Speaking volumes with one act

Cast of The Ones We Leave Behind | Photo courtesy of Donna Yamamoto

In the upcoming theatre production The Ones We Leave Behind viewers are immersed in a character play that subtly addresses one of society’s major issues: social isolation, abandonment and loneliness.

With the support of the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), the seminal MSG Lab play will be making its debut from Oct. 24–Nov. 3 at The Cultch’s historic theatre.

Disappearing into loneliness

In our increasingly interconnected world, how has social isolation become an epidemic?” asks Loretta Seto, the playwright of The Ones We Leave Behind.

According to Statistics Canada, as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians report feeling lonely. In the last year, the UK government has opened an official position: Minister of Loneliness. However, it wasn’t Seto’s initial intent to address the social issue in the script. It surfaced when she was encouraged to write a short piece for the MSG Lab, by the artistic director of VACT, Donna Yamamoto.

“The idea came when I was reading a small news article about a man who passed away in his home and wasn’t discovered until years afterwards. It really struck a chord for me,” Seto says.

It seemed unfathomable to Seto how someone could disappear without anyone even noticing. Over the years, the idea percolated until she received the request from VACT. From that time, Seto started to fill in the gaps and out came the first act. Yamamoto knew right away the short play, comprised of eight pages, had something.

“Initially, I go with my intuition then I watch the audience for feedback,” says Yamamoto. “With, The Ones We Leave Behind people were crying at the end, yet laughing all the way through.”

The story unfolds

Agnes Tong, a local Asian-Canadian actress, plays the lead character of Abby, an investigator for the Public Trustee. She is assigned her first case alongside a career investigator, Greg, played by James Yi. They need to find the next-of-kin for an elderly woman named Beatrice, played by Alannah Ong, a Hong Kong film and TV actress.

Beatrice has died without any family or friends to claim her. As Abby uncovers more details of Beatrice’s lonely life, she is confronted by her own demons and is forced to face the mystery of her own life: the truth about her own father who walked out on her and her mother years ago.

Digging deep

Initially, Yi read for the part during the MSG Lab workshops. When Yamamoto offered him the role in the full-scale production, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. Yi’s been working with VACT ever since he relocated to Vancouver from Alaska over five years ago. He joined the community theatre group and took on as many roles as he could.

“I consider doing theatre like being in class; I learn so much,” says Yi.

During rehearsal, Yi credits director John Cooper for helping him to flesh out his role. Greg, Yi’s character, has proved to be challenging. Cooper directed Yi to dig deep into the subtext of the character.

“This really allowed me to grow as an actor. This play is very well-written, and the characters are well developed,” he says.

Yamamoto, with her 30 years of experience in acting plus her current five years at VACT, knows brilliant writing. She recently won a Jessie Award for her outstanding leadership in developing works by three Asian-Canadian playwrights in The Cultch’s 2015–16 season. Subsequently, it has been one of her endeavours to bring Asian-Canadian writers and performers to the forefront. With this current production, she has managed to do both.

For more information, visit www.thecultch.com.