Is it political?

An odd thing happened at It’s Your Festival last weekend. I bumped into my Ward 3 Councillor Matt Green. I told him I had a new play in this year’s Fringe Festival. His response? “Is it political?” And all at once I realized my reputation as a Canadian playwright in Hamilton.

I didn’t set out to write politically-charged theatre. When I first came to Hamilton, the first play I produced was the science fiction story Interface. That was followed by the geek love story Test. But everything after that has been political in some form or fashion. From paranoid rants (Conspiracy of Michael) to Canadian spies (An Ordinary Asset) to Conservative scandals (Finding Mr. Right), most of my work since 2014 has been issue oriented.

Line-ups for our 2015 Fringe show “Finding Mr. Right” [Photo: Hamilton Fringe Festival]

Your Own Sons isn’t all that different except that it feels far more immediate than anything I’ve ever tackled. The story of the play is directly inspired by the story of Christianne Boudreau. Ms. Boudreau’s son, Damian Clairmont, left Canada in 2012 after being self-radicalized in Canada. He told his mother he was going to Egypt to study Arabic but he actually went to Syria to fight alongside ISIS forces. He was killed by the Syrian military in 2014.

Ms. Boudreau’s story deeply affected me. As a parent, the very idea of losing a child is horrendous. But to the lose them to violent extremism is this manner is incomprehensible. With every story I saw of families losing their sons to both self-radicalization and war I found myself more and more troubled by an issue with seemingly no rational explanation. What’s more troubling is that Ms. Boudreau is not alone in her experience. It’s estimated that well over 27,000 foreign fighters like Damian have traveled to Iraq and Syria since fighting broke out in 2011.

Christianne Boudreau and her son Damian Clairmont [Photo: Christianne Boudreau]

But the catalyst to write this story, and to find my own voice in it, happened on Oct. 22, 2014. On that day, a young man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed Hamilton-born Canadian Army reservist Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Afterwards, Zehaf-Bibeau stormed the Parliament Buildings before being shot and killed by security and police. Like Damian Clairmont, Zehaf-Bibeau had been self-radicalized towards radical Islamic ideology. He had tried to leave the country but had his passport revoked by authorities.

Like many Canadians, I found myself feeling a whole range of emotions as the events in Ottawa unfolded before my eyes. As the tragedy swirled around my old hometown, and later as they impacted my new home when Hamilton paid tribute and bid farewell to Cpl. Cirillo, it was impossible not to draw an invisible line of trauma between the two cities. Writing Your Own Sons has been my attempt to see why I drew an invisible line that day and why it still pulls on me.

A memorial at the gates of The Lieutenant-Colonel John Weir Foote Armoury in Hamilton in remembrance of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo [photo: Peter Power/The Globe and Mail]

Ms. Boudreau’s experience is not my experience. And neither is that of the parents of both Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. But as a father of two young children, I can imagine what it must be to lose your child. I think it’s something every parent must secretly fear deep in their heart. But with the birth of my son, admittedly, I also began to imagine what it must be to lose your child to the type violent extremism that seems to be affecting so many young men. As my correspondence with Ms. Boudreau has revealed, it’s a terrible place to be. Especially when no one seems to be listening.

And I think that’s why I’m compelled to write issue-oriented theatre. With Your Own Sons, I’ve tried to come to grips with a topic that some treat as taboo and others reduce to ideological talking points. As a character from the play admits, it’s “trying to bring some light in”. For me, this is at the core of political theatre: how dialogue on the stage can inspire dialogue in the audience. I hope that will happen with Your Own Sons. Because as hard as this issue is I think it is one that needs to be talked about by everybody.

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A portion of the proceeds from the Festival performance of Your Own Sons will go to Hayat Canada to assist parents and families coming to terms with violence and radicalization involving their children. For more information on Hayat Canada, or to donate, please follow the LINK.

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Shadow of the Real

A few days ago, I was all set to post a blog about the process of rehearsing for our upcoming production of Two Rooms. Specifically, I wrote about the research that went into portraying the journalist character of Walker who is equal parts ally and antagonist to the main character of Lainie in the play. But then, earlier this week, a terror attack occurred in Brussels killing dozens and sending more shockwaves of fear throughout the Western world. And, given the subject matter, I felt like there was something more to be said about the process of doing this play amidst the the shadow of the real.

