Ins Choi (IC) is an actor and a playwright, who has been called “Canadian Theatre’s breakout star.” His award-winning play “Kim’s Convenience” has been adapted for television and is a new hit for CBC.
But in the halls of Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, Choi is remembered in part for his creative take on reading assignments for his theology classes. Choi graduated with a Master of Theological Studies from Wycliffe, an evangelical Anglican theological college affiliated with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Wycliffe’s magazine Insight interviewed Choi recently about what a theological education meant to his development as an artist.
Here at the Faith Today blog, we thought it would be fun to reprint the interview with the creative mind behind the television show that many Canadians are loving.
You come from a long line of pastors. Is that where Wycliffe enters the story? Were you going to be a pastor as well?
IC: My father’s older brother was a pastor, his youngest sister, my grandfather, five cousins are pastors. It’s a pretty pastoral family.
I wrote a play called “Subway stations of the Cross.” In that play, which is really more of a spoken word piece, with song, I talk about what made me, me. And in that story is this back and forth relationship with pastoral ministry – a call to be a pastor professionally and at the same time my call to be an artist, to be a writer, a performer, an actor. It’s a long story and it’s the content of that show. I struggled with both. After I went to York for acting I went to Wycliffe, I began an MDIV but I transferred out of it and ended up with an MTS. I did this while being a children’s pastor at a church for about five or six years. I was at Wycliffe for about four years, semi-part time as I was trying to juggle an acting schedule and trying to get gigs at the same time.
Did studying theology make you a better artist?
IC: It made me a better writer. That was a discipline I didn’t have, the craft of writing. I was never that academic in high school, but being at Wycliffe I was forced to read a lot, and try to be clearer about what I read, and what my thoughts were about what I read. It was that scholarly activity, which is reading and reflection and trying to be precise with words.
But more than that, I met people like [professors] John Bowen, Brian Walsh and Marion Taylor who really encouraged me as an artist. That was huge. They really embraced and encouraged me in the path of being an artist. I took a course at the Institute of Christian Studies, and realized there was a tradition of the arts, that even architecture can reflect the glory of God in a sensual way, viscerally, in a spatial way, or with music. It formed my understanding that there is a tradition, that I’m part of this. I do belong. There are those who went before me who were gifted in the arts and as well wanted to follow Christ and make the love of God known to his world in whatever form. Like E.E. Cummings, he was the son of a pastor. And I read some of his poetry and I’m like, ‘that’s Jesus.’ Read between the lines and that is God. Or T.S. Elliot, it’s all kind of there. There are these poets who have made their mark in the world and had critical success who were followers of God first.
And practically speaking, in an Old Testament course with Marion Taylor, there were some book reports we had to do. I approached her and said “I understand if you say no, but instead of these one page summaries of the chapters we have to hand in every week, what if I perform something?” I told her I’d still write the paper to prove I did the reading, but that I’d like to express it in a different way. She said, “Yes, go ahead.” Once a month before class started I’d do it in front of the class, or I’d find a spot in the college, and I’d call people over and say “Okay this is a little riff on Jeremiah.” I wrote little monologues. She loved it, and the class I think was really touched and affected by it too.
What is it like for you being a Christian in a secular arts environment today in Canada? Is it difficult?
IC: I’ve always been shy growing up, not only about my Korean-ness, growing up but also about my faith. I think I associate my faith with my culture, it’s linked. And so it’s always been a bit of a private practice.
My faith hasn’t really, aside from maybe one or two shows that I felt, ‘no I don’t want to do that,’ it hasn’t really been challenged that much. In fact, it’s been the reverse. I’ve had the opportunity to do an early version of “Subway Station of the Cross” at Soulpepper Theatre Company. They just wanted things that I do.
I guess they are more interested in me as an artist, and by being an artist, I can bring things and projects to the company and they see value in that, even “King’s Convenience,” it’s the Prodigal Son. If I get to heaven, I have to pay some royalties because it’s based on his story.
“Kim’s Convenience” has been a wonderful journey of learning. This is my first adaption. That world of TV is very different from theatre. These are long days, 12-14 hour days, Monday to Friday. I thought I was going to lose it. I was overwhelmed, overworked, so tired. I opened up Scripture. There was this yearning and hunger for something, like the Psalms. I read through them. So every morning I’d be in my office, at 6:00am and crack my Bible and get on with my day.
In a real, tearful, mourning way, weeping because that line that David wrote thousands of years ago, and was translated to many many languages, and through the translators reached me and spoke to me the words that I needed, the words that encouraged me, that fit my experience. Psalm 18 was for me, And David had written it for him. It was like a rifle shot through time and space. That was huge.
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