice for an upcoming video game (of which I can’t really speak at the present time). I have a couple of other TV shows on which I have recently worked, due to air some time in 2019.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
Rather than “moments,” I would say that I had two favourite years during my time in the Theatre Department:
(1) The First Year. We, the First-Year students, had to “serve” on different crew teams for the senior years’ productions. My first experience was being on the Carpentry Crew for a 4th-Year Acting students’ production of Lion in the Streets by Judith Thompson. I always had a deep appreciation and love for building things (when I was a kid, I had TONS of model planes, helicopters, ships, etc.). So, when I got to be a part of the team that built the set for that production – and I got to see it – it was so rewarding. And then in the Second Term, I got to be on the Wardrobe Crew, where I learned how to sew, among other things (which is a skill-set that my wife very much appreciates);
(2) The other was my Fourth and Final Year. I got to learn some valuable research skills, I learned a lot about many different traditions of Theatre around the world, I read many plays. My favourite course in my Final Year was Canadian Theatre (taught by Dr. Judith Rukdaoff). It was a great learning experience about what it meant (and still does) to be “Canadian” and what it meant to be Canadians in Theatre, telling our stories. What I learned energized me, at times frustrated me, but mostly inspired me. Still, to this day, I strongly believe that you must be an active learner; you can’t expect someone to “hand” you something – knowledge and/or experience – and that is what the course taught me.
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
Dr. Judith Rudakoff once said, in her Canadian Theatre course (I may be slightly paraphrasing, but):
“The landscapes change humans, and humans can and do change the landscapes.”
I took that word, “landscape,” and the whole phrase/sentiment, to mean both in a literal sense and in a metaphorical sense.
When I was starting out as an actor, I was yearning to find someone as a role model. And back then, there weren’t as many “People of Colour” artists, namely Asian-Canadian artists, working or producing work as now in 2018. There were some, but not as prolifically as now, although we still have a long way to go. I think it’s important to stay hungry as an actor/artist. Compared to the so-called “mainstream” artists, back then, there were far less representation of PoC artists, and there were a lot of barriers to be demolished.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
Research, research, research. I truly believe that knowledge is power (but I emphasize not being arrogant). And you could never be too knowledgeable. I cannot emphasize enough how much knowledge can inform you as an artist. And I firmly believe that I can always learn, and I love learning – about anything – particularly history, nowadays. As they say: It is important to know where we have been, in order to understand where we are now, so that we can figure out where we can go and are headed. Or something like that.