Vern Thiessen

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

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Joe Szekeres

There are times looking back on my 33-year teaching career when I wish I had known the names of more Canadian playwrights and the crucially important stories they had shared with audiences.

Vern Thiessen is one writer whom I place here. A local semi-professional theatre company had produced Vern’s play ‘Vimy’ of “a seminal nation-building moment in WWI in terms of the lives of four men from different parts of Canada, and their interaction with the nurse who cares for them.” (www.canadiantheatre.com), and when I had seen this extraordinary production, I wanted to know more about Vern and his work.

He is one of Canada’s most produced playwrights. His work has been seen across Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia. His works include Of Human Bondage, Vimy, Einstein’s Gift, Lenin’s Embalmers, Apple, and Shakespeare’s Will. He has been produced off-Broadway five times.

Vern is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Dora and Sterling awards for Outstanding New Play, The Carol Bolt Award, the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award, the City of Edmonton Arts Achievement Award, the University of Alberta Alumni Award of Excellence, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, Canada’s highest honour for a playwright.

After seven years living in New York, Vern returned home to Canada to teach and write. He currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

We conducted our conversation via Zoom and shared a few laughs as I got to know Vern briefly during this time. Thank you so much for the interview, Vern, and for adding your voice to the conversation:

The doors to Toronto live theatre have been shut for over a year now with no possible date of re-opening soon. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?

We’re very lucky, I’ve had very good health over this year as has my family. We’ve had a couple of extended family members who have contracted Covid very early because they were coming back from travels afar, but they’re all fine with no long-term issues there. Thank you for asking.

How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

Well, I’m really lucky, Joe, because so many of my compatriots have lost their livelihoods particularly actors, I think were hit the hardest in the theatre. Not only because the theatres are closed but their secondary businesses like bar tending and those in the service industry were closed down. I consider myself very lucky.

I have been writing. I’m also lucky because I don’t have young children and I’m not taking care of older parents. Many of my theatre friends are squeezed between these two things – they have young kids and elderly parents for whom they’re caring. I don’t know how they’ve been surviving, and certainly not creating any art.

I’m in this lucky group that’s not being squeezed in those ways.

On top of that, I’ve had some outstanding commissions that I could finish. I’m teaching and doing work that I’ve already done. Playwrights can write on their own and squirrel things away for future, so I’m sure after Covid lifts and everyone gets back in the theatre you’re going to see this tsunami of plays because people like me have three plays we’ve been working on.

To be specific, I’ve been working on an adaptation of ‘The Diviners’ by Margaret Laurence for The Manitoba Theatre Centre which I’ve been commissioned to do. We’ve done some workshops via Zoom at MTC. I’m also just finishing a brand-new play I’ve been working on called ‘Bluebirds’ for Theatre New Brunswick which we’ve developed over the summer again through Zoom. ‘Bluebirds’ is the story of three World War 1 Canadian nurses in France.

I’m working on something new that’s different for me, a family thriller, and a couple of other things in the mix. I’ve actually been quite busy writing this year and very thankful for that.

Outside of the writing and teaching, my wife and I, right as the pandemic started, we happened to be moving into a new house that we were renting which was awesome because it has a huge garden plot. I hadn’t gardened in twenty years, and I come from a gardening family. I thought, “I’m gonna put in a garden” and that was a lot of fun.

I’ve done a lot more cooking because my wife is busier than I was during the fall and spring so I had time to tend the garden and make some meals and become a better cook, not chef, because that would be pushing it. I’ve taken the opportunity to get to a number of things I haven’t done in a long time like play my guitar and take tap dancing lessons to get out of my comfort zone. I tap dance only for fun and nobody will ever see me tap dance except my teacher.

I’ve also done quite a bit of dramaturgy and teaching online, and Covid has allowed us to connect as theatre artists across the country in different ways we didn’t do before.

Just trying to use the time the best way I can – doing some family history research, things like that.

The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you, or would you describe this near year long plus absence from the theatre as something else?

