**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Sangeeta Wylie, an emerging playwright and actor in film, television and theatre. Her first full-length play, we the same, is inspired a true story of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and will premiere livestream at The Cultch (Vancouver), November 3rd-7th, 2021. She is currently working on her second play with the support of Fireworks, Teesri Duniya Theatre and Boca del Lupo. Sangeeta plays classical piano, and holds degrees in Chemistry with a Music Minor and Dentistry.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
I am a bit of a mixed bag. I was born and raised in NL, a province of storytellers. Though I loved the performing arts, including music, acting and writing- I had a story published when I was about 11 years old, in a compilation of students’ stories-, I took a circuitous route, starting with a Chemistry degree, and then a Dentistry degree. But while a Chemistry major, a Music minor. While a Dental student, a performer who sang in choirs, continued piano lessons and helped produce a friend’s play for the Halifax Fringe Festival. That friend was Anthony Black, who later started 2B Theatre with Christian Barry. My way back to the arts began with acting. Then, while living in Toronto, a friend and I co-wrote, directed and workshopped a one-act comedy called disconnect.com. We staged it over 3 nights at a pub, with props, actors memorized, lights/sound; to full houses who participated in talkbacks and surveys. From start to finish, the process took 3 months, and the positive feedback encouraged us to keep going.
Back in Vancouver, I had the fortune of meeting Donna Yamamoto while I was helping produce archival videos for the UBCP/Actra Women’s committee. Donna saw something in me, though I’ll never know how. She not only planted the seed to submit a proposal to Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT)’s MSG Playwriting Lab, she personally called me a few months later, to ask me to submit.
Your first play we the same “tells the true story of a family forced to flee Vietnam in 1979 due to persecution and fear”. Can you tell us about how this piece came to be, and how far it has come from conception to now?
Shortly after that telephone conversation with Donna, my husband and I were at a neighbour’s barbecue. We were all new to the ‘hood and didn’t know each other well. My neighbour served homemade salad rolls and peanut sauce. It led me to ask her about Vietnam, and her experiences. She launched into her family’s story, which was really her mother’s story, and it was filled with unbelievable events. Yet she didn’t know the details: she had no memory of it even though she was 4 and 5 years old, and her mother had never shared the full story with anyone. It was a portrait of courage: a mother’s survival with her six young children, as they endured separation from her husband, pirate attacks, typhoons, shipwreck, starvation. A lot of us who grow up with certain privileges in first world countries have likely not experienced nor heard this story on a human level, except through sensational media reports, which often have a political slant.
I was still considering writing my own story for Donna, but something inside me told me that this story needed to be told first. I asked to meet my neighbour’s mother, and after we met and talked, she agreed to share her story with me, for the purpose of writing a play. My original concept was to mirror what I witnessed next: a mother sharing the story with her adult daughter for the first time, contrasted with my idea of the daughter’s memories as a four year old. This lended fantastical and supernatural elements, but surprisingly, not only due to the daughter’s lens.
That was four years ago. I did a tremendous amount of research including close to 100 hours of interviews, cultural research, tracing the family’s journey through Vietnam and Malaysia, press/national archival research, connecting with organizations- local and international; I spoke at an international dance conference in Malaysia. The concept has remained the same, and the themes have deepened: to listen without judgement, to accept and tolerate other points of view even though you may not agree with them.
You have mentioned that your art focuses on “themes of renewal”. Can you tell us what that means to you?
I relate to being a five year old: the world is full of wonder and one is less jaded by life’s harder experiences. In a way, I yearn for a return to those simpler perspectives drawn from simpler times. When the pandemic first hit, it brought a lot of introspection. This virus did not know race, boundaries, nor any of the other things we humans have put in as dividers. It was a chance to reset: to slow down and appreciate a life less cluttered. It also made me wonder about how so many of our systems- economic, political, class, etc.,- could use a complete overhaul, or renewal. We were seeing how unfair these systems were, and how senseless that unfairness is. There were bright sides: hospital workers were given ‘free parking’, their value finally recognized. We appreciated people working in grocery stores, and those essential to our survival. Of all things, toilet paper became more valuable than gold, at least on a practical level. On the other hand, we’ve seen an unfair vaccine distribution to date, with 75% of the total vaccine supply administered to just 10 nations, and low income countries vaccinating barely 2% of their people.
I make no apologies for being idealistic. I cling to the idea that we can get through hard times like this by coming together. I believe that requires a renewal or return to square zero, not in a literal sense, but in the way we think and care for others. In a restorative way, that advocates for balance. I am interested in ideas that advance this.
What challenges have you faced in your playwriting?
There is a great responsibility in telling someone else’s story and doing right by them, while still including the playwright’s voice. I had to understand a politically divided diaspora that was not my own, though I could relate to it as one from a neighbouring colonized country. However I had the support of the family and of the community- from both sides of the political spectrum. It forced me to stand up for my work, to recognize what it is actually about, and why I felt compelled to create it; that was an amazing bit of growth as an emerging playwright. I’ve had many moments of gratitude every time a challenge was met and overcome.
What are you working on now?
Remember how I wanted to write my own story? The irony is, I couldn’t have written it with what I knew, before this play. There were deep parallels between that story and mine, ones I didn’t recognize until two years into development. It guided me to surrender and listen, just as the daughter in ‘we the same’ has to do. I’ve been selected by Fireworks new play development program offered through Teesri Duniya, and supported by Boca del Lupo, to explore this piece. I’m excited to be working with Lydie Dubuisson for the next ten months, on a convergence of three stories, inspired by true events.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
I love Judith Thompson’s The Crackwalker. I worked on some scenes during acting classes over ten years ago, and can still recite Sandy’s monologue near the end. In a similar vein, Tom Walmsley’s The Jones Boy is amazing for how it makes naked, marginalized voices. One of my favourite playwrights today is Hannah Moscovitch. Hannah is a delightful soul who supported me as an emerging playwright. I’ve seen and read several of her works. Perhaps one of the most memorable was Tarragon’s production of This is War. She has an uncommon ability of showing life how it is, without it being about morality or sides.
we the same is a play inspired by true events. In 1979 a Vietnamese family, a mother with six young children separated from their father on the sea, flee Communist Vietnam by boat, surviving pirate attacks, typhoons, shipwreck, starvation and more. The story weaves between past and the present, memory and truth, adventure and fantasy, secrets and forgiveness, vulnerability and courage; as an immigrant mother tells her Canadian-raised daughter the story for the first time. This production includes ritual dance, shadow play, live music and animation. Livestreaming Nov 3rd to 7th through the Cultch. Tickets: https://thecultch.com/event/we-the-same/. Trigger warning: sexualized violence.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.