“My dear Minerva,
It was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times, it was Ottawa.”
On June 9th of this year, at 7:45 pm, Kristian Bruun as Frank Dickens (son of Charles), launched the first of forty cross-country performances of his play Dickens of the Mounted with this line. Beginning in Montreal and ending in Vancouver on September 16, Dickens quickly snowballed into one of the must-see Fringe sensations of the season, I was already hearing buzz about it during its next tour-stop in Toronto. The play is a creation of (the Toronto-based) Mr. Bruun and Brad Lepp, who also directed. It is an adaptation of the 1989 book of the same name by Vancouver humourist and playwright Eric Nicol (87), a wonderfully arcane story soaked in booze, charming prose, and Canadiana; of the sort that makes you remember that this country actually has a history to it, and that you’re allowed to be proud of it.
I was lucky enough to be in attendance for show #40, the last of the tour and coincidentally the same show attended by Mr. Nicol himself who, as it turned out, was seated in the front row not 3 seats down from me. He was introduced to us all by Mr. Bruun following the show and, through our applause and with the aid of his cane, rose to shake the hand of the man who had brought his book to life. It was a delicious moment, and one that I’m proud to have shared in. As Brad came down and joined them in what I’m sure was the beginning of a long discourse of mutual admiration, we all filed from the theatre feeling like we’d shared something precious that afternoon. Theatre rocks.
I went home and filed my review, then sent it on to Brad by way of a thank you. He was good enough to share his insights with us on taking his work through the entire Canadian Fringe circuit, and on theatre in general. Brad is a teacher, producer, director, writer, and dramaturge, working with over a dozen companies across Ontario and recently with Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo. He is currently the Theatre Coordinator at the Walmer Centre Theatre in Toronto, and is the Artistic Director of Beyond Chutleigh Productions.
1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
2.) In as many words as you see fit, describe the current state of Toronto indie theatre.
Fractured. There’s a lot going on. A lot of young ambition, struggling talent, and versatile artists. There’s a lot going on but most of it is unfocused. There are very few producing houses, and few companies ever make it to producing more than a couple of shows. There is little artistic growth, because there isn’t the money, support, infrastructure or market to warrant more ambitious larger productions. Energy is funneled into just getting by. Almost everyone has a “day job” so the air of professionalism suffers and, unfortunately, I think that is noticeable – not by the quality but by how we hold ourselves. So much of it is theatre practitioners doing theatre for themselves – and I’m not sure if that’s because we’re not connecting with a larger urban demographic, because we haven’t found our niche in our society or whether theatre has gone obsolete today (I hope it’s not the latter). And so all of this makes the struggle to create very draining and tiring. There are so many artists that just seem burnt out…until their next “must do” project comes along and they sound from somewhere deep within the spirit to push on.
That’s my rant. Sorry.
3.) Please compare Vancouver with the rest of Canada’s Fringe circuit.
This was my first trip to Vancouver so I was extremely excited about performing at the festival. I came to love the city, the areas we explored and so many of the people we met. Unfortunately it will always be in the shadow of the Edmonton Fringe, just prior on the circuit timeline, and so expectations of the artists have been raised. Of the festival, a lot has already been said of its struggles and mistakes. I understand organizations go through rough patches and need to try new ideas to revitalize and re-envision itself. It was more the attitude that we were getting from the festival (and this may just be due to some personalities, because we met many wonderful staff members and volunteers there), but the tone was one of being unapologetic – when they changed our performance times without telling us, when they moved our venue last minute, when they set up the competing Encore series, Encore audiences not having to buy memberships, etc. Why would an audience member take a risk, go across town to see a show, where they have to buy a $5 membership, plus ticket, when they can stay on Granville [Island] at the encouragement of the volunteers, and see a show without hidden charges? There were just a lot of frustrations, one after another, where the artists found it very difficult to remain positive and create good work.
There needs to be a sense of collaboration, between the festival organizers and the artists, that they are in fact working together, not the one against the other. This isn’t just Vancouver, other festivals as well have this split – in fact only Winnipeg and Saskatoon made any effort of sitting down and asking the Artists how things went and where they could improve. Specifically the Vancouver festival needs to support itself as a whole (put everyone on a level field) – either spread out to venues across the city, or move it all onto Granville Island. It also needs to do a better job of letting the city know what’s going on (same problem as with Montreal and Toronto).
4.) What is the responsibility of Canadian independent theatre?
An artist’s responsibility is to themselves, I think. To push themselves to always do the best work that they can. To be honest to themselves and to their audiences. I think theatre has an important role to play in our society, but independent or not, I think that’s the same – to explore our relationship to the world around us, to our environment, our society, each other, the human condition. To ask questions and to tell stories.
5.) What was it about this book that made you see it as a potential play?
My roommate left it on our coffee table one day and I thought, ‘isn’t that “neat”’. I wish it was something more profound. “Charles Dickens’ son was one of the first Mounties” There is the “hook” factor, the intrigue. Truthfully, ideas were already spinning before I had read it. But I wasn’t let down by the book – I was really drawn in by this historical misfit, who goes to the ends of the earth to try and find a place to belong, and still can’t get out from his father’s shadow. It had everything: action, comedy, drama, Canadiana. I’m a history nut, and so I loved the idea of fusing obscure history with intriguing storytelling. And of course it doesn’t hurt that you’re dealing with material from one of Canada’s great humourists; Eric Nicol, who is also a playwright, so I think it inherently has a dramatic flow.
6.) Describe your approach to developing the adaptation.
