(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.

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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!

Being Frank about Shelly

Before we even closed The Conspiracy of Michael at the Hamilton Fringe in 2014, Stephen wanted to write and perform a one man show, Finding Mr. Wright. Aaron was to direct and I was to be there not only to support the production but assist in the dramaturgical process. I was perfectly happy to have a bit of a break during the next Fringe Festival but then, a few months ago, Stephen’s one-man show was no more and the play became a two person drama called Finding Mr. Right. Stephen asked me to co-star with him to portray the character of Shelly who, although fictional, is inspired by a real-life political figure.

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In rehearsal… talking politics with director Aaron Joel Craig

It’s been a few years since I’ve had to memorize more than a few pages of dialogue for a show but I was excited for the opportunity to be one of two performers onstage. But then it dawned on me this is a show about Canadian politics. I always vote, but I will admit, it is something I am not overly knowledgeable about or particularly interested in (I do have guilt about this… that counts for something right?). I agreed to do the show and to learn as I go. All the while Stephen and Aaron explained more about the people in Canadian politics and the details of the Senate scandal upon which the show is based. Of course I did my own Google searches, read articles, and looked up the definitions of some of the political lingo. I learned a few new things about Canadian politics, true, but that doesn’t mean I found a passion I never knew I had for politics. Admittedly, I would still rather search online for new knitting patterns than articles about people in Ottawa.

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Frank Underwood from House of Cards

So how did I become personally invested in the script? Well, I may not be a fan of politics, in general, but I am a fan of House of Cards. Like big time. I’ve watched Season One probably three times. And it’s not the politics that keep me going back for more. It’s the characters. Frank Underwood is probably one of my favourite characters in TV. And Shelly has a fair amount in common with Frank. She has a need for power and desperation to come out on top at any cost. But what does that look like for Shelly? That’s what I had to ask myself when preparing for this role. And for me that is interesting work.

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Shelly Dunn, the (fictional) Director of Party Operations…

I love watching confrontation on stage. The struggle of a character to survive is what I’ve always found engaging in theatre. And I love being a part of creating that type of conflict on-stage. And it’s exciting and challenging to work through what Shelly’s struggle to win looks like, and how that affects her approach to the character of Nathan (played by Stephen). Will she win, and what does winning even mean for her? Politics is important to the show and to the process because they help to understand what’s at stake for Shelly. But I think, ultimately, it’s not just about politics; it’s about her career, her status, her power, and her sacrifice. And we can all relate to those things.

When approaching a play or a character I think you have to approach it as life or death. This is all we see of these characters and their lives, and if the stakes aren’t life or death then why bother? Finding Mr. Right is definitely life or death for Shelly and Nathan. The politics are the background but the characters are front and centre.

~Lauren Repei

New script

A couple of weeks ago, the creative team of Same Boat Theatre sat down for a look at the first script for production by our new company at this summer’s Hamilton Fringe Festival. A fictionalized drama inspired by the Mike Duffy-Senate scandal, Finding Mr. Right is a one-act play that has been in the works for a good long while. It was supposed to be a one-man show about my passion for politics and growing up in Ottawa. But after a lot of exploration on my part as a playwright, it became a drama onstage featuring a pair of political advisers debating how to handle a scandal that threatens to topple the Prime Minister, himself.

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“The Longer I’m Prime Minister…”

Though inspired by real-life events, the play now occupies a fictional setting with fictional characters while tackling some familiar issues and current events. But this turn away from the script’s initial premise meant that more work needed to be done in the first draft process before a finished script would be ready for the company. And some of the most important work at this stage took place during a weekend playwriting residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Located on Toronto Island, this residency gave me a much-needed opportunity to listen to and explore the voices of the play’s two characters in a focused environment. It was in this setting that much of the play was completed and I give kudos to my fellow playwright and performer Phil Rickaby who organized the residency as well as playwrights Michael Ripley and Rosemary Doyle who gave valuable insights into how the piece could be developed.

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Gibralter Point… the way to completing a draft

When the first draft was finally done and sent off to my director Aaron and co-star Lauren, I want to say that I felt confident but, truthfully, I was nervous as hell. Perhaps the abrupt change in style had me on edge. Perhaps it was just feeling the jitters as I always feel after finishing the first draft. Fortunately, the company’s notes made it clear the script was headed in a good direction. Like every playwright, I went away with directions on potential rewrites. But, as Aaron said to me, “it’s good to have a draft”… and to enjoy that first draft over a nice cup of coffee. Which I did.

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Coffee + script = #amplaywriting

A week later, I had the team back together for a look at a rewrite. After cutting three pages off and doing some serious restructuring, we were ready for what is possibly the most nerve-wracking part of being a playwright: the first read. Considering how long this piece has been percolating, and the ups and downs of the script’s development, it felt pretty good. And, after years of writing plays for the Fringe, I was reminded that this draft would likely see more changes with even minor tweaks and cuts being made up to show’s opening.

And, even as I finish this blog post, I’ve revised the script a third time (you knew that was coming, right?). There will likely be a fourth and fifth and and and. I mean, let’s face it, no script ever survives rehearsals intact. So I’ll let you know how it goes.

~Stephen Near