Meet Peter Boychuk: Man of Many Hats. A young published playwright with a number of regional awards under his belt already, a Studio 58-trained actor who has performed on stages across Canada, and by turns director and dramaturg of mainly new works. And for his day job: arts administrator. Peter is the Director of Communications for the Alliance for Arts and Culture.
Our thanks to Peter for trying on our interviewee hat for eleven questions.
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. Removing restrictions on word count, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
I trained in Vancouver, left for seven years, then moved back simply because I wanted to, so my perspective is not unlike that of someone who has just got back together with their ex. Lots of “this is different” mixed with “whatever happened to” but all topped with “why did I ever leave?” What’s fantastic is how well small companies like the Electric Company and neworld and Solo Collective have prospered. When I left, they were indie companies just starting out. Now they are the darlings of the Vancouver cultural scene, and have been instrumental in creating leading edge initiatives like See Seven and Hive.
3. Why is theatre important?
I find it interesting how often I ask myself this, or how often the theatre community asks this of itself. Why are we so preoccupied with whether what we do matters? I think it’s largely because – let’s face it – theatre is not a money-making enterprise, so in order to justify our existence to funders and audiences we tie ourselves in knots trying to justify our work. Theatre is important to me because many of the best moments of my life have been spent either making or viewing theatre. Full stop. I don’t think theatre is going to change the world and I don’t think watching a play makes me smarter and I don’t think people who go to theatre are better than other people. I just like it. And I think it’s important because it has had such a profound impact on my life and personal happiness.
4. What is it about playwrighting as a discipline that compels you?
The amazing opportunity to tell the kind of stories I want to tell the way I want to tell them, the thrill of seeing them made manifest by talented people, and the rush of sitting with an audience and watching them respond immediately to what we’ve created.
5. How important is a historical grounding in theatre to creating it?
It’s imperative, I think. It’s like the old adage: you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. However, that being said, I think the only real way to learn about theatre by doing it, be it at a community, professional or student level.
6. Stage directions: friend or foe?
My relationship with stage directions has evolved a great deal since I started writing. Unlike most writers, stage directions in my first plays were extremely scant (George enters. George kills Doug. Exit George.). My background was as an actor, so it didn’t seem to make sense to put a lot of energy into writing lyrical stage directions because no one was going to follow them anyway. When I was going to Studio 58, a common practice was to take a black marker and ink out everything that wasn’t a spoken line. It wasn’t until I started directing that I could see the benefits in stage directions again. I realized that, even if you don’t follow them, they can tell you a lot about the playwright’s intentions, and that knowledge is crucial to directing a piece well. So these days I like to have more fun with stage directions. I try to compose them in a way that fits with the tone of the scene. If the scene is funny, I try and make them funny. If the scene is bleak, they tend to be quite sparse.
7. What kinds of theatre would you like to see more of on our stages?
New plays. Which is the answer you would expect from a playwright, but there you go. I think it’s extremely unfortunate that we concentrate so much of our time, resources, and energy in this country on reinterpreting the classics. What are the two largest national theatre institutions? Stratford and Shaw. How do most of the regional theatres program their seasons? The latest Pulitzer prize-winning play followed by a big splashy (usually American) musical followed by one of the canon followed by a Special Holiday Presentation of Christmas Carol and/or Peter Pan, followed by… To their credit, the regionals usually throw something homegrown into the mix, often with the proviso that it be a two-hander or something with low production values because new plays usually don’t perform very well financially. But given that Joe Playwright’s new work is sandwiched between Romeo & Juliet and Miss Julie – plays so timeless that we study them in school, is it any wonder that it doesn’t perform well? Who can compete with that? (“Don’t worry Joe, so long as your play outperforms Hamlet, we’ll produce your next piece…”).
Now don’t get me wrong, I worship Shakespeare and Shaw, Scrooge is an important part of my Christmas, and the scripts for Proof, Doubt, and Frost/Nixon all knocked my socks off. But the sad fact is that theatre in this country simply does not exist without subsidy (Stratford receives almost a million dollars a year from the Canada Council alone), so why are we spending all of our money producing the work of writers from other countries, many of whom have been dead for hundreds of years? Taxpayers would think it was ludicrous if we started subsidizing The Gap. So why do we do it with theatre? The most common complaint about new work I’ve heard is that it doesn’t tend to be very good. And as someone who has seen a lot of new work, I think there’s some truth to that. But the only way that new work will get better is if we throw some resources at it. You don’t strike gold without mining hundreds of tons of rock. The theatre company I was just with programmed an entire season of new work, and you know what? Most of the shows had better than average box office returns. We have to develop a culture of new work in theatre. The film industry doesn’t have to convince their audiences to take a chance on an original script, so why do we? End of rant.
8. What do we as theatre artists need to be doing to convince a broader audience to dig on theatre?
Boy, if I knew that, I’d be a rich man, wouldn’t I? I think we need to stop thinking of theatre as something that is good for you. Theatre is entertainment, plain and simple. It needs to be created, produced and packaged as entertainment. And that doesn’t mean it has to be crap. Just look at Shakespeare’s plays. They were crowd-pleasers but they were brilliant. We also need to be playing to our strengths. Instead of whining about the fact that all people do is stay at home and watch CSI on their plasma TV, we need to think of what we have that sets us apart from that experience, and then market that.
9. Do you aspire to any particular theatre-creation model?
Write a good script. Find a fantastic director. Hire the best creative team you can find. Use everyone’s talents to beat the play into the most effective evening of theatre it can be. Repeat.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
Because I think the best way to learn about playwriting is by reading great plays, I’m going to list plays. And because I think Canadian playwrights deserve more attention, I’m going to list three of my favourite Canadian plays.
Age of Arousal by Linda Griffith
Suburban Motel by George F. Walker (this is kind of cheating, because it’s actually six plays)
The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey
11. What’s next?
I’m starting up a company devoted to new play development. We will be debuting a pair of exciting new one-act plays on October 8-11, 2008 at the Havana Theatre. Details to come.
Blacking out stage directions is the goddamn dumbest thing ever. It is like blacking out all the Down clues in a crossword puzzle — you may successfully finish the crossword, but it’s going to take a helluva lot longer, and the likelihood you’ll get it right is much less.
I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that more resources need to be devoted to new plays, if, by resources, you mean not only money but productions. Playwrights need to see their work in front of an audience, and they need to write play after play to that end.
As is almost always the case, the idea that theatre is entertainment is complicated by the gesture toward Shakespeare as the model. I agree, but with the caveat that Shakespeare wasn’t ONLY trying to write entertaining plays. He had other things in mind, points to be made. If he had only written plays like “Titus Andronicus” and “Comedy of Errors,” the idea that he focused on entertainment would be valid. But most of his plays have so many things going on. That’s what I feel is missing in contemporary plays: multiple levels. So many playwrights who have something to say forget about making it entertaining, and those who are entertaining forget about having something to say. It’s both/and!
Good luck with the company — that is the best way to develop artists.
Where is Peter Boychuk?
As of mid-August of 2010 Peter Boychuk had left the Alliance for Arts and Culture and was pursuing a degree at the University of Victoria.