By Lauren Donnelly
Creatively drained from back-to-back runs of her award-winning play Dirty Old Woman, playwright Loretta Seto was looking forward to a break. Instead, she found herself applying for a play development program through Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. Challenged by the writing process but motivated by a looming deadline, Seto let the story guide her.
“I was writing this story that I was interested in,” she says over the phone. “And for the first draft I was just telling the story to myself. I was going down these different paths, not knowing where it was headed, but I was engaged in telling the story to myself.”
From that storytelling came the first draft of The Ones We Leave Behind, Seto’s newest play. It’s a drama about investigator Abby Chung, who’s tasked with finding next-of-kin for an old woman without friends or family. She uncovers mysteries from her own life, with the investigation beginning to affect her own relationships, as she tries to solve the mystery of how someone can die utterly alone. The play explores themes of isolation and abandonment, but there are comedic moments throughout.
“Even when we’re living through the most difficult times, there’s always humour to be found,” Seto says. “The story reflects family relationships and how we navigate modern society. We are more connected than ever, but we’re not necessarily connecting in a way that fulfills us – these days meaningful human connection is almost rare.”
Audiences will have the opportunity to connect with The Ones We Leave Behind as part of Vancouver Fringe Festival’s Advance Theatre: New Works by Diverse Women program. It’s one of five new plays curated by Ruby Slippers Theatre and showcased as dramatic readings. Women creators have traditionally been given the short end of the stick in professional Canadian theatre. The program aims to grow the number of women artistic directors, working directors, and produced playwrights.
Seto says her newest work would not exist without the support of Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre’s MSG Lab. VACT artistic director Donna Yamamoto directs the staged reading, but she also encouraged Seto to apply for the play development program in the first place. The MSG Lab showcases stories from Asian Canadian points of view, developing new Asian Canadian work for future production opportunities through workshops – and it’s working.
After the Fringe, The Ones We Leave Behind debuts as a full production at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre. Seto says the workshop opportunity provided invaluable insights.
“For me to hear the actors’ observations was often surprising because it added a facet to the character I hadn’t been conscious of. And that gave me the opportunity to look at it more closely and see if it was a thread I wanted to develop.”
Featuring a diverse cast led by Vancouver-based actor Agnes Tong as Abby Chung, it’s clear why amplifying diverse women’s voices can be a game changer for the Canadian theatre scene. Seto is Chinese Canadian and lives in Vancouver. To her, writing diverse characters isn’t a challenge, it’s a reflection of the world she lives in.
“There’s so much diversity in our city and in my own life – it would be weird not to have that represented on stage,” she says. “These are people who are doing their jobs and living their lives and not talking all the time about their culture. It’s nice to see shows and plays where there is diversity onstage, but they’re living, breathing, working characters whose culture doesn’t have to be the main focus of the play.”
The Ones We Leave Behind is featured in the Vancouver Fringe Festival as part of the Advance Theatre: New Works by Diverse Women program on September 11 at the False Creek Gym.the ones we leave behind, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, Vancouver Fringe Festival