The adaptation was quite difficult, truth be told. It’s a longish book, full of interesting tidbits, political satire, and personal insight. But it was episodic in structure, so that was lucky. We really had to fashion our story line against this material, and cut away that which didn’t help move it along. So for us, we had to first begin with specifying what exactly this story was about. Subtlety is okay in novels, but not on stage. What was our arc? Where did our story begin and where did we want it to end off? What was the main message, premise or theme that we wanted to get across? After months of correspondence between Kristian Bruun (the performer and co-adapter) and myself, and long hours transcribing text, our first draft was 86 pages long. At 2 minutes a page or so, it didn’t take a genius to do the math and realise that we were in trouble. So we spent a week just sitting, reading and editing. Just when we thought that we couldn’t cut any more, we’d do a timed reading and realise we had to keep slashing. But that was good – it’s nice to work within confines – in a business of variables, its nice to have a constant to play off. For us, we knew it had to fit into an hour slot at the Fringes. We also knew that it was going to be a one person show – partially for practical purposes of touring – and because it allowed us to stay close to the letter format of the book. And so we rethought the scenes – what needs to be said, what can be conveyed with a gesture or a look, trying to move the letters out of the past tense into real moments on stage – this is an example of when it was very useful to have the performer involved with the adaptation process.
You know it was a real struggle to “kill the baby” as we referred to cutting draft after draft, but looking at the script now, I really can’t see what we would add back in. Its like you don’t realise you’re overweight until you loose the fat. We got it down to 28 pages, with a running time of 62 mins.
I think the reason I am proud of this piece is that in its adaptation and staging and performance it encapsulates many of my ideas and feelings about theatre. It told a clear story (we were one of the few fringe shows with a narrative, not a slight, just an observation); a range of emotions as it spanned from subtle tragedy to coarse humour; a certain fluidity of time, space and characters; it had little set, but used everything to its fullest, hopefully engaging the audience in the creative aspect. A reengagement of theatricality for storytelling.
7.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before the tour?
How much talent is out there. I was blown away by most of what I saw on tour. By how simple a show can be – most of those shows had little or no set. I found it funny that our “minimalist set of 3 trunks and 2 planks”, was one of the largest sets on tour. About how much personality plays into performance. By how generous audiences can be. I have produced many shows before, but it was a good reminder about how much leg work goes into getting ahead. I have a deeper appreciation for the ‘shelf life’ of projects, and how to make those investments pay off. And of course, boil your pitch down to two lines, that’s all the time you have: “It’s the story of the worst Mountie in Canadian history, who happened to be Charles Dickens’ Son. (and if they are still listening…) It’s a true story. Based on the bestselling book by Eric Nicol. Its been getting great reviews across the country, playing right over there at the ________ theatre, and so please keep us in mind if you’re looking for a comedy.” I don’t want to think how many times I said those words…
8.) What can we do to better market our theatre to a new audience?
This is really tricky. I think it’s about educating our society, ensuring that they know that theatre is an inexpensive, entertaining and approachable option. So many large theatres just take it for granted now that they need to have an outreach and community development department. It’s now part of the way we do business. Get them young – put Art and, more importantly, Critical Thinking back into our education system. I think there are certain challenges and opportunities that present themselves with such an ethnically diverse urban population, and so we’ll see a handful of new leaders take the forefront of engaging these new communities. But ultimately independent companies need to work together, we need to have the organization and infrastructure in place so that companies, large or small, are supported and built to last, so that longer partnerships (artistic, financial, media) can be invested.
Media needs to let the city know what’s going on – but I don’t blame them, they inundated by hundreds of requests, and have only limited resources themselves. There is so much out there that we’re competing with, not only cinema and TV, but concerts, stand up, comedy, dance, opera, music. I know I don’t push myself and go support dance as much as I should. But that’s okay; theatre just isn’t everyone’s thing. As long as people have a ‘thing’, that they’re getting out there, engaged with an artistic industry, then I’m not too upset.
Ultimately what I found satisfying about the tour was bringing theatre down to basics, and that included marketing. Handing out handbills, pressing palms, meeting people, chatting with them a bit, asking which shows they liked, what they didn’t like, and making personal connections. I think this is where the future of our industry is, what we can offer that others can’t, a personal interaction between artist and audience. It reminds me of something I learned working with Maple Leaf Theatre in Tokyo – how much time and energy was spent wooing audience members. Artists would go for coffee and dinner with audience members, get to know them; but once they became your patron, they were very loyal and would come see everything you did. And that was very important, often getting you more work if you had a larger following. It might mean we have to work harder now, but ultimately that human touch will keep us connected to our audience.
But “I didn’t know there was a theatre festival going on” was something we heard often on tour, especially in Vancouver. Our billets visited the fringe the first time by seeing our show, and were so thrilled that they cancelled their vacation and instead went to 5 or 6 other productions. And we’d spend time afterwards talking about them, some were great, some a little disappointing, but like they said; for $10 what’s the risk? And they’re excited about telling their friends and going next year… sometimes people just need a little push to go, and human connections do that.
9.) What inspires you as a theatre artist?
Passionate characters wrestling with difficult questions. Honest, sincerely real moments.
Side note: What pisses me off is arrogant artists who think the sun rises and sets with Brecht, have a gratuitous approach and don’t respect the audience and their choices.
10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?
Three writers I enjoy sitting down with:
Three titles I’m dying to do:
Quiet in the Land
11.) What’s next?
You know you never ask an artist that. They usually cover the fact that they don’t really know, by spouting off two dozen whimsical projects that they once upon a time mentioned to another artist dreamily over coffee.