This one goes to Eleven: Cameron Mackenzie

Cameron’s Stage resume runs the gamut from set and props design to director to clown to actor to drag queen…and back to director. He is the Artistic Director of the newly inaugurated Zee Zee Theatre which just launched with Cameron’s passion project Whale Riding Weather at the PAL. After having seen the production myself all I can say is; welcome to the neighbourhood Zee Zee, please keep it coming.

The level of Cameron’s passion for Independent Stage is easy to detect…

me

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Jittery.

2. In as many words as you care to use, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Experimental, daring, growing, inclusive, co-operative.

3. What are you doing starting a theatre company in these harsh economic times?

I’ve asked myself that same question a few times already. First of all the “recession” hadn’t quite hit when I started the process of bringing one of my favourite scripts to the stage. Secondly the company came out of a desire to best facilitate Whale Riding Weather, although I have always wanted and knew I’d start my own company, I really didn’t start this process with that goal in mind. The other thing to remember is that as theatre artists we are always in “harsh economic times”. I produced WRW without any government assistance because I wanted to challenge myself to succeed without it – well, that and they didn’t give us any money!

4. What style(s) of production are you planning on developing with Zee Zee?

Definitely text based work.  A solid story is what draws me to any show. We are also following our loose mandate to give voice to the marginalized, but in a way that represents the universality of their stories.

5. What do you feel is the single greatest obstacle to producing indie theatre here?

Money or lack of it. Available rehearsal and performance space is a close second.

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6. What do you know now that you didn’t before directing Whale Riding Weather?

That I actually enjoy producing. That working on a guaranteed 30% average house is not low at all. That I could succeed. That if you ask someone for help chances are they will give it to you if you are serious and respectful.

7. How much of a responsibility does theatre hold in representing the diversity of its community?

Theatre’s responsibility is always to its audience and to bring to that audience a universal truth, something that connects them emotionally or intellectually to the work regardless of demographic. Of course it is an art form and we as artists must always be pushing our own boundaries and enhancing our personal practice but to say theatre is responsible in some way to its community is putting too great a restriction on the art form itself. My goal as an artist is to take my audience on a journey – not necessarily a comfortable, pleasant one, but one that elicits a reaction or emotion that is in some way connected to and informed by the work, not as something that is as a result of the work.

To be clearer, I don’t want my audience to feel anger or be taken out of the experience and world of the play because I have crafted a shoddy piece of art, if anger is present it must be because the art itself has elicited this reaction. Getting to the heart of this question; yes I am very much for casting roles regardless of race. But I do not think it is my responsibility as a theatre artist to follow some prescribed quota that matches the diversity make up of Vancouver. At this point in my career I see myself as a facilitator of the script, and it is up to me to bring that script to life as close to the playwright’s vision as possible. When I am in auditions I am looking for the person who can best capture the essence and truth of the role out of who I am fortunate enough to have come to my auditions.

Theatre’s responsibility is to bring a universal truth to its audience.

8. Who or what are the great influences on your work?

As cheesy as it sounds – life.  The greatest stories are ones that capture the complexity, beauty and brutality of it.  That and Peter Brook – who directed one the most brilliant Hamlets that I was lucky enough to see, starring British actor Adrian Lester who, incidentally is of Jamaican decent.

9. What is you fondest theatrical memory to date?

My partner bought us tickets for my birthday to see The Syringa Tree, one of my favourite scripts.  Actually a friend of mine loaned me the scripts for WRW and The Syringa Tree at the same time nearly six years ago and I remember thinking after I had read them both “This guy knows my taste”.  I actually still have his copy of WRW.  So we went to see it at the Playhouse starring Caroline Cave.  I grew up in South Africa and am always weary of North American ideas or interpretations of what South Africa is, but I very much wanted to see it.  I was blown away.  I remember after the show my entire body was vibrating.  I had wept through most of the show and mumbled something to Dave that I had to meet her.  I’m not big on going to the stage door after a show but Caroline’s portrayal was so honest and so textured I had to thank her.  She was able to capture so accurately the dichotomy of beauty and joy, with ugliness and suffering that is South Africa at the same time every minute.  Even the deep resonance of her voice captured the heart breaking way people speak as a defensive mechanism to hide the suffering, but at the same time is so beautiful to listen too.  When she came out I just said thank you and hugged her and wept some more.  I have to admit I was a bit of a basket case, but she was very gracious about it and we have subsequently become friends.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Whale Riding Weather by Bryden MacDonald – obviously.

