Theater / Film

Shane Koyczan, “creative hurricane,” comes to Miami Sept. 28

Written By Mike Hamersly
September 25, 2019 at 4:51 PM

Shane Koyczan had a rough childhood, to put it mildly. Growing up in Canada’s frigid and desolate Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, he was raised by his grandparents and bullied mercilessly at school, leading to loneliness, depression and suicidal thoughts.

But Koyczan persevered, and started writing poems as an outlet, eventually turning his pain into prosperity. Today, at 43, he’s an award-winning author and spoken-word sensation whose heart-wrenching piece “To This Day,” which hammers home the devastating effect bullying has had on himself and others, has received more than 23 million views on YouTube.

Koyczan brings his powerful show to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center on Sat., Sept. 28, where audience members will see firsthand why the Vancouver Sun called him a “creative hurricane.”

Koyczan talked to Artburst Miami about what we can expect from the performance, how he combats depression, advice he would give to bullies, and certain fan letters that will haunt him forever.

Q: When did you first write a poem, and what was it about?

A: I have a vague recollection of the first poem I ever wrote being about a whale [laughs]. I don’t remember much else about it – I think I wrote it in Grade 3, but it was one of those things where you remember the experience because it was made to be one of those examples that was used in class. It was very embarrassing.

Q: Where did the urge to create come from?

A: It’s always just kind of been there for me. I’m a bit of an introvert, and it’s hard being an introvert when you also suffer from loneliness, so one of the ways you combat that is you turn yourself into projects. When you start working on something, all of a sudden all those other things you were thinking about somehow go by the wayside, and you focus in on the thing that you’re doing. I feel like creativity fills a need in us, too, as much as talking to another person.

Q: Your work is in-your-face and yet very artistic and even tender at times. Is that juxtaposition by design?

A: I think honestly for me it’s just the way it comes out. All the people that I read out there, whether they’re songwriters or poets, my voice is made up of all the parts of their voices that I liked, the parts that stood out to me. My voice is made up of my influences, and my influences are varied, so on the one hand I want to say when I sit down to write I have a complete idea of what it is I’m going to do, but on the other hand, this is just how it comes out of me anyway, so I don’t really know what the difference is.

Q: Your work is also extremely emotional. Do you often see people in tears in your audience?

A: Tears and laughter. I guess the ninja trick about the show is people don’t ever expect it to be as funny as it is. I mean, I use humor to deal with depression. Charlie Chaplin said laughter sharpens our sense of survival and preserves our sanity. That’s pretty good for a guy who said nothing most of the time [laughs]. And so I wouldn’t have gotten through my life if it weren’t for my grandmother and her being able to joke with me about dark things that happened. And when that happens, a dark sense of humor emerges from that – it’s how you learn to deal with your life. But I think when you talk about honest things, you’re going to have honest reactions, and I am an emotional person.

People are afraid to get emotional these days. It’s like this thing that they’ve been told not to do: You go to work, and if you have an emotional day, they want to send you home! They don’t want you there, because it’s distracting and not good for productivity. So when people come to my show, I want to give them a safe place where they can be emotional, because we’re human – we’re emotional animals.

Q: What can we expect from your show?

A: Mostly I’m going to do new works. I write a new show every year. There will definitely be tours where I say this is going to be a greatest-hits tour, but I think the last couple years for everybody has been very challenging, and I don’t want to bring the politics into it. I believe that guy takes up enough space – I don’t want people to come to the show and be like, ‘Oh, I gotta hear it here, too.’ I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about things like family and loss and the stages of grief. I had a really heavy loss a while ago, and that’s affected me on a pretty deep level. It threw me into depression for about a year. So these are the first shows I’ve come back to do in a while.

And I know that sounds really sad, like it’s gonna be a really depressing thing, but there’s joy, too, because life is made up of memory. And my grandmother made me laugh all the time – she was a funny lady. She brought that levity to those dark times in my life, and that’s how I learned to move forward.

Q: You must have gotten hundreds of thousands of ‘thank yous’ from people touched by your work.

A: I have, but there’s a heaviness to it as well that comes with it. When I wrote that ‘To This Day’ piece, the one about bullying that went viral, there was a ton of outreach right away. And some of these letters are basically suicide letters, and you do what you can to sort of reach back, but you’re touching a void, and you never really know what happens to these people. I didn’t train to be a psychologist or therapist or anything: I write poems. I don’t know how to help, and I feel bad, because all I can give you are the [hotline] numbers, and it feels like I’m passing the buck. I’m not trying to, but I don’t know how to help you. I use creativity and throw myself into a project to get through it, and I tell people to do that, but not everybody’s the same, you know?

All the time, I hear from people who say thank you and that this has turned around their lives, but the good-news ones aren’t the ones that stay with you. The letters that stay with you are the ones that just shake you. And there are a lot of those.

Q: Your advice for someone suffering from bullying or depression is to throw yourself into a project to help get through it. But do you have a message for kids who feel compelled to bully other kids?

A: Why not take that same energy and be a protector? What do you get out of tormenting someone else? It’s just anger and hurt and hate, all wrapped up in this one thing, and they don’t know what to do with it. And so you set it down inside other people’s hearts – what are you doing that for? I’ve had some amazing stories come back to me of kids who have used that energy to be a protector, and it’s totally changed their lives. Before, they’d walk down the hallways and be feared and people left them alone, and now all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘We love this guy!’ I get so happy when I hear stories like that.

Q: What was Yellowknife like?

A: I had a really hard time growing up in Yellowknife. It’s very far north in Canada, so when winter hits, you’re going to school in the dark and you’re getting out in the dark – there isn’t much daylight in winter at all. But in the summertime, the sun doesn’t go down. They call it the Land of the Midnight Sun.

For me, it was a very isolating place, because you’re not going out in the winter time, in minus-40. You just stay inside, and you get two months out of the year to go out and play. It’s part of why I became an introvert – the other part was, I didn’t want to go out in the summer because, bullies! The worst time of year was the fall. It’s the season I love most now, but as soon as fall hit, it just meant, ‘Oh my God, school is just around the corner.’ And it set off every alarm in me. In the summer I could just avoid people, but when I had to go back to school, you can’t avoid anyone.

Shane Koyczan performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Miami. Tickets cost $15-$25 at smdcac.org, with $5 tickets available for students 13-22 at www.cultureshockmiami.com. Presented by Culture Shock Miami.

 

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