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Broken windows at the national airport terminal following the Mar 22, 2016 bombings in Brussels, BE [Yorick Jansens/Pool/Reuters]

Two Rooms is a play about the invisible, yet unbreakable, bond between two lovers torn apart by terror. Written in 1988, and winner of Time Magazine’s Best Play of the Year, the script was a direct response to the (then) looming Iran hostage crisis. During that crisis, more than sixty American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for over 400 days between 1979 and 1981. It redefined US foreign policy in the Middle East with consequences that continue to the present day. Lauren, our director, has always said that the relationships in the play should take centre stage. That said, there is no denying the spectre of real world terrorism that hangs over the play. And, in the case of our company, it has been there since the beginning.

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American hostage held at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis [Photo: Bettman/CORBIS]

We first decided to produce Blessing’s drama last October. At that point, there were a lot of discussions between Lauren, Aaron, and myself about the impact of doing a play about terror hostages in the age of ISIS. Having witnessed a multitude of images ranging from ISIS training clips to the infamous YouTube execution videos, we questioned whether to set the play in a more contemporary setting. Indeed, it was a topic of hot debate. Then, in late November, on the very night we confirmed our production venue came the news of the horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut which left scores of people dead.

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A victim’s body lies covered on Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire following the Nov 14, 2015 terror attacks in Paris, FR [Photo : Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images]

Once again, fear and anger filled the airwaves. News, talk show panels, and social media exploded about the threat of ISIS and a renewed War on Terror. All of sudden, the past of this play was violently pulled into our present. As we started rehearsals, it seemed more images of wounded people, broken buildings, and chanting terrorists were all over the place. As I tuned into the news every night, I also found I was becoming acutely aware of every incident. Car bombs in Turkey and Iraq. Suicide bombers in Syria. Shootings in Afghanistan. Some were widely reported. Others were mentioned as a side note. But the pictures always said a thousand awful words. I couldn’t help thinking of one of the lines that Walker says to Lainie: “It’s all imagery. That’s how people think these days. Images. Not ideas. Images.”

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Militants with the Islamic State (ISIS). [Photo: Associated Press]

The process of rehearsing this play has been a very different experience for all of us at Same Boat Theatre. It’s not the first time we’ve taken on a subject based on current events. But it is the first time we’ve ever taken on a subject with such immediate and dramatic weight. Going into rehearsal, each of us has had a sense that this play is still so very timely. Sadly, all you need do is turn on the television. The images of blindfolded prisoners of ISIS look very similar to the blindfolded prisoners in Beirut thirty years ago. This proximity to the real has made us all work more diligently and more honestly during the whole process.

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Aaron Joel Clark plays the hostage Michael in Two Rooms [Photo: Ryan Miller]

Beyond the sense that this play has been ‘ripped from the headlines’ is the fact that people like Michael and Lainie exist in this world. Ordinary people have and sadly will continue to be victims of terror. But this play has forced us all to look at the complex issues surrounding terrorism a lot more closely with an eye towards understanding. And if our production of Two Rooms serves to do the same with even one member of our audiences then we will have done right by the playwright and his powerful script.

~Stephen Near

Two Rooms… Take Two

This is the second time I’ve directed Lee Blessing’s Two Rooms. The first time was in 2008 with Black Box Fire as part of the company’s Emerging Artists Series. I never thought I would direct the piece again. But I’ve always loved the script and thought it would be a great fit for Same Boat Theatre. It deals with a political situation but in a way that addresses the human side of the situation, as well.

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Jaclyn Scobie and Rakhee Sapra in Two Rooms (2008, Black Box Fire)

Lee Blessing wrote Two Rooms in 1988 and Blessing himself said he hoped the play wouldn’t be as relevant in 20 years, but unfortunately it is… very much so. Two Rooms is the story of Michael, an American educator, who is taken hostage in Beirut. Lainie, his wife, is at home in the US. She has cleared out his study to resemble the room in which he is being held. This room creates a door for Lainie and Michael as well as for the audience to engage with the story on a human and emotional level. And that is what continues to draw me back to this story.

