Of all the theatre-going experiences I’ve had, few come close to the epic grandeur I was treated to at last year’s PuSh festival when I finally had a chance to witness November Theatre‘s acclaimed version of The Black Rider. If you’ve seen it you know that I do not exaggerate, and if you haven’t, well, if you get the chance, take it from me, you’ll be glad you did. All I’m waiting for now is the cast recording of the Tom Waits soundtrack. Michael, any odds on that happening anytime soon?
The Black Rider is a masterpiece of Avant-Garde theatre rooted in German Expressionism and Folk Storytelling, and was a co-creation of Tom Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. How could it not be sublime? November Theatre, with Mr. Scholar as Artistic Producer and in the lead role of Peg Leg, became the first company sanctioned by the show’s creators to mount it after its original run in Germany. They gave it its World English Premiere at the Edmonton Fringe in 1998, and have been touring it to continued success ever since.
In addition to his work with November Theatre, Mr. Scholar is a mainstay of Vancouver stages as an actor and director, he was onstage recently in neworld/Touchstone’s Tideline, and in the director’s chair for I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at the Gateway Theatre via the Arts Club.
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. In your choice of word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
Discovering itself. Waking up. Stretching in new directions. Growing.
3. How do we compare to other Canadian cities as a supportive theatre town?
Not very well yet, but we are getting there. Cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto have audiences that go see a wide range of things from broadway musicals, to experimental works, to dance and we in Vancouver are still trying to get the general public to include the performing arts in their daily lives. We in the theatre community are still fighting the elements like the beaches, the mountains, the green outdoors for our audiences. While in more insular colder cities across Canada, people are hungrier for indoor cultural events. But it’s the cooler, younger, hip companies like the Electric Company, neworldtheatre, Rumble and yes, our company – November Theatre – that are connecting with the next generation of theatre-goers and making theatre a cool place to go. A place as relevant as the rock venues, the clubs, the arts galleries and the cinemas that are constantly full in our beautiful city.
At the city council level we don’t really have the support for the arts that we need either. Vancouver has a very corporate mentality under the Sullivan regime these days with cultural funding being cut and/or wasted. The city is currently spending $750,000 on consulting with a Toronto firm about spaces around Vancouver instead of using that money to actually buy, preserve and use theatres like the York Theatre (raja theatre) on Commercial Drive.
4. How are Canadian audiences responding to avant-garde theatre?
Canadian audiences are hungry for the avant garde. Vancouver audiences are hungry for it too, but this coastal city is still cutting its teeth on the avant garde diet. The more Vancouverites are exposed to it, the more challenging works they will expect and demand.
5. What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before your work with November Theatre?
That you have to work 9 administrative hours for every 1 artist hour.
6. Do you have any hard and fast rules for working within an ensemble?
I’m a big fan of communal communication. Check-ins and check-outs with the group at the beginning and the end of every work session.
7. What’s your best piece of advice for new actors?
Act as much as possible at first. Work with as many different artists as possible. Sponge up their processes and try to create one for yourself. Learn your instrument. Practice, practice, practice. And if you can’t get the experience in other people’s theatres, make your own projects happen. Don’t just make projects to get noticed. Pick projects that excite, challenge and scare you.
8. How has your experience with avant-garde theatre informed your work as a director in more traditional plays?
Every piece of text can be interpreted and seen in a different light. Every time you approach a piece of theatre you should be bringing something new, fresh and relevant to it.
9. Given a time machine, what would you tell a young Michael Scholar Jr. just setting out on his career?
To learn more skills, like playing piano or dancing or visual arts. The more skills you have the less limits your art has.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (my favourite play).
Robert Wilson. The world’s greatest director, maybe even artist, is so under-appreciated in North America. This fabulous retrospective hard cover “coffee table book” written about Wilson and featuring great productions photos is quite big, heavy, expensive and a must have. Simply titled “Robert Wilson”, it’s written by Franco Quadri, Franco Bertoni and Robert Stearns.
Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esselin – the book that coined the phrase and found order amongst the chaos.
11. What’s next?
I’m in development for a stage adaptation of Hard Core Logo. It’s still cooking in the oven so i can’t talk too loud about it right now, but soon you’ll be hearing more about it.
Collaborating with Caravan Farm Theatre on their 30th anniversary Everyman Project with the Electric Company; Theatre Replacement, neworldtheatre, Theatre Melee and Pound of Flesh Theatre for next summer.