The life of an artist is full of trial and error, confidence and defeat, highs and lows. Jane Chen started out as a working child actor, reinvented herself as a theatrical clown, and now, to her surprise, is building a business as a sought-after singing coach. Along the way, we talk about how “success” is a constantly shifting concept.
So, how did you find yourself here?
My parents are from Taiwan. I was born in Columbus, Ohio, because they went to graduate school at Ohio State University. My parents had a hard time coming up with a name for me, so they looked in an American baby book and picked the easiest one to pronounce. They told me that I could pick my own middle name, but I haven't yet!
My parents always encouraged me to do math, or science, or business. I really liked math but I definitely didn't want to go into it. Starting from seventh or eighth grade, I decided that I wanted to be an actor. I went to Yale for undergrad and majored in theatre, and then after that I went to a theatre school in Humboldt County, California. That is what brought me to California.
It was a physical theatre school based on European circus arts like Commedia dell'arte and Cirque du Soleil. I did that for a year and was introduced to theatrical clowning, which is a form of clowning that is not as well known in the US. If you go to see the Cirque du Soleil clowns, it’s kind of what they do. More character-based clowning.
Is it very acrobatic?
No, not really. It’s like you take all the things about yourself that you hate and exaggerate them and that becomes your clown. That could be one way of creating your clown.
That sounds like a comedian. [Laughs]
Yeah, it’s kind of like standup comedy. But it's more extreme and physical than standup. It's like character acting, but also very improvisational and in the moment.
After theatre school, I was creating my own work and doing clowning. I was trained as a singer from the time I was a child, and I love singing, but I guess I wanted to do theatre more. But I always put singing in my performances.
When you say you “did a lot of clowning,” what does that mean?
I created one character that became my persona for a show I developed. It was supposed to be a one-woman show, but what happened was that I was doing my first solo and I had no idea what I was doing. My mother happened to be visiting me at the time, so she was there at my rehearsal with my director. The stage manager couldn't make it, so my mother did all of the props for me, started and stopped the music, stuff like that. And she basically messed up the whole time, and I was yelling at her, and she was yelling back at me. The director was sitting there and was like, “That is funny.” She liked the idea that it was my mother who was the stage hand. So my mother actually ended up getting involved in this clown show with me, and we performed together for three years.
Wow, that is amazing!
We traveled North America performing in various Fringe festivals. And shared beds.
What a bonding experience.
It was deep. She did it for me.
She didn't enjoy it?
She came to enjoy it. It just so happened that she had been laid off from her job. She had worked as a software engineer, and at that time they were doing thousands of layoffs at her company. So she had the time and the space for something new. She was not a performer and she had never performed before. It was great.
Did you have a goal in mind with this?
No, it was just that I loved clowning. I love making people laugh. It's strange, but whenever I am in a group setting and I do something that makes people laugh, I just replay that moment in my head for days, and it makes me so happy.
What brought you down to LA?
I wanted to pursue comedy on a larger level and maybe even get paid. I wanted to try to do something more commercial and reach a broader audience.
When I was a kid, after I caught the acting bug I got an agent in New York. I did pretty well because I was a kid and I was Asian, which wasn't a big thing many years ago. Then I went to Yale, which is a really liberal school, so that really influenced me to do what I deeply believe in, like creating something new and worthwhile that benefits society. I didn't think it was good to do any of the TV stuff anymore, so I stopped all that. That is what got me into clowning and creating my own work. But then I wanted to make more money doing it, so I went back to the commercial stuff.
When I was in San Francisco, I was doing some commercials and corporate work. I kept wanting to make it in a mainstream way, but I was wrestling with being commercially successful and wanting to do something that felt more true to me. I moved to LA because television is really thriving right now—I thought it would be a great way to have both, to do something really interesting and make a living doing it.
A year or two ago, I quit acting. I have always taught singing lessons on the side. Now singing lessons have become a bigger thing in LA. I didn't know anyone here, so I made a Yelp page to attract students. And now it’s going crazy and I have so many more students than I can handle, and a really long waiting list. I have hired another teacher to help, and I still can't keep up with it.
It’s interesting because it’s something I never asked for, but now it’s happening and it makes me wonder if this is what I’m destined to do.
Do you think it’s the success that you wanted but in a different way?
Isn't that interesting? Yeah, maybe.
When you talk about commercial work, I feel like success means reaching a lot of people. But when you have your own business, you’re only exposed to a small audience. So you might not feel like your business is successful, but to someone else it could be seen as very successful.
