Two Filipinos team up in theatre production

Richmond, B.C.

Ma-Anne Dionisio & Jovanni Sy team up in Closer Than Ever
By Ted Alcuitas

A versatile director who performs and writes and an accomplished singer/actress are brought together Gateway Theatre’s production Closer Than Ever, now playing in Richmond until Feb. 20.

Artistic director and Manila-born Jovanni Sy moved to Canada as a baby and worked professionally in Toronto for 20 years an actor, playwright, director, and dramaturg.

Ma-Anne Dionisio arrived in Canada as a teenager and parlayed her singing voice in a few short years, playing the iconic Kim in Miss Saigon catapulting her to artistic heights never achieved by a Filipina in Canada.

Sy had a stint in Toronto’s Filipino community’s Carlos Bulosan Theatre as Assistant Director of Miss Orient(ed), nominated for two Dora Mavor Moore Awards.

Jovanni assumed the position of Artistic Director of Gateway Theatre in May 2012 and set to tackle the biggest problem facing Canada’s theatre establishment -the shrinking (white) audiences in a growing (multicoloured) Canada.

The Gateway, an enterprise with a $2.4-million budget had been transformed from suburban roadhouse to regional theatre producing a six-show season.

Sy found that Gateway’s audience did not look like the population that surrounded it, where the population is 60 per cent immigrants, and about half of the community’s total population is of Chinese descent. The people coming to the Gateway, however, are mostly white; Sy estimates that no more than 10 per cent of the audience are Chinese.

Program in another language

“I think we’re the first professional Canadian theatre to want to program in another language than English and French,” says Sy, who introduced the first Chinese-language Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival.

As Sy – whose family from the Philippines is ethnically Chinese – points out, there is great diversity even within those who identify as Chinese in Richmond. They range from first to fourth-generation, and have histories in Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and other Chinese-speaking countries.

With festival producer Esther Ho, he implemented the Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival bringing three productions from Hong Kong and present them with English surtitles: The Isle, by leading Hong Kong playwright Paul Poon; Fire of Desire, a contemporary Chinese-language adaptation of La Ronde; and Detention, a “non-verbal physical comedy” by Tang Shu-wing.

Sy has big future plans for his company, which is already the second-biggest regional theatre in the Lower Mainland. But for now, the Chinese-language series is his most innovative idea – one that he hopes will lead to producing new Canadian productions in Cantonese and Mandarin within a few years, rather than just importing them. After that, the idea is to export Canadian Chinese-language productions back across the ocean.

“We see our role down the road of being that gateway between Chinese-speaking countries and English-speaking Canada.”

Extensive experience

For six seasons, he was the Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre Projects in Toronto. Under his tenure, Cahoots produced new works by Anosh Irani, Ahmed Ghazali, Marjorie Chan, Guillermo Verdecchia, Marcus Youssef, and Camyar Chai.

Jovanni has performed with theatre companies across Canada including Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland (St. John’s), The Grand Theatre (London), The Citadel (Edmonton), The Banff Centre, Theatre Junction (Calgary), Globe Theatre (Regina), Nakai Theatre (Whitehorse), and Soulpepper, Canadian Stage, Theatre Passe Muraille, and Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.


In 2010, Jovanni was the Playwright-in-Residence at the Shaw Festival where he worked on The Birth of the American Empire (as told by those who received the Blessings of Liberty), an epic drama set during the Spanish-American War. In July 2010, Jovanni wrote and performed his one-man play A Taste of Empire which was nominated for two Dora Mavor Moore Awards including Outstanding New Play.

Other writing credits include The Five Vengeances, a comic kung-fu adapation of The Revenger’s Tragedy and the libretti to the chamber operas, Haiku Moments and The Cellar Door. Other credits include Song of Songs (Bravo! Television) and Peking Duck, (CBC Radio Drama). He was a member of Factory Theatre’s Playwrights’ Lab from 2001 to 2004 and the Playwright-in-Residence at Tapestry New Opera Works in 2005.

Jovanni’s directing credits include Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, David Harrower’sBlackbird (Theatre du Pif in Hong Kong) and The Five Vengeances (co-directed with Guillermo Verdecchia for Humber College Theatre). In August 2011, he directed Clifford Cardinal’s award-winning play Stitch for SummerWorks.

Jovanni lives in Richmond with his wife, playwright and actor Leanna Brodie.

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