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David Yee

Laureate, 2023

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David Yee is a mixed race (half Chinese, half Scottish) playwright and actor, born and raised in Toronto. He is the co-founding Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company, Canada’s premiere professional Asian Canadian theatre company. A Dora Mavor Moore Award nominated actor and playwright, his work has been produced internationally and at home. He is a two-time Governor General’s Literary Award nominee for his plays lady in the red dress and carried away on the crest of a wave, which won the award in 2015 along with the Carol Bolt Award in 2013. Yee has been in residence at Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre, the Stratford Festival, Cahoots Theatre and often works with theatre training institutions (NTS, U of T, TMU) to create new works for graduating cohorts using his unique Bespoke method of play creation. He currently teaches playwriting at the University of Toronto, and has worked extensively in the Asian Canadian community as an artist and an advocate.

2023 Protégé

Julie Phan

Acceptance Speech

This is an incredible honour. So much so, that I feel that it must be verging on a clerical error.

Mishka, Bernie and d’bi. When I first learned that we were the four, I thought how easily it could go to any of us, and how happy I would be regardless of the outcome, for whomever was honoured. I was just thrilled to be in your company. You are formidable, the three of you, and above that, you are kind. You are the sort of artists I am honoured to be counted among, but you are also the sort of humans I absolutely adore.

I can say the same for each human who has been a part of this Siminovitch process, from Aimee and Sam to Video Company. I think your kindness and the level of craft and care you put into this celebration is inspired by the kindness and care of Lou and Elinore Siminovitch. From what I know and what I’ve been told, I believe this to be the case. If Lou and Elinore’s legacy is that artists feel valued in a way that is so seldom felt, especially these days… then it is in good hands with you. 

Forgive me, as I rarely write in the first person. It’s been a sort of theme for me, these last few months, having to think and speak as myself, and not through a character I’ve created. Preparing for the documentary we’ve all just seen was an anxiety nightmare, as I’ve always been awestruck and envious of those who could speak passionately and articulately about their own artistic practice. When I hear myself try to do those things, my brain tends to grind to a halt. When asked about their art, other people – it seems to me – can situate themselves in the world to a degree that I have difficulty doing myself. They know, and have the ability to express, what they think and feel in a way that escapes me, much of the time. 

This, of course, can’t be true. I must have deeply felt and entrenched opinions about many things, as I am a person in the world. How can one live otherwise? Such a person would have the emotional equivalent to stereoblindness: blissfully unaware of life’s complexities and dimensionality. That can’t be me. 

This is how I become at odds with myself. Faced with a reality I know can’t be true. Knowing that I must be more than I feel is possible, but seemingly – to myself – incapable of reconciling that. This is how I turn to writing.

By writing other people, I begin to develop an acute awareness of my own feelings, my own place. Not as the centre, but as an observer and as a caretaker of the centre, who is always the character. Being in service of the journey someone else takes, fighting on their behalf in the face of obstacles I also create… curating a world in which my character’s stakes are larger than my own… I create a metaphor I can understand for my own life. This is a roundabout way of living and I wouldn’t recommend it to the average person, save for one relatively crucial detail: the centre of that process (it’s generous to call it a process, it’s more of a pathology)… is, necessarily, empathy.

We are living in an age where objective reality has become a contest of opinion. Society’s entitlement has outreached their compassion. In place of communities, we have individuals and their followers, each person now a community unto themselves, yet part of no others. We value tribalism over community, judgement over understanding, and intransigence over reason. We have reached peak Fountainhead.

The act of writing – on the other hand – is, fundamentally, an exercise in care. Which I find interesting since theatre is, also fundamentally, about conflict. Which means, as writers, we exercise care to imagine conflict. To do this, we must exhibit an intrinsic understanding of each side of that conflict in our work. We must seek to understand that which we cannot fathom, or worse, that with which we materially disagree. Every villain is a hero to someone, and so in our work we write only heroes and let the audience decide. This is the only honest way to create: non-judgementally, with consideration, and with kindness.

I teach playwriting at the University of Toronto, and I tell my students that there will come a time in the process of creating a play where you must relinquish control to the play itself. When the play will start to tell you what it wants to be. If you continue trying to make it the thing you want it to be, there will only be ruin. If you have been honest with your world, with your characters, if you have understood them and honoured them… then they’ll go the rest of the way and you just follow. 

This is what writing has taught me: how to listen to something greater than myself. Not just as a way to create, but as a way to live in the world. 

And so here we are, diametrically opposed to society’s preoccupation of the self, in pursuit of greater truths. Those truths will not be found in outrage, or follows, or commerce… they will be found in each other. 

Or at least, this is what I believe.

All of that being said, I am only able to create the work I do and continue understanding the world the way I do because I was lucky enough to have mentors who championed me. Without their support, I would have given up long ago. Ron and Lloyd, Jean Yoon and Yvette Nolan. If not for them, this would have been over before it began. And my mother. God help me if I forget to say my mother.

Similar good fortune has also provided me with peers and colleagues I hold dear and collaborate with as often as I can. My co-conspirators at fu-GEN: Deb Lim and Marissa Orjalo, Ramsay, Joanna, Alex Punzalen, Bensimon, Camie, Amy Lee and Omari, McGeachy… though my most enduring, productive and annoying collaborator in this artistic life has been the blessing that is Nina Lee Aquino. We built our careers together from scratch, just two idiots who didn’t know anything about anything. Though I suspect she actually did know something all along and never told me. It’s not hyperbolic to say that I wouldn’t be here if not for her. Not that she wrote a support letter or anything, she couldn’t be bothered, she runs the NAC for God’s sake. She is an exceptional artist, a generous collaborator and a terrible driver. And no one has terrified and inspired me more than her. This prize, in spirit, really belongs to both of us. In spirit. Not money. Spirit.

Stephen King said that every time he sees a first book dedicated to a wife or a husband he thinks, There’s someone who knows. “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.” That in mind, I wish I could go back to my first book and dedicate it to Vienna Hehir. Because after a long life of not knowing, I am now someone who knows. She believes in me something fierce and I am grateful for every moment I have her by my side. The sun rises and sets with her. 

Thank you for this honour. I’ll wish I did it all differently tomorrow, but tonight this is perfect.

At last, there is nothing left to say.



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