“I remember the first time acting, I had this sickening feeling in my stomach—I was so nervous—but then you get over it. And the first time I wrote and I had to sit and listen to other people act the stuff that I wrote, again I had this terrified feeling—but you just have to face your fear.”
Jovanni Sy is more than just a theater actor, a playwright, and a director.
He’s a man who faced his fears, pursued his passion tenaciously, and lived to tell the tale.
A not-so-theatrical beginning
Jovanni was born in Manila. When his family immigrated to Canada, they first stayed in Burnaby. When Jovanni turned 4, they moved from Vancouver to Toronto.
When asked about the move, Jovanni said, “My parents were interested in starting a business, interested in opportunities.”
“I still consider myself a Torontonian,” he added.
Today, he lives in Richmond with his wife, Leanna Brodie—a fellow thespian.
After two years in Vancouver, he agrees that Richmond has certain effects on his lifestyle.
“Richmond is more outdoorsy. I’m becoming more outdoorsy, more hiking and cycling. I might take up skiing,” he beamed, giving in to the irresistible charm of British Columbia, and its sea to sky magnificence.
Despite the warm sunshine and picturesque hiking trails that welcomed him in British Columbia, Jovanni admits that he faced challenges as well.
“The challenges didn’t come until I went into theater,” he said.
Coming from a multicultural neighborhood in Toronto, he barely felt the differences in cultures while he was growing up.
“I didn’t really notice (the difficulties) so much until I made the switch to theater. That’s when I became more aware of the challenges that you face when you’re a minority,” Jovanni shared. “Theater at that time was even worse as it is now in terms of being representative. It’s very hard to make opportunities as a performer from a minority group.”
Today, with his guidance as the Artistic Director of one of Canada’s premier acting troops—Gateway Theatre—Jovanni has helped pave the way for more foreigners to get involved in Vancouver’s theater scene.
“At my age, I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Shifting stages: Engineering to Theatre
Despite Jovanni’s impressive thespian achievements, he actually studied something more on the serious side of the employment curve.
So, how did this shift from T-squares to theatres come about?
“When I was in engineering, we had a musical comedy review in my second, third, fourth years and then when I graduated, I did amateur community theater just because I really enjoyed it,” he shared.
“And after about four years of doing that, I just decided I wanted to do this professionally. Like, this isn’t just my hobby. This is my first love, I just didn’t realize it,” he added.
Born of Chinese parents, one could imagine his parents’ reaction when their engineer son wanted to pursue acting instead.
“My parents weren’t happy at first, but that was 21 years ago.”
Today, his parents understand why Jovanni decided to make that brave move and they couldn’t be any prouder.
When asked about his career’s trajectory and longevity, he mused, “One of the things that helped the longevity of my career is about 6, 7 years into it I started writing as well. That helps being able to tell your own story and create your own worlds, and then I started directing. And just being able to do more than one thing made (my career last).”
Being a multi-tasker helped him to move further into his chosen path without missing opportunities to vigorously pursue his passion along the way, and he encourages others to do the same.
“I really encourage any young artist to do the same,” he said. “If you can write or if you have any kind of inclination towards writing, do it, because we need more stories that tell the whole picture.”
He suggests Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird”—one of his personal favorites, together with Pride and Prejudice and A Hundred Years of Solitude—for any aspiring writer who wants to hone his/her skills.
And when it comes to encouragement and mentorship, he claims that he was “really, really lucky” that he was surrounded with the right people who propelled him to do his craft better.
“My good friend Guillermo Verdecchia, who directed the show that I’m doing, he’s been a really great mentor for me as a writer and helping me as an actor ‘cause he directed the first time I did this show ‘A Taste of Empire.’ Brian Court’s been a really great mentor for me as a writer, he shared.
With such supportive mentors, Jovanni wants nothing more but to pay it forward through Gateway.
“I so strongly believe in mentorship and… in my role at the Gateway, I believe it’s my responsibility to help the next generation of artists along because I needed a helping hand when I was starting,” he explained.
On ‘Rellenong Bangus’
This month, Jovanni will grace Granville Island and the Richmond Cultural Centre with his cooking demonstration slash theatrical piece entitled ‘A Taste of Empire’ where he will prepare rellenong bangus (stuffed milk fish)—a dish most dreaded by cooks but well-loved in many Filipino gatherings.
Jovanni himself claims that he could barely say rellenong bangus correctly, but he revealed the method to his madness on choosing this Pinoy treat.
“I knew I wanted to do cooking in real time,” he started.
“I was looking for dishes that were really good metaphor for colonialism, like for the European colonization of Asia specifically… It’s this Asian dish, it’s a signature Filipino dish, and yet its flavors are very European.”
With raisins, carrots, bell peppers—even Worcestershire sauce in some recipe variations—Jovanni speaks the truth of this Filipino ulam with a European flair.
He added, “It’s hard to make. It’s time consuming, so it gives me 80 minutes to tell a story.”
Jovanni will play the sous chef of fictional superstar chef Maximo Cortez in ‘A Taste of Empire,’ which will run from May 22 to 25 at Granville Island and May 31 to June 1 at the Rooftop Garden of the Richmond Cultural Centre.
‘The Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival’ will be on August 15 to 24, featuring three Hong Kong shows performed in Cantonese with English subtitles.
Jovanni believes that taking the first, seemingly small step in pursuing one’s passion may actually be the biggest step of the entire process—with courage fueling every move.
“Just do it,” he said. “Start by sitting down, getting a pen out, and write something down. If you have the inclination to direct or act, just pursue it. Just face the dragon and do it. It just took a long time and a lot of hard work, but I’m really thrilled to be where I am.”
And with the unpredictability of the entertainment industry, he shared a piece of advice for those who are starting out.
“You’re not your work,” he said.
“The hardest thing to do is to separate yourself from whether you’re employed or not employed. Just have a good sense of self—don’t get too high when you’re up and don’t get too low when you’re down,” he explained.
In the end, there’s nothing to worry about because “the people who really love you will love you whether you’re doing well or not.”