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Alexa Holbrook and Jaclyn Scobie in Two Rooms (2008, Black Box Fire)

When I first directed this show eight years ago, I didn’t have the life experience to see it as I do now. And in another eight years, I’m sure I could look back and say the same thing. I have noticed through the process so far, that I have a different, and better, understanding of what Lainie and Michael must feel being torn apart. I’m currently engaged and that has allowed me to approach this process with more empathy. I can more clearly see how devastating this story is, and why someone would cling to what little they have of their lost partner.

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Aaron Joel Craig and Jaclyn Scobie in Two Rooms (2016, Same Boat Theatre)

I suppose Two Rooms is a story I still want to tell, and a story I want to hear. Perhaps directing the show a second time is a little like listening to a cover of a song you love, though in this case I don’t think there’s an original version and I’m not concerned about comparing the two.

~Lauren Repei

(Extra) Ordinary Road to Staging Realities

As a playwright and co-founder of Same Boat Theatre, the last few weeks have been a busy time of writing and rewriting my play An Ordinary Asset. The script tells the story of a troubled intelligence officer who commits treason by working for Russian intelligence but soon finds himself fighting to redeem his sense of honor in a world of grey. The play is inspired by the real life drama of Jeffrey DeLisle, a Canadian Forces officer who acted as a mole for Russian intelligence inside Canada for years before he was arrested in 2012 and convicted in 2013.

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Jeffrey Delisle arriving at court in Halifax on Jan. 10 [Devaan Ingraham / REUTERS]

Stories of spies fascinate us. Look no further than our love of James Bond or Jason Bourne to see the allure of dramatic tales of espionage. But what drew me to the story of DeLisle was, frankly, how banal it was. In almost every way, Delisle defied our traditional and romanticized idea of what a spy looks like. He wasn’t an assassin or an international man of mystery. He liked playing video games and dressing up in medieval garb pretending he was a knight. By day, he worked as an analyst with the Canadian forces but in his off hours he played a lot of World of Warcraft. Frankly, he struck me as a bit of geek.

But I’m an unabashed geek, myself. And, like Delisle, I’m also a father to a daughter that means the world to me. In his interrogation by the RCMP, Delisle cited an extramarital affair on the part of his wife as the reason for his deciding to “switch sides” in an act he called “professional suicide”. His reason for not actually committing suicide? His love for his children. So when I started writing, I think it was from a place of wanting to find something of myself in this morally complex individual.

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Cue cards were essential tools of research

I first started writing in 2013 as part of a workshop at Tarragon Theatre. This was followed by a grant through the OAC and Theatre Aquarius to complete a first draft. This draft was further developed during a three-day intensive workshop hosted by Aquarius and facilitated by Pat the Dog Theatre Creation. Writing that first draft was a challenge and resulted in a big script full of diverse story threads. But the workshop, lead by the amazing team of Lisa O’Connell (Pat the Dog) and Luke Brown (Theatre Aquarius), provided a critical step as it allowed me to see not only the strengths of the play but also what needed to go to make the script stronger.

Since then, I’ve spent almost a year and a half on revisions. None of the work has been straightforward. Diving deep into the guts of the play, I’ve had to unpack character intentions while dismantling crisis and climax points. But I’ve always returned to the fundamental story of Delisle. Despite being a work of fiction, the reality of this man and his actions have dominated my playwriting process for this script. Ultimately, this is what drew me to the Festival of Original Theatre and why I think the piece was accepted into this year’s festival and the engaging theme of Staging Realities.

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Ground zero for FOOT 2016: the Robert Gill Theatre

The latest revision and reading of this play by Same Boat Theatre will only be the second time audiences have heard it. It features another host of talented actors from my home of Hamilton. Under the direction of Aaron Joel Craig, with additional dramaturgy by Lisa O’Connell, this script is quite different from the first draft I wrote out almost two years ago. And it still isn’t finished. Ultimately, the feedback from this stage will be yet another stepping stone in the process towards an actual production of the play in the future. And I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

Right in the time of politics

On October 19, 2015, Canadians will go to the polls for what has been the longest and perhaps most bitterly fought elections in recent history. However the votes are counted, and whichever party(s) form  majority or minority government, the stakes in this election have been incredibly high. As I write these words today, we’ve seen the end of the last of the publicly broadcasted debates and already the polls and pundits are telling us who they thought were the winners and the losers and where they think the political wind will blow on the 19th. But, frankly, their guess is as good as mine at this point.

