Emil Sher: Author of Mourning Dove and Hana's Suitcase and other works

The Creators: One-on-one with Emil Sher, author of Mourning Dove and Hana's Suitcase Emil Sher

Among the many excellent productions in Vancouver in 2008, Pacific Theatre’s staging of Emil Sher’s Mourning Dove touched my heart and mind most deeply. I loved the play and the restrained sensitivity with which the writer addressed the unfolding of a tragedy that no parent should ever have to experience. When I realized that Sher was also the author of Hana’s Suitcase, another very moving play that I had recently read, I was compelled to read more of his work. These experiences raised a whole lot of questions that I wanted to pose to the playwright. To my delight, Emil Sher generously agreed to be interviewed for “Creators and Communicators,” the section of  Theatre Seen that highlights the creative artists that “make theatre.”

One-on-one with Emil Sher

Emil, I note that your undergraduate degree from McGill was in English and that you taught English in Botswana before returning to do an MFA in Creative Writing at Concordia. Was it your experiences in Botswana that stimulated your desire to write or were you compelled to write from childhood?

Initially, I had contemplated becoming an actor, and focused on theatre as an undergraduate at McGill. But during my time there I became increasingly drawn to the written word, and wrote a fair bit for the McGill Daily, the school newspaper. And as much as I enjoyed journalism (I still find creative non-fiction very gratifying), there is something about the latitude of fiction that always appealed (and I use the word ‘fiction’ loosely to include work for stage and screen). I went to Botswana naively believing I would have time to write, though I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to write about (never a good start for a writer). I soon discovered that teaching is a craft like any other, and required substantial amount of time, energy and care if I was going to do it right. I knew the only way I would be able to write meaningfully was to immerse myself in an environment where I would have to write on a regular basis, and graduate school was the ideal opportunity to do just that. I focused on fiction (my thesis was a collection of short stories) and made a decision upon graduating that I would write in different genres, as the spirit moved me and as opportunities surfaced.

You have written plays for both radio and stage. Could you comment on how your approach differs between writing for radio - theatre of the mind - versus a play that is intended to be physically staged?

Every genre of writing comes with its own toolbox, and I’m still learning how to take advantage of the tools at my disposal. Indeed, I’ve come to see the writing life as a lifelong apprenticeship. What I love about radio is how the narrative is distilled to sound, or silence: a voice, a sound effect, or a moment when nothing is said, when nothing is heard, and yet it is a moment that speaks volumes. Radio has been called “theatre of the mind” for good reason, and it insists that the audience actively engage with the story. Engaging an audience or a reader is essential to how I write, regardless of the genre or the audience I am writing for (which is sometimes as young as pre-schoolers). It is this objective that dictates my approach to radio dramas and stage plays. With radio, I’m more conscious of how dialogue is the foundation upon which the story rests. There is nothing else to create the world of a radio play but for sound, human or otherwise. And so the challenge is to make sure each word and sound can be justified. The intimacy of the medium demands it. With a stage play, I feel the text is but one part of a larger narrative. The set, the lighting design, the very presence of an actor significantly alters our interpretation of the story being told. When I write a play I’m mindful of the varied elements that will ultimately shape it, and am inspired by the collective energies that fuel a stage work. And while it takes a team effort to create a radio play, the process feels more contained, compared to the open-ended development of a stage play, which is often defined – and enriched – by the detours that surface during roundtable, workshop discussions about the text, generating questions that challenge me to justify my creative choices, revisit them, or reject them.

Have you ever directed any of your own plays?

I’ve yet to direct one of my own plays, and feel more drawn to directing a film. I’m especially drawn to the editing process. I said as much to a talk I once gave to a group of theatre students, and one student remarked that editing is not unlike writing, in that it speaks to the importance of structure. It’s often said that writing is rewriting, and that’s not dissimilar to sitting in an editing suite, rearranging a narrative so that it’s a structurally sound as it can be.

As a working contemporary Canadian playwright do you always present a completed script or do you ever work with a director as a dramaturge to massage and shape the script on its feet?

