Creators and Communicators

In 3 days from now, December 27th,  Blackbird Theatre, Vancouver's premiere classical theatre company, opens Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at The Cultch. Uncle Vanya is one of the four major plays by this Russian playwright who is also considered to be a master writer of the short story genre. As well as a writer, Chekhov was a practicing physician, who died of tuberculosis at the early age of 44 years.

Two months ago on a cruise around the Black Sea, we called in at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula of the Ukraine. I visited the White Dacha where Anton Chekhov wrote some of his best known work, including the classic short story "The Lady with the Dog" and two other of his major plays, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard

Matthew Coulson, Sarah Jane  Pelzer and Elliott Loran  relaxing between showsThe Vancouver run of Ride the Cyclone is coming to an end with a final performance at 8 PM tonight. Then it is off to Whitehorse  and then Toronto from November 10 to December 3 for this group of talented performers in this year's run-away hit. I heard that several of the Toronto performances have already sold out so I sent E-nudges to theatre buddies in Toronto to make sure they get their tickets early.

Bursting with curiosity to learn more than I read in the program and from the ridethecyclonemusical  website I met with three of the group in between shows to learn a bit more about them. Sarah Jane Pelzer who plays Jane Doe,  auditioned for the first workshop over three years ago and has been in the show ever since. Without white makeup and those dark scleral lenses, she is lovely, and totally alive! Elliott Loran who plays Ricky Potts, and the unforgettable Space Age Bachelor Man joined after the first workshop was held. He is as energetic and enthusiastic as Ricky is introverted, and delightful to interview.

Vancouver playwright: Chris. E. GatchalianThis article was supposed to be posted before the book launch of Crossing on Saturday 26th February. However on the 26th I was in a room at VGH, recovering from my spine surgery the previous day. So with apologies to Chris Gatchalian and the  production crew and cast that premiered Crossing in 2004,  I am posting it now.

I asked Gatchalian to respond briefly to some questions about his play writing history.  

RFTH: What  was your first play produced?

My first produced play was Motifs & Repetitions. I wrote it in 1995, when I was in my first year of the BFA Creative Writing program at UBC. It was produced at Brave New Playrites, which is UBC's annual festival of short one act-plays written by Creative Writing students.

Nathan, Randy and Amanda in the foyer of the theatreIn Vancouver, arts organizations and theatre companies are reeling under the impact of massive cuts to arts funding. From our recent visit to Kelowna for the Spring Wine Festival, Destination Travel: Kelowna in the Okanagan Wine Country , here is an inspiring story of "a little company that could" - The Kelowna Actors Studio is thriving and looking forward to an expanded season next year - and they do it through ticket sales.

Randy Leslie and Nathan Flavel are the brains, passion and talent behind Kelowna's independent theatre company, The Kelowna Actors Studio. Despite being a week away from the opening of "The Miracle Worker" when we called to see them,  they generously took time out of their frenetic schedules to show us around their theatre and describe their impressive plans for  8 productions during their 2010/2011 season.

Bard on the Beach presents the Shakespeare History Cycle

Christopher Gaze,Artistic Director of Bard on The  BeachBeginning with this summer's production of Richard II, opening Saturday, July 11 2009, Bard on the Beach will present the 8 plays of Shakespeare's history cycle that deal with the political intrigues and civil wars that occurred as the various descendants of Edward III fought to take and hold the crown of England. Over the next two seasons, we will be able to follow the story of the convoluted passage of the crown of England back and forth between the houses of York and Lancaster through seven different kings (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII). The Douglas Campbell Studio Theatre will be the setting for the 2010 production of Falstaff (a conflation of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2) and Henry V. In 2011, we will see The War of The Roses (a conflation of the three parts of Henry VI) and Richard III.

The story begins with Richard II who, at the age of ten, inherited the throne from his grandfather, Edward III, because  his father, Edward The Black Prince, had died a year earlier. His political instincts blunted by his youthful reign under the guidance of  various advisors, by the time he takes control for himself, he makes many misguided decisions. Richard II ends with Richard dead, and his cousin Bolingbroke as Henry IV of England.

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.

Inspiring a Passion for Theatre in the Next Generation:
 
In this first interview for How They See It, I talk with Professor Emeritus Errol Durbach, Department Head (Theatre and Film) from 1987 - 94, about his experience teaching theatre and drama at the University of British Columbia.
 
Several years ago when I returned to the University of British Columbia as a "mature" student to work towards a B.A. in English, Professor Errol Durbach taught some of my most memorable classes. While my content memories from some courses have faded into a jumble of illegible writing on overheads and chalk boards, I still recall clearly many of the ideas and the works we studied in his classes and those of several other inspiring teachers.  Errol, a renowned Ibsen scholar, generously agreed to allow me to take a directed studies course on Ibsen with him. The chance to spend an hour  one-on-one over a semester, each time dissecting one of eight Ibsen plays from The Doll’s House to The Master Builder was a privilege I truly appreciated.
 
It was great teaching that enticed me from the fascinating but focused world of my medical specialty to the broader world of ideas in the arts. As we wonder how to attract each new generation in to theatre houses, it is worthwhile to recognize that the kind of teaching and exposure to the arts that students receive at schools, colleges and universities will influence how much they value live performance and ultimately, how important a role theatre and other arts will play in their lives.
  

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