No, I certainly wouldn’t call it an escape. Theatre can be an escape from your life, but I don’t think Covid has been an escape from it or from anything.

If anything, Covid has been a reckoning. I’ve been lucky because theatre for me has been an escape from Covid, right, I’ve been allowed to work and do my writing while this horrible thing has been happening.

Certainly, Covid itself, I wouldn’t call it an escape at all. Call it a challenge. The only thing that it has allowed me and other theatre artists to really do is to really re-think how we create. Mainly I’m talking about the professional business in Canada, the United States and Europe to some extent. Double that with Black Lives Matter and the re-thinking of how we create with our BIPOC brothers and sisters has really and completely been a revolution in Canadian theatre in the last year which I think is fantastic.

I wouldn’t call it an escape, but I would call it a reckoning. In one way it has been awful because we’ve lost our abilities to make our living but, on the other hand, it has provided this opportunity for us to really re-examine and change the way we make theatre in this country for the better.

I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?

I don’t know. I think that really, really depends on what happens with the pandemic and how it’s managed.

If I was in Australia, well, the theatres are full here because the country handled the pandemic very differently. Obviously if I’m in Texas and they’ve 40,000 people watching a baseball game, The Toronto Blue Jays no less, well I can see the theatres being full down here (Vern rolled his eyes at this point so I could tell what he was feeling and didn’t have to ask him anymore) no matter what the cost to humanity.

So I guess it really depends on where you are. I can see in small towns or some smaller cities that have professional theatres – Barrie, North Bay, Thunder Bay – might actually have full houses very soon. It’s going to be a bit more challenging for the commercial theatres in the bigger city centres.

Even then, Nathan Lane just did something on Broadway with 25% capacity.

I feel it will roll along, go back a little bit and then roll along some more and go back a bit and forward. The agreement I would say that around the world, full time, people in theatres at 100%, yes, it will probably be 2022 at the earliest, I hope, I hope it’s not later than that.

I fully expect to have a production. In fact, I’ve booked productions in the US for next fall. I’m not sure how much capacity they will be at, but the fact paying me a royalty for doing my play gives me sufficient reason to believe they will have an audience.

I feel like we’re slowly going to come out of the cave.

I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?

It's transformed me personally on many levels that we’ve already talked about in terms of my family and how I look at my family and friends, and how I communicate with people.

I think it’s transformed on the business side my collegiality with people across the nation. Before Covid, it was pretty unlikely you were going to do a workshop over Zoom with a bunch of artists across the country. We did a reading of ‘The Diviners’ at Manitoba Theatre Centre which was an entirely Indigenous cast, and they came from everywhere from Alberta all the way to Quebec. That is something we would have never considered before the pandemic.

Covid has changed me and my practice in a way because it’s broadened my field of vision across the country in a way that we were forced to do because of Covid. So that’s been very, very positive.

It’s really changed me. It’s less about Covid than it is about what has happened with Black Lives Matter and our attempt to de-colonize Canadian theatre. That has had a huge impact on me, and again I make reference to ‘The Diviners’ because it was a really good chance for me to engage with the Metis community and the Indigenous theatre workers in Winnipeg, in Manitoba and, as a white settler dude, not only white but old, white, straight and male, it’s changed me because I’ve really had to re- think what my position is in the theatre community and world.

In terms of what I’m creating (regarding transformation), that’s interesting. It’s hard for me to say as I think I’m too close to it. Am I writing stuff that has been really influenced by Covid? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I might look back on it five years and go, “Oh yeah, that was my Covid play” because those characters in the play are all in the same room OR they can’t connect. In ‘Bluebirds’ those nurses are three front line workers, so has that influenced me? I don’t know if I’m conscious of that.

It’s too soon to tell.

Certainly, in ‘Bluebirds’ there’s been a shift in the writing of the play which will premiere next fall, I hope. There’s a focus on these women doing extraordinary work in very dangerous conditions with a flu pandemic coming in at the end of the first World War as well. That may have been by Covid, but I’m not sure how conscious I was of that in writing it.