When it comes to a new play, I offer directors a completed script insofar as it’s a draft we can build upon. Initially, the conversation is between myself and the director, who may or may not double as a dramaturge. In some instances, the three of us – playwright, director, dramaturge – have discussed a script in its formative stages. That process is further enriched through workshops, where the script is given a reading by actors who may have their own insights to offer. I see this process as very fluid: changes are made to the script that usually stem from questions posed by the director, an actor, or myself. Scenes are dropped, or rearranged or cut. It takes several drafts before I’m satisfied, and often there’s a substantial rewrite somewhere along the way. My guiding principle when developing a script with collective input can be distilled to a simple question: “Does it serve the story?” Not an actor’s ego or a director’s agenda, but the story.

Or from another perspective: When you hand over your work to a director do your scripts feel complete? Or do you find that as you watch them unfold, there are changes you want to make or other stories that grow out of what you see on stage?

Is a script ever complete, or completely finished? There comes a time when the creative process has run its course and it’s time to let go. There’s always the liability that a script can take too long to gestate, that it can be overwritten and overworkshopped. That said, I have made script changes from one production to the next for all my plays. There is always a word or a phrase that can be tweaked or parsed, and I find this aspect of playwriting very gratifying: the script isn’t static. It can become stronger with each successive staging, and thus become a different play each time.

The themes of your writing are eclectic, encompassing plays such as Hideous Hideous dealing with Tourette’s Syndrome, Hana’s Suitcase a Holocaust play, Mourning Dove about a Canadian family tragedy, Underwater Underseas which gets into the relationships of four women. Are some of these works, for example Hideous Hideous written in response to a specific commission or did the subject intrigue you for a particular reason?

The seeds of most of my stage works often stem from a single image or thought that lingers. For Sanctuary, an image of a woman choosing to self-immolate stuck like a burr. I didn’t know what had driven her to this state, and one of the joys of writing is the discovery that comes with the process: discovering a character, a situation, a moment that can only surface in the writing. I believe those story elements can only be revealed by wading through the mud of several false starts and wrong turns. You have to sift through a lot of silt before you find something that glitters. And even then, it might not have any value. But when it does, the writing itself is its own reward. Occasionally, I am approached and commissioned to write a play. I can remember clearly working as a story editor at CBC Radio’s Morningside when I was given the transcripts from the Latimer trial and asked to turn it into drama. Discussions with Joel Greenberg, artistic director of Studio 180, led to a commission to write a play about wrongful convictions -- suitably titled Conviction - weaving transcripts with original interviews.

I was interested in what inspired you as a male playwright to write Underwater Underseas, which read to me as a play about how women use the power of their imagination to cope with their lives. I am not asking from the point of questioning the “right” of a man to write as a woman or for a white man to play Othello - I think that discussion can get a bit ridiculous but more what prompted you to get into the minds of these women.

I’ve long been drawn to notions of marginalization, and know that inequalities between women and men prevail. The debate as to who has the right to write – Can a man write from the perspective of a woman? Can an African-American assume the voice of a white protagonist? -- is a debate that should be short-lived, as it renders art powerless. I am more interested in discussions about the Other: can empathy only go so far before we hit a wall? Or can theatre, must theatre -- and art in general -- make that wall porous, so that we can begin to appreciate and understand experiences foreign to our own that are somehow made familiar?

You mentioned the transformative power of art. As a writer do you believe in the didactic value of theatre or do you write primarily for entertainment?

Ultimately, I believe theatre has to engage. Which isn’t to suggest you can only create likable characters. Rather, you have succeeded in creating a world that provokes an audience. If a play angers an audience, that is still a form of engagement. What I would dread most is not criticism, but indifference.

An article published in a Canadian medical journal used Mourning Dove as an example of how theatre can in fact teach professionals a different way of looking at and understanding the needs of patients and their families. [Loving your child to death: Considerations of the care of chronically ill children and euthanasia in Emil Sher's Mourning Dove - by Karim Mukhida]   What was your reaction to this article and how did you feel about having your writing discussed in this way?