Lilies by Michel Marc Bouchard

The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien

11. What’s next?

I am currently assistant directing Jocasta at Studio 58.  It is play number four in the seven play cycle City of Wine, about Oedipus’ mother.  The seven scripts follow the history of Thebes including the Oedipus tragedy and are being produced at various theatre schools around Canada as part of their development.  Then in May all the schools are all being flown to Toronto to do the entire cycle. Very Bacchanalian.

For Zee Zee, my partner, Dave Deveau, has been developing a script that I’ve been anxious to direct for a few years.  It’s called Nelly Boy and is about a 15 year old biological male who doesn’t identify with either sex and about the journey this character has faced that has brought him/her to an interrogation room. In North American society we don’t work well with this idea of the third gender. We have very little understanding on the issue and no language around it. I’m very excited to work with Dave and this new script and to explore the world of Nelly.

A theatre company starter kit: Zee Zee Theatre’s ‘Whale Riding Weather’

gviewDespite gloomy predictions of the future of indie theatre in these trying economic times (anyone else about done with that phrasing?) it’s heartening to see ever more new and driven companies springing up in Vancouver. Companies with something to say, and the desire to say it from the stage. Companies with more passion than money, and the will to get the production up regardless. Companies like Zee Zee Theatre. Welcome to the neighbourhood, guys.

Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie began his company with a script that he loved and the will to jump through all the expensive hoops required to give a professional voice to that script. He found a great space to put it in (the fantastic PAL theatre, poised to be the new darling of the indie theatre set , so long as the residents can be kept from wandering in on rehearsals). He hired a killer production crew (including SM extraordinaire Jill Perry – if anyone’s looking for a serious talent behind the board drop me a line, I’ve got her number). He took up the directing reigns himself. He went the full equity route and impeccably cast the play with a trio of very good actors (Vancouver workhorses Allan Morgan, Jeff Gladstone and Jon Lachlan Stewart). He went out and charmed a whole bunch of sponsors. He put someone very smart (and this is a big one) in charge of fundraising who, well, raised some funds. He hired a damn good publicist, which paid off with a glowing benediction from CT himself. And they got on the cover of the major publication catering to a main target group. And on top of everything else, he contacted the neighbourhood’s resident blogger – yours truly – and invited him to the show in hopes of getting a little industry bump online, knowing full well that this site does not host reviews. A professional effort from a first-production company. I’m more than a little impressed.

The inaugural playscript – Whale Riding Weather by Canadian Bryden MacDonald – is certainly one of those pieces of writing that can get under your skin if it speaks to you, a work of dramatic realism that demands real privacy from the actors in the work. It’s a good choice, and it lives up to the promise of the theatre, namely making us the audience feel like a bunch of voyeurs. Like we’re witnessing an extraordinary day in the lives of people just like us, that go through the same emotional meat grinders that we all do, in our own weird ways. There’s something in there about the appeal of the theatre, something that lets us know that we’re not alone in all our human messiness. It’s a noble and necessary mission, one that serves us as a society. The hard part is getting society in to these rooms to witness it, and that’s the real trick, isn’t it?

I’m proud to see independent Vancouver artists like Cameron Mackenzie taking the task this seriously. If we keep going like this, Vancouver could very well be a formidable force in presenting indie theatre to the world as a profitable and sustainable industry. And that’s a future worth fighting for, no matter what the economic times we happen to be stuck with.

Link to the Whale Riding Weather Facebook page