The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?

For sure, there has to be a certain kind of theatrical danger. We’re not talking about real danger. I don’t want to see actors in a place where they feel like they will physically hurt themselves, or, as an audience member, I don’t want to be in a position where I feel like I might be in a place where I might physically hurt myself.

Certainly, to be in a dangerous emotional place for actors and audience, I think, is critical to the theatre. It’s not only something that should happen, and that is what transforms us because we have to come out on the other side of that.

I believe that theatre should be dangerous that way. We should be excited to be there, not bored to be there or feel like it’s an obligation. We should walk out of it feeling that we have been transformed in some way, I don’t mean in any religious sense, but something should have shifted inside of us whether in my brain, my heart, my soul (if that thing actually exists within us).

Yes, I agree with her. Have I ever experienced that? Absolutely. Endangering and fear are two close things that are related and certainly, as a playwright, I don’t know of any playwright who doesn’t feel an enormous amount of fear when they open up their file and start to write. It’s engaging that fear and danger that is both exhilarating and makes the time go by and fly by as you’re writing.

It’s also transformational as well, right, that you’re actually putting something down on the page that has never been there before. Hopefully, down the line some actors will read it and an audience will be transformed by it in the same way you were transformed as you wrote it. So, yes, I have been in that situation.

I feel danger certainly. Nobody has coughed on me, and I don’t feel the danger that I might feel as if I were in Rio de Janeiro or in that ballpark in Texas. But I certainly felt that the theatre itself was in danger, and how are we going to survive this? We’re lucky to have some great extraordinary leaders, and frankly the federal government has stepped up to the plate to give us some money early on. That was critical to ensure that some artists could survive.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?

I think that hits it, doesn’t it? Sometimes, I feel as if we are overly sensitive. I feel as if we are all a bit fragile right now, and that it is very difficult to take criticism or difficult to understand how things are changing so quickly.

The way we are making art changes so quickly, and our institutions this year are changing so quickly that there is a deep sensitivity to making sure we are doing it right, and that we’re creating art in a responsible way that we never did before.

It’s tricky because sometimes it can lead to a fragility that is not necessarily healthy.

Sensitivity can mean a lot of different things.

Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?

I’ve become much more curious and sensitive about how other people are making art and writing plays. I belong to this Tuesday evening group of theatre people from around the country. We meet every week on Tuesday evening to read a play. We’ve been doing this now, next week will be a year. We missed a couple of times around the holidays.

I think our group has read 48 plays. I do read plays and I don’t think I would have read the breadth and depth of that cannon of work had it not been for that group. So, it has made me more sensitive to what is going on. I’ve actually had time to read plays that are going on around the world that I wouldn’t have had a chance to do because I’ve had the time and the desire to do it.

This time has also made me curious about other things in my life, as curiosity is always a key tool for the artist anyway. To come full circle to the first question you’ve asked me, I’ve always been curious about tap dancing. I’m also interested in taking some cello lessons.

I’ve connected with a musician friend, a professional well known cello player, and we’ve decided to create something together.

I think curiosity is broadening how we create theatre and who we create it with, and who we create it for. My actor friend, who is well known, lost the whole season this year. I won’t mention his name and lives down the street from me. On Easter morning, he got dressed up in this gigantic bunny suit that he rented from ‘The Theatre Garage’ (which must be hurting these days).

My friend just walked around the neighbourhood and that was his piece of art for the day. We have a fair amount of children in the area, and the kids loved it. This was his chance to get out and perform, but also engage with his community. I’m not saying this is a piece of theatre, but maybe it is? That was his way of creating a bit of theatre…and that he went to direct a bit of traffic on the main street still wearing the costume.

That kind of curiosity exists within me too – maybe I should write something different this time. I think that, if anything, this Covid time has made us more curious about different things, and that’s a good thing because we can get stuck in our ways.

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