I was pleased to learn that Dr. Karim Mukhida felt compelled to write about Mourning Dove after he had seen the production at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. It’s very gratifying to have one’s work discussed beyond the usual forums. That speaks to the ways the arts can reveal truths in ways that no amount of statistics ever can. And so here you have a medical article in a medical journal, aimed at physicians, in which a play is offered as a tool for medical professionals to use to better understand what families of the terminally ill might be experiencing. I was delighted to see Mourning Dove used this way. It invites more people into the discussion.

I was intrigued by a statement regarding your play Sanctuary, when you were interviewed by Professor Glaap, in which you comment that a colleague found Holocaust imagery in the play though you had not consciously set out to explore those themes. That brings me to something that has always perplexed me in formal study of literature and drama; the notion of “The Death of the Author.” It became an important issue for me during an essay I wrote on Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman where I found myself making assertions about the author’s intent. I remember thinking at the time that my interpretation may never have been intended, or even considered, by the author, and wishing I could engage in a conversation with him to find out. As a writer, how do you react when others read intent into your work that you had not envisaged?

All I can control is the story I shape. Once I’ve written a play and it’s ready for production or publication, it is out of my hands. I can’t control how it will be interpreted. I’m aware that audiences will impose meanings I had never intended. Likewise, they may see meaning or layers I was not aware of that add depth to the story. But it’s still not for me to dictate what conclusions should be drawn. Certainly, there’s authorial intent behind all my work but I leave it to others to respond and react to a work as they see fit.

And as related questions: How does it feel to see your ideas reinterpreted in term of the perspective of a director? And is there anything a director could do that would make you withdraw the rights to production?

One of the pleasures of playwriting is seeing a director interpret one’s work, to see her or him have a vision of your story and muster the creative forces to see it through. There’s always the risk the work will be interpreted or staged in ways that fall short of one’s expectations, but that’s the nature of the beast. So there’s an element of trust between a playwright and director. All you can insist on is that the professional standards apply (and different expectations apply to amateur productions). No doubt most directors would make some creative choices I wouldn’t agree with. At the same time, they may make a choice that is utterly inspiring, adding meaning to the work in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and enrich the experience. So there’s a letting go, to be sure, but you try to ensure a sense of integrity is applied to your work by approaching or attracting those whose professionalism and passion will serve the story.

One often hears that it is hard to get new Canadian plays staged. How do you view the state of play writing in Canada today?

It’s always challenging to get new works staged, but a similar challenge is faced by those creating ballet, or opera or a new jazz composition. The will is there on the part of the artist but that will overshadows opportunities. Overall, I think Canadian theatre is in a fairly healthy state, despite some very pressing challenges owing to the current economic climate and cutbacks. Yet somehow we persevere, despite the odds and the challenges. It’s always difficult to find a home for new works on stage but new work is being created and showcased (I’m thinking of the Magnetic North festival) and several companies foster and develop new works by local or regional writers.

Young people are willing to spend lavishly to attend big name rock concerts, yet they balk at ticket prices of 30 to 40 dollars to see a play. What do you think it takes to get succeeding generations involved in theatre and what do you think is the future of theatre in Canada?

Get ‘em while they’re young, and make it meaningful. Introduce schoolchildren to the arts, in schools, in communities, in the home. The challenge has never been greater, as screens of all sizes (home theatres to hand-sized iPods) dominate and determine how we consume culture. Our collective need for stories will never abate, but we risk losing out if we limit storytelling to convenient technology. There’s an immediacy to theatre that no screen could ever replicate. But that theatre has to be made meaningful or it risks being marginalized. And while art created on the margins is essential, it also has to have a place front-and-centre in our collective consciousness.

Do you have any upcoming plays in production that readers of Review From The House should watch out for?

Stage plays take a while to gestate, but I hope Conviction, a work of ‘verbatim theatre’ about wrongful convictions will be produced by 2011. Meanwhile, three plays will see productions in 2009-2010: a remount of Hana’s Suitcase at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre in Toronto, where the play first premiered in 2006; a Canadian tour of Beneath the Banyan Tree, beginning with a Theatre Direct remount in Toronto and a production in Calgary, followed by a tour by Manitoba Theatre for Young People; and a production of Mourning Dove in San Pedro, Texas.

For further information about Emil Sher and his work, here is his web site at emilsher.com

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