Self-ish: Unboxing grief with Diana Bang and Kuan Foo

Members of Asian-Canadian sketch comedy troupe, Assaulted Fish, explore humour in grief at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival

There are times in life when everything seems to finally fall into place: Your family is getting along. Your career is thriving. Your social calendar is filled. And the gods seem to beam lovingly upon you.

Self-ish is not about one of those times. More accurately, it’s about when shit hits the fan.

But tragedy can be a powerful impetus for creation. As Vancouver’s own Diana Bang puts it: “That’s been the thing that’s gotten me through so many upsetting times, making something funny or beautiful out of a shitty situation. Instead of drugs and alcohol, I need to create something.”

Sparked by members of the Asian-Canadian sketch comedy troupe, Assaulted Fish, and long-time collaborators in Bang and Kuan Foo, Self-ish explores the catharsis of grief through the perspective of Esther Jin, a Korean-Canadian woman who faces a recent family tragedy. Bang — who many will recognize from “The Interview” and “Entanglement” — brings Esther to life in a lively, one-woman show, through a script that was largely based on Foo and Bang’s shared experiences of losing a parent.

Cold Tea Collective sat down with Kuan and Diana to learn more about their upcoming show at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs from September 6 to 16.

Kuan Foo: I’ve always been interested in the idea of the self, how we define ourselves, and the things that we draw upon to anchor ourselves as we move through our daily lives. One of the reasons it’s called Self-ish, with the hyphen very deliberate, is when you break that word down, when you think about “self-ish” it sort of means that you’re not quite yourself. And I think when you go into the grieving process or when you’re going through a trauma, or when you’re being selfish, you’re not quite yourself.

Foo and Bang approached the creative project as not only an opportunity to express their own personal experiences with grief, but to also write a multi-dimensional character for a POC actor. Both expressed a need for more complex characters to be played by diverse actors on screen and on stage.

Diana Bang: Kuan pulled a lot from his own life experiences, but he also knew that he was writing for me. I brought the Korean-ness to it, with my mother being Korean, and little details here and there to make it more true to life. But as Kuan said, it’s a universal story. I was trying to bring my whole self to it: My vulnerable side. My flawed self. My selfish self. And my loving self. It was trying to bring my whole person to the character, and that’s what I want to do with acting. In terms of representation, we want to see well-rounded, full, flawed, Asian Canadian characters, whether on TV, on film or on stage. We just want to see someone who’s human.

Directed by Dawn Milman, Self-ish is a 50-minute performance that requires Bang to single-handedly captivate the audience with little more than a series of cardboard boxes.

DB: It’s a very physical play for me. I run around stage with a bunch of boxes. I fold them, break them down, fold them again, and build them back up. And then I break them down again. It’s a visceral journey for the audience as well. Expect to laugh, and expect to cry.

KF: Expect to do both — in a very ugly fashion!

The marriage of humour and grief may seem counterintuitive, but Foo and Bang have spent 15 years building their brand of comedy through their work in Assaulted Fish, where they describe their humour as “laughing in the face of the abyss”.

KF: I think one thing you can do with humour is get into those ambiguities and those complexities. When it comes to things like tragedy and comedy, nobody experiences those things in isolation. When something horrible happens, sometimes it can also be the most absurd thing at exactly the same time. And very often, while things are difficult to navigate in those circumstances and you’re experiencing this tremendous loss, you’re also experiencing something absolutely ridiculous that you’d be laughing at if you weren’t so sad. And vice versa. It’s those ambiguities that I’m interested in when I write, because I don’t think humans can experience one emotion at a time. Everything we experience is a complex series of things. Part of what I was trying to write in many of the scenes was this mixture of the sad and the absurd, and very often it puts you in a position where, like Esther, you don’t know how to react.

Self-ish will be playing at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival starting September 7. For more information, visit their website at: www.vancouverfringe.com

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