“All for one and one for all!” Yeah… right. [Photo: The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette]

It occurred to me that come the 19th, it will have been just over 3 months to the day that Same Boat Theatre premiered our hot button, political play Finding Mr. Right at the Hamilton Fringe Festival. At the time of our July 17 opening, and during our 7 show run, the whole company was anticipating the reaction to our play. Directly inspired by the Mike Duffy/Nigel Wright Senate scandal, and informed by the politics of the Harper government, we weren’t sure how appealing it would be to Fringe audiences. Indeed, a local paper ran a preview of the Festival wherein our play was oddly described as “a commentary on the conservative right and the dating scene”. So, yeah, we didn’t know what to expect. We did know that we’d produced a play on an issue that mattered to us and we knew it was important for people to see it if only to start a conversation.

Truth and fiction in the prop newspapers of Finding Mr. Right.

Truth and fiction in the prop newspapers of “Finding Mr. Right”.

It’s safe to say that Finding Mr. Right did just that. We found our audience and were a critical hit with the public and reviewers alike. But even more satisfying was the political reaction to the play. Without fail, after every show, Lauren and I would take our bows and then I would remind audiences of the imminent election coming in October and how it was important that they were registered to vote. And without fail, after every show, many audience members would stay in the theatre or outside the doors and thank us for finally speaking out on this important issue or tell us the show had inspired them to look into Canadian politics with more care and scrutiny. A young, local artist even remarked that the show “inspired me to vote this year… I am going to put my voice out there.” For all of us in the company, that sort of thing was the highest complement we could hear and made our Fringe experience truly gratifying.

Audience line-up outside Mills Hardware... which I never got to see firsthand...

Fringe line-up outside Mills Hardware… which I never got to see firsthand. [Photo: Hamilton Fringe Festival]

The writ was supposed to have been dropped in September. So imagine my surprise when, not even a week after our show closed, the election was called. Two weeks after that came the Duffy trial in which former PMO Chief Nigel Wright (the inspiration for Nathan) finally took the stand to reveal more details about his involvement in the plot by Party insiders to deal with the scandal. And then, in early Sept, Conservative strategist Jenni Byrne (the inspiration for Shelly) was sidelined from the election following perceived candidate missteps and a mishandling of the Syrian refugee crisis on the campaign trail. Indeed, the way this election campaign has played out has had me constantly thinking “second act to Mr Right” in my head. Art imitates life but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction… especially in the political realm.

Jenni Byrne and Nigel Wright; truth is actually stranger than fiction.

Jenni Byrne and Nigel Wright; truth is stranger than fiction. [Photo: Facebook/The Canadian Press]

Which takes us to where we are right now. Less than two weeks to go until Canadians go to the polls in one of the tightest races we’ve ever seen. I won’t muse on an outcome here because a lot can happen in two weeks. All I will say is that performing Finding Mr. Right on the eve of this election has reinforced my belief that theatre is at it’s most powerful when it is political. And by that I mean relevant. I mean radical. When theatre stakes a claim or makes a stand on matters directly affecting us as citizens it is, in my opinion, the most potent of art forms. It is capable of moving people to think critically and then pushing them to act. In this way, it is itself a political act that challenges us and the society in which we live. And well it should. Right now, political theatre is needed more than ever before because it has more power than ever before. Power to create. Power to communicate. And power to change.  And the stakes, as I said, are incredibly high.

Make sure you are registered and cast you ballot on October 19th!

Make sure you are registered to cast your vote on October 19th! [Photo: The Canadian Press]

So, in closing, I think it’s only appropriate I repeat what I said at the end of every performance of our show because, quite frankly, you can never say this enough right now:

Same Boat Theatre believes that this year’s federal election on October 19 is more important than ever before. But the rules have changed. In 2014, the Conservative government passed Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, which changed some of the laws around voting. As well, the redrawing of Canada’s electoral boundaries with the addition of 30 new ridings across the country means the election map has changed for 2015. Voter turnout in the 2011 was 61.4%… the third lowest in Canadian history. We can’t let this happen again. Find out how you can cast your vote this October. Go to ELECTIONS CANADA for more information!

Ladies and gentlemen, do not let your voice go unheard!