If the COVID era has shown us anything, it’s that the future of theatre continues to be written. When the pandemic forced the shuttering of performance venues, stages around the world suddenly realized they would have to adapt to survive. Enter the age of mainstage livestreams, Zoom theatre and digital hybrids as fresh as the people thinking them up—people like Justin Frances Lee, who just graduated in spring 2021 with a BFA in Theatre and a concentration in directing.
A director, playwright and actor with a self-described mission is to “make theatre as accessible as film,” Lee sees a future for himself well beyond the footlights. By the time of his graduation, he had already appeared in a number of plays both on- and off-campus, had produced his own one-act show, and worked as the camera operator and second assistant director for a student film; and when COVID hit, he pivoted to working with established playwright and producer Janet Munsil (BFA ’89, MFA ’19) on her own pandemic project, The Canadian Play Thing—a virtual 100-seat live theatre launched in March 2020, where audiences gather to hear actors read new and under-produced Canadian plays online.
“There are opportunities out there—you just need to find them,” says Lee, who also developed the Playwright2Playwright series, supported by the Playwrights Guild of Canada, where emerging and established playwrights have an opportunity to read from their work and interview each other. “You can’t have a romanticized, unrealistic approach: you have to be willing to collaborate with directors, with actors and really push yourself.”
As an actor, Lee had memorable roles in both Phoenix Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone and Langham Court Theatre’s I and You, and worked as crew on the Writing department’s short film, Dream Book.
When he heard that Munsil had launched The Canadian Play Thing, Lee jumped onboard first as a volunteer and then transformed his job into a paid position via UVic’s Fine Arts Co-op Program and Intrepid Theatre. “Justin has a very discerning, artistic and creative eye,” says Munsil. “He’s also developing a really strong producer toolkit—including promotion, production, artist relations, schedule management . . . all good skills to have.”
Entering the Apartment of Writing
Once everything was rolling smoothly, Lee took things a step further by establishing his own theatre company within the Play Thing: dubbed The Apartment of Writing, Lee brought together three other student playwrights—Megan Adachi, Brianna Bock and Megan Hands—to write and produce the spelunking drama A Way Out, a narrative audio podcast directed by recent Theatre grad Kirsten Sharun.
“We were working in a TV ‘writers room’ format—where a bunch of writers all pitch ideas and story leads—so the title became a bit of a joke, because we met in the Department of Writing, but we were all working from our own apartments because of COVID,” he explains. With a strong emphasis on solid storytelling and sound effects, A Way Out is part of the new wave of narrative podcasts gaining popularity during the pandemic.
“When it comes to working in film and theatre, it’s essential to pick the right medium for the story we’re trying to tell. A Way Out wouldn’t make sense as a stage play, but it worked perfectly as an audio drama,” says Lee.
Munsil says The Apartment of Writing was “a ton of work” and all a result of Lee’s own initiative. “He brought the project to me, and it became a major part of The Canadian Play Thing; it was a huge learning experience for him, but they turned out a really great artistic product. He can now take that company and go forward to try out new experiments in theatre media.”
Exploring cultural hybrids
But Lee’s interest in cultural hybrids extends beyond theatrical mediums. “One of the reasons I became a playwright is because I wanted to see more representation in theatre, as a lot of people of colour do right now,” he says. As a result, in 2019 he wrote and directed the one-act play Ngaii Duk for SATCo, Phoenix Theatre’s fabled Student Alternative Theatre Company. And his latest play, The Open Gate—a sequel of sorts to Ngaii Duk—is appearing at Theatre SKAM’s SKAMpede Festival July 16-18 in downtown Victoria.
“In Cantonese, ngaii duk translates to ‘the ability to handle hardship’ and the play looked at hybrid cultural identity between Canadians and the Chinese diaspora,” he explains. “As a person of Chinese origin growing up in a very westernized school system and society, I am someone who has two different cultures mixed in and I’m interested in how those different cultural identities mesh together.”
As Lee will likely find out, ngaii duk may also be the ideal motto when it comes to carving out a place for himself in the Canadian theatre industry.