The ripple effect: a profile of David Yee5 min read

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Entertainment evolved from a grand spectacle to a simple click on a screen. With such convenience, Toronto-based playwright David Yee believes theatre is more relevant than ever. The content we choose for ourselves is of immediate interest, but fosters little growth. The majority becomes cocooned in their safe little entertainment shell, and although it is not Yee’s goal to pierce the membrane and rip the public out of their security, he is supplying the tools.

He sees trends in the arts and education system, referencing Neil Postman’s The End of Education. “University started encouraging specialization,” said Yee, “They started filtering out a general educational tract. People were no longer reading works of literature—because it wasn’t super germane to pursuing Canadian business management or biology, whatever. And that is when people stop asking the essential question: Why are we here?” By catering only to current pursuits, people develop myopic views of the world. They become the centre of their own universe. A well-rounded education and artistic diversity can cleanse the palate and open doors to growth and greater interests.

Yet Yee’s passion did not stem from social revolution, it began as a mean of attracting the opposite sex. While training to be an actor in University of Toronto, he was offered roles that he did not engage with. “I started writing mainly as a vehicle for myself,” he said. “It was purely out of self interest.”

But writing stuck and Yee can still remembers the piece that brought him the grand realization, Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia. The culturally diverse story hooked him and made him consider his abilities. “It wasn’t from the perspective of the hegemonic cultural majority,” he said, “and it was funny, it had pop culture references and I could get behind it.”

Despite Yee’s talents, his creative potential was not nurtured early in his career. “Some people would be like, ‘Oh I had this really great teacher.’ I didn’t have that,” said the former Governor General’s Literary Award winner with a chuckle. Stymied, but creatively resilient, Yee went on with his artistic endeavors with a bit of trickery. “It was my mother I had to convince,” his voice turned from professionally formal to mischievous, “so I lied to her.” He swayed her with stories of specializing to become a teacher, and as a teacher herself, she couldn’t refuse. “Then four years later, ‘by the way, I’m not being a teacher,’” he said, “and she just shrugged it off. Too late now.”

Growing up with Chinese and Scottish heritage was something Yee learned to embrace. But as an artist of Asian descent living in the west creating works for western consumption, he believes it is vital to own the culture, lest it become whitewashed. “We have this insertion of western colonial figures into our [Asian] stories,” said Yee, “and that is the thing that has to be battled against.” The target audiences for blockbuster films are predominately whites, but for Yee, he doesn’t think a story needs to be contained in different packaging for different audiences. “Then you have people like Leonardo Dicaprio,” he said, “bought the rights to Akira, he wasn’t planning on doing anything with it, he just didn’t want it to be made with white actors. And now it is being done, because you can only option the rights for so long. The time lapsed and now I think they are making it with white actors.”

Yee accepts the challenges that come with his profession. “Theatre becomes a negotiation between people in a room,” he said, “there is a very definitive set of limitations.” But he doesn’t work within the barriers, he ambitiously writes the story in full honesty and allows the problems to solve themselves as production approaches. “But it is good to know that when you write in a helicopter,” he said, “there very likely would not be a helicopter available inside of a theatre.”

In Yee’s latest production carried away on the crest of a wave presented at the Tarragon Theatre on April 24 to May 26 2013, he delves into the catastrophe of the Southeast Asia tsunami in 2004. Working closely with director Nina Lee Aquino and the cast, Yee consistently rewrites his piece throughout the rehearsal process. To tell a story in such a grand scheme requires him to be flexible and open minded. “It was important to write freely knowing that some stuff was going to make it and some stuff was going to get cut,” he said, “and probably more stuff was going to get cut.”

“I wanted it to be like throwing a stone in a pool of water,” said Yee, “and see the ripples that it created and not the stone.” That was his guiding principle when he sat down to write about the global disaster. His interest was not about the subduction zones or the speed of the waves, he was concerned with the consequences, days, weeks, months and years after the event.

The stories Yee enjoyed telling were those concerning characters wrapped in social crisis. And the only way to care for such a muse is by doing research. “If you are going to write about something you need to be an expert in that thing,” said Yee, “at least by the time you are done.” After six to eight months of interviews, articles and archives, he finally felt equipped to write, but research was an ongoing enterprise. “I have done so much research, I know all about earthquakes and all about fault lines. When I wrote Lady in the Red Dress I had to know all about the head tax and exclusion act. You need to know it.” Without proper research, the writing would be dishonest and for Yee that is a dire sin.

Time is a premium for the Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company, especially since he is sometimes overwhelmed with his own ideas. With an enthusiastic whimsy, he describes his next production, a story set around conmen in Bangkok. Although he is presently fine-tuning carried away on the crest of a wave, he is already anticipating the prospect of research. Yee is constantly exploring with a sole goal to present something dynamic and not easily accessible through a little black screen on your desktop or in your pocket.


Carried away on the crest of a wave opens April 24 to May 26 2013, with preview shows starting on April 16. For more information please visit

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