It’s been a busy few months for Vern Thiessen, Workshop West’s new Artistic Director and programmer for the 2015 Canoe Theatre Festival. After starting at Workshop West in earnest in September, he’s only had 4 months to program the Canoe Theatre Festival, which takes place January 28 – February 1.
On starting at Workshop West, Vern says, “I returned to Workshop West after I’d been living [and working] in New York city for seven years and before that had been in Edmonton for 18 years… I started my career at Workshop West right after I finished grad school .I was hired by Gerry Potter, the founding Artistic Director at Workshop West, to basically be a dramaturg at the theatre… [And then] for about three years in the early 2000’s I was Playwright-in-Residence under Ron Jenkins when he was Artistic Director. So, I understand the history of the company, I understand it’s mandate. When the opportunity came up to come back to Edmonton it seemed like a really good fit.”
While coming back to Edmonton after living and working in New York may have been “a bit of a reverse culture shock”, as Vern says, programming Canoe 2015 from the ground up allowed him to explore the works and themes most interesting to him. “I spent seven years living in New York and the New York that I lived was not the ‘Sex and the City’ New York. I didn’t live in Manhattan, I lived in an immigrant neighbourhood with working class people and I spent a lot of time teaching kids in the Bronx and in Harlem. I spent a lot of time in communities where I was the outsider. So, I saw what theatre can do to bind communities, to bring them in and connect people. I learned that theatre can be diverse and we have a real lack of that in Canada and Edmonton in particular… It’s important for me to reflect and reach out to what I think Edmonton is and who the people walking down Whyte Avenue are. They’re not all white and they’re not all able-bodied.”
Vern says one of his main goals with Canoe was to, “program things that were reaching out into the broader community. How iRan is a good example – it’s really a show about immigration and we’re working with the Edmonton Public Library and the Iranian community to make sure the festival isn’t just for old people and white people… Jon Lachlan Stewart’s piece is brand new, no one has seen it but him, but my guess is it’s going to be pretty incendiary. I’m very interested in talking about the sexual politics that he’s talking about, so that’s another reached community. Gavin Crawford is a huge player in the LGBTQ community in Toronto and I wanted to be able to reach that community.”
While all shows at the festival address social issues, it was also important to keep the programming accessible, “One of the things that I learned about Edmonton audiences is that they’re a pretty democratic crowd and they like weird things and things that are innovative but they also want it to be real… It’s the middle of fucking winter, nobody wants to go see a show that’s a highfalutin thing that makes you think… [To go to a show] I’m going to get out warm up my car, scrape off my windshield to go see a show and it better be worth it.”
So, what are these shows that will be worth scraping off our windshields for?
- How iRan: three plays for iPod, which is an interactive experience of the stories of over 20 new Canadians and one Prisoner of Conscience told through pre-recorded tracks on an iPod and a journey through the Old Strathcona library.
- Sh**ting Rainbows, Gavin Crawford’s improvisation/stand-up/storytelling show that’s gotten rave reviews in Toronto and makes its way out west for Canoe.
- The Hierarchy of the Lost Children, an immersive theatre experience where audience members get to join a cult for a night.
- Fortuitous Endings (what to do when you wake up drunk in a BBQ cover in your neighbours’ backyard.), the world premiere of a piece – perhaps a little biographical? – from the local dance theatre company that exploded at the 2014 Fringe, Toy Guns Dance Theatre.
- The Girl with Two Voices, a storytelling piece by monologue master Alan Williams.
- Lavinia, Jon Lachlan Stewart’s newest piece, which uses the Shakespearian technique of a man playing a woman to explore gender politics.
Of the festival headliner, Gavin Crawford, appearing for one night only, Vern says that Gavin is able to appeal to many generations and does that very poignantly while discussing important topics of the day. “In the past what he’s done with Sh**ting Rainbows is he’s done a bunch of different characters and sometimes he has these stock characters that he does... It’s probably five different characters [and] a 5 or 10 minute monologue from each. That’s all I know, but it’s gotten great reviews. I think sometimes he switches it up every night. So, it’s part improvisation, part stand up, part storytelling. He said, “I’m sure I’ll work in some stuff about Bill 10.” ”
When first starting to think about programming Canoe Theatre Festival, The Heirarchy of the Children immediately popped into Vern’s head. “I know Mark Harris and Murmer. I’d seen the show at the Lincoln Centre. I’d actually participated in it in Miami. There’s a series of testimonials [about joining the cult of the lost children]… [and] I’m one of the people who appear in the testimonials and say that it changed my life. The thing that Mark is doing is that on an international scale he is working in immersive and interactive theatre and because he’s a computer programmer he is really on the cutting edge in New York in creating shows that hearken back to Coney Island and this idea that you can buy a ticket to participate or you can buy a ticket to watch other people participate. This idea that I can go on the roller coaster or I can pay money to sit and watch people on the roller coaster. That is a long-standing entertainment and artistic philosophy in the United States that is not all that prevalent in Canada.” Vern says the show also raises some very relevant questions, “At its heart that project is talking about what we believe – why do people join cults? And why are young men so disaffected that they’re going and joining ISIS? These are questions that are easily raised by that show. Why do people choose to get involved with groups like that?”
Canoe Theatre Festival also brings us U.K. monologist Alan Williams. “Between him and Mike Daisey, I can’t think of two better monologue artists in the world.What he does is create such an intimate environment that no one in Canada or the world can touch him. You sit down at a table with him and… he just tells a story that goes on for 90 minutes and you look at your watch and you’re just blown away and walk into a cold Edmonton night being completely transformed by this man who has, within a very short period of time and a confined space, told you an amazing story.”
From a more local perspective, both Toy Guns Dance Theatre and Jon Lachlan Stewart will be part of Canoe 2015. “Toy Guns, I’ve never seen a show of theirs except on video, but when I came to town in September, everybody was talking about them… I think that they within 5 or 10 years will be going international, easily. Jon Stewart is mainly in Montreal now, but I consider him a local artist and… he came to me with this idea [to do a workshop performance of Lavinia] and it’s very risky because he hasn’t done it anywhere but I was like sure, bring it in. I think he’s extremely talented.”
Of the festival as a whole, Vern says, “I hope people will be entertained and provoked to think not only about their society, but about what other societies exist. I would like for them to think that there’s a play happening everywhere, they just need to look around and they can probably construct it themselves.”
Canoe Theatre Festival runs January 28 – February 1 in various venues in Old Strathcona. More information about the festival is online at canoe2015.com. Tickets for individual performances range from free – $35 and full festival passes are $80 for adults/$70 for students and seniors. There is also a two show Mini Canoe pass for $40 adults/$35 students and seniors. Tickets are available from Workshop West.