It’s been about 10 months since Vern Thiessen started as Artistic Director of Workshop West, returning to Edmonton after seven years in New York. Having a history at the company as a dramaturg and later as a playwright-in-residence and now having spent almost a year in Edmonton, Vern has announced Workshop West’s 2015/2016 season with an understanding of the company’s historical and a vision for its future place in Edmonton’s theatre community.
Vern says, “Historically Workshop West is really the main theatre in town – maybe the only theatre – that is completely and utterly devoted to new plays and particularly the individual playwright. I think that’s been the case throughout it’s history and it’s borne out in all the people we’ve produced over the years, whether it’s Brad Fraser, or myself, or Mieko Ouchi, or Ken Cameron, the list of hugely successful writers and plays that have come out of the company is quite large. So that’s basically what it’s always been known as. That’s what interested me in coming back – it’s a playwright’s theatre and, in fact, to my knowledge it is the only producing playwright’s company in Canada… Where [Workshop West] is now in the community is different. When it started out there were maybe 4 or 5 theatre companies in Edmonton and now you can’t turn a corner without bumping into another theatre company or festival… This year [I examined] what does the city need? What role can the theatre company play in the city? Or how can it serve the city?… I think what the city is missing and the theatre community needs is someone to reflect the changes that are happening in the city through the eyes of playwrights.”
To do that, Workshop West’s 2015/2016 season consists of five parts:
- Café Daughter by Kenneth T. Williams, running November 25 – December 6. The story of 10 year old Yvette Wong, who is part Cree, part Chinese and placed in the slow learner’s class not because of her intelligence, but because of her skin colour. Her mother attended a residential school and is conflicted about her identity, and so has asked Yvette not to tell anyone she’s part-Cree. She keeps that promise as a child, but as she grows up, she decides to reclaim her heritage.
- The world première of Ursa Major by Megan Dart, directed by Beth Dart, running January 27 – February 7. For 2015 Catch the Keys was Catalyst Theatre’s Company in Residence, during which time they workshopped Ursa Major. Based on the true story of Megan and Beth’s grandparents, Ursa Major chronicles how a retired couple that’s been involved in a car accident deals with their injuries. On how Ursa Major came to Workshop West, Vern says, “Catalyst approached us about helping dramaturge the project, and we have since moved to produce the show with Catch the Keys. I am thrilled that Catalyst brought this project to our attention.”
Workshop West’s annual festival of new and innovative work from Edmonton, Canada, and beyond. This year the festival runs January 27 – February 7 and is being presented at the same time as the Expanse Festival.
The collaboration came about when Murray Utas called Vern up the day following Canoe Festival and said, ‘Buddy, I got an idea. You. Me. Canoe. Expanse. We’re going to go on a date. What do you think?’ And Vern’s immediate reaction was, ‘That sounds awesome.’ About why the collaboration makes sense, Vern says, “We’re both struggling for audiences and there is some cross-over. We both get funding for separate festivals, so we can’t join the festivals, but in a perfect world over the next couple of years we would look at creating a larger festival, like the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, or the PuSh Festival in Vancouver, or the Luminato festival in Toronto, but also at a very high level, it’s a curated program, which Canoe and Expanse are. We’re going to try it this year, we’re going to lay the festivals on top of each other and we’ll see what happens… We’re running at the exact same time but in coordination.
A play development program, with plays being performed April 21 – 26. This is YEG will install Jason Chinn, Megan Dart, Minister Faust, Heidi Janz, Conni Massing, Nicole Moeller, Cat Walsh, and Kenneth T. Williams in communities across Edmonton – anywhere from locations as diverse as the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital to the zoo to Councillor Ben Henderson’s office, to an ETS bus. The playwrights will each spend 21 days interacting within their chosen community, and then at the end of the project will produce a 10 – 15 minute play.
Vern has produced something similar in Pennsylvania and says the community-building benefits of the program are huge. “The great thing about it is it brings people into a room that would normally never be in the same room together. It gives people in the city an audience – Glenrose Hospital people come and go, ‘I had no idea that was happening at the zoo.’ People start to see their community differently… It’s a chance again for the writer to go into the community and for that community somehow, in some way be represented to an audience… Most of us that practice theatre in Edmonton live a pretty safe existence. Going into a community is kind of terrifying, and it should be terrifying… As artists I believe that we have some responsibility to these communites.”
Plays in development
Nicole Moeller and Beth Graham will be Workshop West’s playwrights-in-residence, working on the plays Mr. Big and Pretty Goblins respectively. According to Vern, we may or may not see workshop productions of these shows throughout the year – it’s totally up to the playwrights, so we’ll have to stay tuned.
An ongoing program where junior high and high schools can bring in Workshop West to facilitate a playwriting workshop. Vern says that his time in New York working with children in the Bronx and Harlem has left him with a passion for helping kids find their voice through writing. “It’s important to me because of my experience in New York, which was my first experience in my life where I realized these kids don’t have a voice. They don’t have a voice at school, they don’t have a voice at home, they don’t have a voice in the community. To some extent, they don’t have a voice in their country. I worked with a lot of kids who were immigrants, a lot of African-Americans, and a lot of Hispanic kids and so I got to see how writing a scene – a piece of dialogue – could actually free them up to go, ‘Oh my God, I actually have something to say. And nobody is going to censor me!’ That was pretty earth shattering. I had taken it for granted my entire life that I could say whatever the fuck I wanted and people would not only listen, but might even pay money to hear it… I think it’s good for kids to realize, whether it’s through writing or art or music, that there is an artistic outlet for them.”
It’s a diverse season, and that was one of Vern’s goals. “What I was mainly interested in was playwrights who were diverse in nature – whether they were women, sadly diversity means women… or people of colour or whoever telling stories that would provoke a conversation and that would capture interest and that were really just great pieces of writing.” But Vern’s interests also lie in the ‘third act’ – the discussion about the questions the play raises. “For me, it’s not just the play, it’s what is the play doing in society? We’re going to be creating a salon series after both shows. After Café Daughter we will talk about truth and reconciliation and the impact and also what it’s like to be biracial, or to have a mixed heritage. And with Ursa Major, the play raises so many questions about palliative care and what we do when people have accidents and have long-term injuries and how do you sustain a loving relationship with someone who is in a coma or someone who has completely changed because of an injury?”
Of the season’s theme, Real People. Real Plays. Vern says, “I really like that both of the mainstage plays that we’re doing are based on real stories. And the fact that the playwrights in This is YEG are going to talk to real people… That’s something we’re doing this year, whether it becomes a motif for future years, we’ll see.”
For more information on Workshop West, check out their new website.