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Photo by Justin Lauzon

The Monkey Queen: “I saw the whole thing in my imagination”

By Brian Carroll on January 23, 2017

Photo by Justin Lauzon

Photo by Justin Lauzon

Following its 2010 premiere in Toronto, the first part of Diana Tso’s Monkey Queen trilogy has been popular at festivals, schools and libraries. Tso now brings the first two parts of the trilogy to Ottawa, where the second part will premiere.

An accomplished storyteller, playwright and actor, Diana Tso joins musicians Marjolaine Fournier and Patty Chan to bring her tale of magic and adventure to Ottawa Storytellers’ featured stories series.

Brian Carroll interviewed Tso to tell Apartment613 readers about her show and her musical co-performers.

Apt613: What is Monkey Queen about?

Monkey Queen is inspired by an ancient novel called The Journey to the West. It has a really magical character named Monkey King. It’s a monkey going on this adventure, protecting a monk, on all these adventures from China to India to get the Buddhist scriptures.

I was invited by 1000 Storytellers under Dan Yashinsky. While I was telling the story of the Monkey King, I had an epiphany, that I am not the Monkey King. I am the Monkey Queen, who hadn’t been invented yet. So it’s my responsibility to give birth to her.

I was born in Canada. I was not born in China. So my journey is not towards the West, but towards the East. I created this monkey magical character, who was born of the stone, but in the Rocky Mountains, and travels across Canada in Part 1 of her journey. Part 2 takes her to India because there are lots of monkey mythologies there. I needed to find her a mentor, a female mentor. Part 2 will be debuted (and performed along with Part 1) at Ottawa Storytellers.

My Monkey Queen is a physical, spiritual and magical journey reimagining monkey mythology from a woman’s perspective. What it means to be a warrior in a world full of greed, destruction and war.

Who’s your audience?

Everybody. I’ve never changed the vocabulary. The youngest is kindergarten. We have the Storytelling Festival here (Toronto) and we also have a lot of libraries that have storytellers. When they asked, “What’s the lowest grade that could come?”, I said, “Probably (Grade) 3.”.

But somehow one of the classes that walked in was really little. I said, “That doesn’t look like Grade 3.” It was kindergarten because one of the Grade 3 classes couldn’t make it. I couldn’t really send them back, so they sat down. I thought, “Oh wow, it’s 2 o’clock, so they’re going to be flailing on the ground, attention level zero, because Part 1 is solidly me talking for 45 minutes.”

They never moved. They watched me. I never changed the vocabulary. One of the kids came up to me. She was so cute. She shook my hand. She goes, “You’re a great storyteller. I saw the whole thing in my imagination.” It was like my best review.

When we had Q&A, one of the Grade 3 students said, “I don’t have a question, but I have a statement. I just feel that you want peace in the world.” Bang on.

If there’s stuff for kids, there has to be stuff for adults. What about teenagers?

In the beginning, they’re kind of taken aback. They’re thinking, “Magic is not for teenagers.” I don’t know where it is, but something on the first page clicks with them and they’re like, “It’s not for kids. It’s like Lord of the Rings. It’s like Star Wars.” So there’s a switchover. “It’s a really cool story.”

You’re performing with two musicians, Marjolaine Fournier (double bass) of the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Patty Chan of Ottawa. Why did you decide to add music to the performance?

Everything I write has live music. It’s part of my artistic mandate. In traditional Chinese storytelling, there is live sound and music as well.

Why these two musicians?

Patty worked with me in both my plays. She’s the erhu player in both my plays, Comfort, which just closed, and Red Snow.

Marjolaine is a good friend of hers. They play in the same orchestra [Toronto Chinese Orchestra]. She [Patty] recommended her. She said Marjolaine was very good with improv. “She’s a storyteller herself. It would be really fun if you guys worked together.” I started working with Marjolaine first. Then we added Patty. Marjolaine’s written the music that she can play along with Patty.

And both live in Ottawa. I like to use local musicians.

Both Marjolaine and Patty list the erhu in their bios. For my readers, what is an erhu?

An erhu is a Chinese violin, but instead of being played horizontally, it’s played vertically. Patty’s book about teaching yourself how to play the erhu (Playing Erhu: Bridging the Gap) is a big seller around the world.

I hear that Marjolaine will be playing the cello with you?

Cello and all these other instruments. One is a tampura, an Indian instrument. You’d have to ask her about the rest.

Monkey Queen, Journey to the East is playing at Arts Court Theatre. Friday, January 27th at 7:30PM. For more information see the Arts Court website. Tickets are $20 (adults), $15 (seniors) and $12 (students) at the website or at the door.