Yeah, you got it. I think I am growing into teaching and have yet to really appreciate it fully. It’s hard to let go of my previous goals. I started pursuing acting in the seventh grade and I’m 41 now, so it has become part of my identity.
Do you know the story of Billy Crystal? He always wanted to be a baseball player but he never made the big leagues. It doesn’t matter that he’s a successful actor, because in his mind he’s a failed baseball player.
Wow! That's a great point. It’s hard for me to imagine other people as not being fulfilled in their careers. The grass is always greener on the other side, but I suppose that everybody has desires and dreams that may not pan out the way they imagined.
What is your favorite thing about teaching?
I love breaking something down piece by piece, very specifically and precisely, and then teaching someone how to do it. I have a very analytical mind, which is an interesting trait for an artist. But I think that's what makes me a good teacher.
Singing came somewhat naturally to me, but I also have to work hard at it. I don't have great pitch, and I'm not great at a-capella singing. Whenever I learn a song I have to spend time on it.
Can someone learn to sing?
That's a good question. I think different people have different theories. For the most part, anyone can learn to sing unless you're tone-deaf. That has to do with your ability to hear certain frequencies and that is more of a hearing problem. But if you can hear pitch and imitate it, then you can learn to sing.
There are a lot of physical and technical things involved, the most important of which is abdominal support. So, you learn how to support the voice with your muscles. Then, for the high notes, it’s also about lifting the soft palate, the piece that lifts when you yawn in the back of your mouth. That is a muscle that needs to be trained, as well. And then, you just do the scales and exercises over and over and over until it becomes second nature.
Some people are born with an ability to learn faster, or they just picked it up by imitating their favorite singers on the radio. Other people never sang when they were kids. So, it really depends what your experience is.
Outside of teaching, you also attend the Zen Center of Los Angeles. You mentioned to me before the three tenets you’ve learned: not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. Can you explain what they mean?
The three tenets of Zen Buddhism are, or at least as interpreted by me: The first one is not knowing. That’s about having an open mind to anything and everything. For example, instead of thinking, "Oh no, what if I can't teach this person well enough?" you can think, “I have no idea how I'm going to help them and I'm going to really just receive the experience.” And that's part of the second tenet, which is bearing witness. This is like deep listening, taking in all the information. The third tenet is loving action. The action that arises from not knowing and bearing witness.
Do you mean action that comes from a loving place?
Yeah. An action that comes from a true place.
Have you incorporated this thinking into your life and career?
That's a great question. I think I still have a lot of negativity clouding my mind, because I recently stopped performing. I stopped moving towards that as a career goal, so I’m still processing that decision.
But you can choose do something, and then change your mind later. Nothing is set in stone, right?
[Laughs] I know. Nobody's like, "What about that thing you said you were going to do?" It's all in our mind. Everybody is just doing their own thing. They don't really care what you do.
That said, what do you look forward to achieving in the next five years?
I'm really involved with the business right now. But there's that part of me that really wants to continue performing, so I have that as a goal, whether it's a local musical or maybe performing at homes for senior citizens. But I'm really invested in teaching right now and have an interest in doing group classes. I do one-on-one stuff so much and I really feel that's the best way to learn and develop the voice itself, but as far as performing in front of an audience and that kind of thing, I think it would be a great practice for everyone to sing in front of a group.
I'd like to maybe create an internship program where my current students can be trained to teach what I do and then maybe they can take over so I can retire. [Laughs]
Oh, and one more goal is to have more “me” time.
That's an important goal. What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
I'm going to think of the one piece of advice I would give myself. That would be to not be so hard on myself. I see that in other people. Everybody is their own worst critic. Just like you were saying before, a lot of people wish they could be somewhere else or wish they could have somebody else's career. As one Zen teacher said to me, "Life is one mistake after another." [Laughs] He meant that in a good way—like, that's all you can do because you're just learning constantly, so just enjoy the ride.
What does LA mean to you?
LA means excitement. I had mixed feelings about moving away from the Bay Area, because I like the small-town feel of it. LA feels huge to me, but I love the diversity and the activity. I also love how neighborhoods can feel like small cities that are more intimate and friendly. I know my neighbors, which is really important to me.
See Jane's latest performing endeavor, a techno-opera spin on a Demi Lovato song!
Interested in singing? Check out Jane's site.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©