Fathers and Sons and Dreams of the Theatre

Asher Waxman, Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival

This is a dream I never knew I had. I have seen shows at the Stratford Theatre Festival. I ride my bike around it all the time. It’s always been there like a castle on a hill. My dad used to act there, his dad used to act there, but I never dreamed that I would. Now, I am. And it’s in Chinese! I am learning things from the theatre, from the actors and from the play, about acting and about life. This is my journey to Salesman in China.

I loved the audition. My parents were with me, and that me made me feel happy. I looked around at all the other kids waiting to audition, and I felt butterflies all over. Before I was called in, my mom gave me a hug, and my dad whispered in my ear, “Just be yourself. Don’t try to be like anyone else, or try to be anything that you’re not. You’re enough just as you are.”

The director, Jovanni Sy, greeted me, and I was surprised, because he had a really nice smile and he made me feel comfortable. He was very kind to me, and we did a few warm-ups together before I spoke a few practice-lines. It was fun.

A week later I was at a science museum in Montreal with my dad. His phone rang. I saw him jump. The next thing I knew, he was calling my mom, and then waved me over. I had no idea why, but then, together, they told me that I got the part! I was in shock. I could feel my mom’s excitement through the phone, and I felt like I was walking on air. It felt unbelievable. Now, I am Ying Da in Salesman in China.

I started writing a journal about my experience and all the things I am learning.

When we arrived at the Avon Theatre for the backstage tour, I was in awe of everything around me. The dressing room looked like the ones in the movies. My name was on the door and there was a seat reserved for me! Everything that goes on behind the curtains, the monitors, the props and the rehearsal hall were all so big. I’d never seen the theatre from the stage before.

My dad pulled me aside, and brought me to the front and centre of the stage. He asked me to look out and appreciate the beautiful chandelier, and all the pretty red seats. “Now imagine all those seats filled with people. Let that sink in, and motivate you,” he said. “But, don’t come to the stage for what you can get out of it—only come to the stage for what you can give to it. You’ve got a lot of love to give, and that is one of the greatest gifts of the theatre too.”

I began reading the script at home, and highlighted lines that I felt were important. Since Salesman in China is a true story, there are so many references that I had to research, because I didn’t know anything about them. I read about famous people like Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Elia Kazan and Chiang Kai-shek. I watched movies about them. I learned about the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and listened to the testimony of the famous actor, Paul Robeson, testifying before it. Then I learned about the Cultural Revolution in China, and how that affected Chinese people at that time. It all seemed so crazy, but I could recognize similarities, and maybe that’s the point.

Asher Waxman with Jovanni Sy, Writer/Director of Salesman in China
Asher Waxman with Jovanni Sy, Writer/Director of Salesman in China

This was very exciting, because I felt like an adult going to work; and that preparing for a role is not about memorizing words, it’s learning about the world of the play, and why the characters behave the way they do, so that you can understand and be truthful.

During our Meet and Greet, Jovanni Sy introduced himself to the cast as our director. He shared with us that he also co-wrote this play along with Leanna Brodie, and that his reason was because he had found an old book about this story in his house. It really affected him, and he felt there was an important story to tell. Hearing how personal it was for him, made me feel very proud and excited to be part of it, especially since it’s a real story, and this is the world premiere.

Since then, there have been appointments for wardrobe and hair. There is a child supervisor, Amanda Langis, who is really fun and caring. There are vocal warm-ups that help me feel more grounded, and more connected to the cast, like I’m part of a team. All the actors are so nice. I like seeing them, and I feel so fortunate to be with them.

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One day, before rehearsal, I was so happy to go for a walk with Tom McCamus. He is an amazing actor, and he plays Arthur Miller. He shared with me a few important lessons. He told me that the foundation of acting is listening, and that acting is like a conversation or a question: you have to be present and listen before you can answer it and react to it.

Adrian Pang plays Ying Ruocheng, my dad. In one scene we rehearsed, we made direct eye contact. That was so special, because even though it was just for a moment, it felt like forever. I felt like it was real. He is such a good actor, and it’s very interesting for me to watch him work.

This is a play about fathers and sons; the expectations and pressures between fathers and sons, and between each character in the play. When we were looking at the script together, my dad said to me, “Reality without a dream can be unbearable, but a dream without reality is delusion.” We talked about what that meant. He explained to me about how the characters in Death of a Salesman and in Salesman in China are all trying to find that balance and bridge their dreams and their realities. And there are cultural differences too, but whether the people are Chinese, American or Canadian, Arthur Miller said we are all ‘one humanity,’ because we can all have those same struggles.

I remember my dad telling me once what my Grandpa Al used to tell him. “You have to love the character you’re playing. you have to find the humour and the love—just like in life.” Being part of this process makes me feel even more connected to my family. My dad played Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman, and before that my Grandpa Al was Willy Loman right here at the Avon Theatre, where I am now. I watched the video of him acting here in Death of a Salesman, and now I’m on the same stage.

I’m a Stratford kid, so this feels like winning the lottery. I have a lot more to learn, and it’s only just beginning.

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