Oy. To do Stephen’s intro any kind of justice could turn this into a very long heading. In the interest of getting you to the interview portion faster, I will default to the trusty bullet-pointed list:
Stephen holds a BFA in acting from Memorial University’s Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Newfoundland, was an Associate Director for Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, earned an MFA in directing from UBC, co-founded Pound of Flesh Theatre – a Vancouver company dedicated to experimentation and contemporization of the classics – where he sits as Aristic Director, received a Jessie for directing Skydive, a Realwheels production set entirely in mid-air, is the recipient of the 2007 Ray Michael Award for Outstanding Body of Work by an Emerging Director…did I mention that he’s all of 34? Oy.
Stephen’s most recent directorial project was the very well recieved run of Orphans at the Firehall. We’re very grateful he made some time for our 11 questions…
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. In a bunch more words, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
I’m not sure I will say anything here that has not been said before (The scene is exciting, on the verge of making a major developmental boom, great indie stuff, etc, etc.) I think that, yes, there is some great work happening and we make a valiant fight in competing with the mountains, the view and reality TV for people’s attention. I think what Vancouver theatre suffers from is a lack of community. We don’t have a theatre centre or even a theatre bar (where DO actors go for a drink in this town?). I just did a show in Calgary where I met more people in one week than I did in my first year in Vancouver. Mostly because everyone hangs out together in the same places. This creates dialogue and sharing ideas and a tighter community. I think if we could get to that, we would really be a force to be reckoned with.
3. Where did your love of theatre come from?
Not sure really. Nothing about my upbringing suggested that I would end up in the theatre (I was supposed to be a doctor or an anthropologist). But I suppose I was attracted to time as a medium that can be shaped. Theatre is all about using time in the most effective way possible and there really are no “do-overs” (that’s a bit of a heady way of looking at it). Also, growing up in Newfoundland, the culture is very event-oriented so I’m inclined towards groups of people getting together.
4. How did you arrive at Pound of Flesh’s mandate of producing classical plays as interpreted with contemporary sensibilities?
I guess it came from my frustration at being consistently bored by something I loved. I knew in my heart that classical theatre was (or could be) exciting and vibrant and sexy and timeless (all the words used in school to describe it). But I was not seeing much evidence of that. Classical theatre is kept on a pedestal to some extent. But once you realize that it’s ok to play with it, to move it around, to re-interpret it (Shakespeare, for instance, won’t mind. His career will not suffer), I think it frees you up to actually have fun with it. And make people want to see it. I suppose the challenge is to pull it down off the pedestal without dragging it through the mud.
5. Where will the next generation of theatre-goers arise from?
The technologically minded. I just went to HIVE (at the Centre for Digital Media, no less) and of the 11 shows I saw, at least 6 had me watching video or wearing headphones or both. I personally spend hours a day in front of a computer (as I – and you- do now), including for entertainment purposes. It makes sense that audiences tend to gravitate and respond to theatre that recognizes and uses our interest in multi-media. I think the challenge (for me, anyway) is to keep a focus on the narrative and resist the seduction of flash. Fantastic imagery is great. But at the end of the day, I think theatre works best when I care about the people in front of me.
6. How do you approach the text when you start to work on a new piece?
Well, I read it as much as I can and I try to do an extensive text analysis. If it’s a text I’m to adapt or edit, I let my gut do the thinking for a bit and I move things around or cut pretty indiscriminately. Then after a while my brain will check my gut’s homework and take over. I tend to have a recurring nightmare: it’s first day of rehearsal; everyone is gathered around the table chatting; the stage manager looks at her watch and says to me “It’s time”; everyone looks to me, expecting me to say something smart about the play and I realize I have not read the script. Being unprepared freaks me out a little so I try to spend as much time as I can with the text before we start.
7. What sort of relationship do you foster with your actors in rehearsal?
I really need them to trust me, the material and especially their instincts. I enjoy a collaborative environment and I always want to engage the actor as a partner in the process. If specific choreography is not required, I tend to never block a scene before I go in the room but rather let the blocking and choices evolve from the actors’ instincts and my responses to those instincts. The actors need to feel like they are working for the play and not for me. I also firmly feel that rehearsal needs to be fun and that you are not sacrificing work ethic if you goof around a little. I just directed Orphans for Wink Theatre at the Firehall and so many times rehearsal would feel like an episode of Jackass as we would hit each other and roll on the floor laughing. It sounds silly but I believe this does not detract from the work but rather creates an atmosphere of camaraderie and enjoyment. This makes the work better.
8. Who are your big theatrical influences?
Katie Mitchell for her ability to make mythology breathe; Adrian Noble for making Shakespeare incredibly exciting; David Mamet for “Invent nothing, deny nothing”; my teachers at UBC and Memorial University; Peter Brook.
9. What do you see as the most common stumbling block for neophyte directors here?
Development opportunities. If you want to be a director you kinda have to be a producer too and make your own work. We don’t tend to create initiatives to foster the growth and development of young directors. Very often, first-time directing opportunities are given to established actors rather than to young directors and it sometimes takes years for a new director to acquire professional work, only after his/her mettle has been proven. It’s the stretch between the Fringe and professional (the “emerging” phase) that can be very difficult, especially if a young director does not have a head for producing.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
“A Director Prepares” by Ann Bogart. Very inspiring and I always go back to it when I feel a little lost.
“Year of the King” by Antony Sher. Written as a day-by-day diary of an actor preparing to play Richard III, it’s a great reminder that all artists, even the great ones, go through the same processes of doubt, frustration, exploration, discovery.
“God: a biography” by Jack Miles. Not a theatre book per se, but it sheds wonderful light on the process. It analyzes biblical text and examines God not as a divine deity, but as a character whose actions come from real human intentions. It asks questions like: “Why did he create Adam? Was he lonely? Did he actually just want a pet? Someone to boss around?” As silly as it might sound, it reminds us that mythology and characters from timeless narrative are not immune from concerns of objective, obstacle and action. Every literary character is a character that can be dissected and, ultimately, played. Despite the baggage it carries.
11. What’s next?
Pound of Flesh has been commissioned (with several other companies) by the Caravan Farm Theatre to create a piece for their season next year, a new adaptation of the medieval morality play Everyman. So I’ll be going up to the farm in August to start work on that. Then, after I re-rehearse Skydive for its tour to Calgary and Montreal, I direct Unity (1918) at UBC.