Richard Wolfe is an architect of the Canadian theatre scene in the truest sense, much of the work we are doing now is being built on a foundation of effort that he has been putting in for quite some time. He recently assumed the role of Artistic Director of Pi Theatre after 12 years as co-founder, director and co-artistic producer of Theatre Conspiracy, which received 24 Jessie Richardson nominations for outstanding work under his tenure. He has been a theatre educator across the country, a past president of the See 7 Performing Arts Society here in Vancouver, and a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. He holds an MFA from UBC.
He shows no signs of stopping breaking ground.
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. In a bunch more words, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
I think Vancouver is in the process of developing an ecology that’s truly inter-generational. I hope we can eventually support this properly. Theatre as a profession has been growing in this country, probably since the late 1950’s, which was when the regional theatre system was born (MTC was the first in 1958). Quebec playwriting took off in the 60’s and English Canadian playwriting in the 70’s. The country was beginning to tell its own stories to its own citizens and needed artists and institutions to realize them on the stage. Canada now has the infrastructure to allow theatre artists to call themselves professionals and to be paid for their work. Our present challenge is to provide the circumstances where individuals can actually expect, if they have talent and determination, to have a theatre career. This means having a viable ecology that supports the full range of theatre artists from emerging practitioners to senior ones. The Vancouver scene is still struggling with this reality.
3. How are we going to get the next generation of theatre-goers hooked on what we do?
I’m optimistic about the future of theatre. The continued mediation of human contact through digital means will eventually wear thin. Hooking up on Facebook isn’t the same as hooking up on a Saturday night and watching YouTube isn’t the same as being at a live event. People will crave theatre as an authentic human activity. It’s up to us to spread the word.
4. What’s the origin story of your life in the theatre?
I started in high school as many people do. We had a very good program. From there I went on to study drama at the University of Saskatchewan where my first two acting teachers were Jane Casson and Susan Wright. Jane is Sybil Thorndike’s granddaughter and a member of a great English acting family whose work spans the 20th century (Shaw wrote Saint Joan for Sybil). She is a very talented woman and drove us in a way that the old school British system is famous for. Susan (Janet Wright’s sister – Janet is currently of Corner Gas fame) was one of this country’s finest actresses. The whole department was run by Tom Kerr as a first rate professional training conservatory. It was rigorous and infectious. I had no choice but to go on.
5. What trends, if any, are you noticing lately in Vancouver theatre?
There seem to be more small venues breaking out and the range of work is extremely wide. And, as we all know, the practice of devising theatre and collective creation is alive and well.
6. What are the great strengths of our independent theatre industry here? Our weaknesses?
Our strengths are the depth of our talent and the passion of our practitioners. Each of our larger training institutions put a different emphasis on their approach to the art and this makes for a real diversity of interest and practice in the community. Our weakness, I think, is a general lack of exposure to influences from the theatre world outside of Vancouver. Of course PuSh and the Cultch help in this regard, but I’m always surprised at how few people I speak with go elsewhere to see shows (this is a generalization of course). I don’t mean London, New York or Toronto (which is a good idea) but even Seattle. There are major theatres there including On The Boards, which is an excellent institution. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland) in southern Oregon has the same budget as the Shaw Festival and just as many theatre buildings but a lot of people I’ve spoken with don’t even know it’s there. This kind of exposure to the outside world can lead to better work at home.
7. How important is it to showcase our work outside of Canada?
It’s very important to get outside of the country to promote the reputation of Canadian culture. It can also help the domestic scene by proving to sponsors and funders that Canadian theatre is good enough to be taken seriously outside the country and is therefore worthy of increased support inside. Unfortunately one of the well known problems with the Canadian psyche and its longing for affirmation is the deep-rooted attitude that local talent is only remarkable if it succeeds elsewhere. We may be getting over this kind of thinking but we’re not there yet.
8. Which 3 theatre artists, living or dead, would you like to buy a drink for, and why?
Anton Chekhov because of his ability to be an extraordinarily perceptive communicator of the essence of what it is to be human.
Vaclav Havel because of his practiced belief that theatre in society can and should be much more than mere entertainment.
Julie Taymor because of her imagination – the conversation would be sure to take some unexpected turns.
9. In what way are you a better director now than you were five years ago?
I’m more able to envision the finer details of a show after reading a script, complete with a wider sense of production possibilities.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis
by Patrice Pavis (Author), Christine Shantz (Translator) (academic perhaps, but remarkable in its scope).
11. What’s next?
I just finished Live From a Bush of Ghosts at PuSh for Theater Conspiracy. Pi‘s Bashir Lazhar previews on March 5th at Performance Works (www.pitheatre.co) and I’m directing a reading for the Scene First program at the Gateway at the end of March.