An interview with Director Mieko Ouchi: Bello, a new play by Vern Thiessen

Bello by Vern Thiessen
A bilingual co-production from Concrete Theatre and L’Unithéâtre.
Translated to French by Brian Dooley
Directed by Mieko Ouchi
Touring elementary schools February 2 – March 24. Public performances February 17 and 18

An interview with Mikeo Ouchi.

How do you describe what Bello is about?

The heart of the story is a little boy named Bern who has lost his parents in an unnamed illness – it feels like a flu epidemic that’s gone through their community – and he’s gone to live with his aunt and uncle and 10 cousins. Despite the fact that he’s part of this huge family that have very warmly taken him in, he feels alone in the world. He misses his parents terribly and isn’t sure where he fits in. He’s going to a new school and has to walk five kilometres every day with his cousins and along the way he notices a burned out barn and his cousin tells him it’s where this old witch lives and everyone is too scared to go look in and throughout the year, the myth grows in his mind as he keeps passing this barn. In the winter, there is a huge snowstorm and he gets lost and, low and behold, he is found by the woman that lives in the barn and we find out her real story and who she is.

There’s this beautiful balance Vern has brought to the story where there’s this little boy who’s missing his parents and who is looking for parents in a way and ultimately a woman who we find out has lost her son and goes out into the snowstorm looking for him whenever there is a snowstorm and she finds Bern. It kind of has a mythic quality to it – it feels like a fairytale, but one that they haven’t heard before.

Going back to the first time you came across this script, what were your initial impressions? 

We just celebrated our 15th annual Sprouts New Play Festival for Kids, which is a development festival of plays for children and we commissioned Vern to write the play, initially as a Sprouts script. Way back in 2011 we approached Vern and asked if he’d like to write a 15-minute script for us based on his cultural background. He said he’d love to. This was when he was still in New York and he went back to Winnipeg to see his family and talked to his Mom and Dad and they each shared a story from their Mennonite background. One of the stories, I believe, was about an old woman who lived in a village and everyone was scared of. That became the character of Old Nettie in the play and the other story was about a little boy who got lost in a snowstorm. Vern put the two stories together and created this story of Little Bern and Old Nettie. The first iteration of the play was only 15 minutes and was called Little Bern and Old Nettie. We test drove it at Sprouts as a staged reading, with script in hand and minimal props and costumes. There were about 300 kids who saw the play and they loved it. Based on the reaction, we thought we would ask him to expand it, so we commissioned Vern to write a full-length version.

In the meantime, I spoke with Brian Dooley about this amazing script Vern was writing and… he said, well, maybe we could hatch a plan where maybe we could work on this play together. We came up with this idea of doing a bilingual co-production that would tour in both languages.

As much as you can tell me, what do you think it was about the core of Bello that you think the kids loved?

Vern has tried this storytelling style before for his play Bird Brain, which has been done all over the place, and he wanted to continue that exploration. Bello is written in a similar style – it’s really poetic and rhythmic and gestural. It’s hard to explain, but it’s got a lot of fun rhythm, use of language, onomatopoeia and rhyme and I think the kids really loved that about it.  It’s very theatrical, it doesn’t rely on sound effect and projections or technical things. It’s very much three people and their bodies. What we’ve done with this production is used a bunch of old-fashioned sound-making machines, so we actually built an old-fashioned radio play wind machine that we create the snowstorm with. We use orchestral chimes and xylophones and bottles and these thunder drums. All the sound effects are done live by the actors on stage. We really tried to embrace the low-fi qualities in Vern’s script and the homemade feeling of the story. We tried to make that part of the entire design of the show. The production designer, Patrick Bacon also created a beautiful set that’s evocative of Ukranian cross-stitch. So, the whole backdrop is cross-stitched with yarn and it’s a beautiful landscape.

What ideas does the play explore?

It feels like in this political climate, it’s interesting to have a play that looks at not judging people by their outward appearance, but really that old adage of not judging a book by its cover, but finding out what’s really inside. This seems like a really important message right now, to not judge people, but to get to know them, find out their real story, and welcome them into the community.

That message is essential right now. In the adult world, we’re dealing with Trump and people who are trying to “other” people – to make them be the “other” and make people be afraid of them whether they be refugees or immigrants or people who are “different”. I love that the play says don’t judge people by those outward things because you don’t know their real stories and if you invest in finding out the real stories, you’ll find out they’re mostly not true and you’ll discover you’re connected in ways you might not know and that might be warm and beautiful and exactly what you need.

It’s so relevant right now. 

For us at Concrete, and for Vern and Brian, we’re always trying to look for that relevance for children. We don’t want to just do things that are entertaining, we also want to try to explore issues they’re grappling with and thinking about even at their young age. They might have someone coming into their classroom who is a refugee or someone who looks different than them.

This is a new work you’ve commissioned, so as the director what are your considerations when you’re directing a new work like this?

Because I’m a playwright as well, I’m always so interested in what the playwright’s intent is and to try to, I hope, bring that forward. We really, of course, welcomed Vern into the rehearsal process. Brian Dooley did the translation so he was in the room as well. We tried to have a very open process, invite everybody in and Vern gave us lots of great feedback on things he thought were working, or that we could push further or that surprised him and that he didn’t know were in the script. We really tried to keep that dialogue open and I think that’s helped the play blossom. Some of the changes that have been made were a result of our process in the rehearsal hall, others came from Vern watching rehearsals, so I felt like it was a really seamless collaboration. That’s what I aim for: a space where we can really explore the text and all the images and, especially in theatre for young audiences, how we interact with the audience.

Was there anything we didn’t talk about?

The other interesting thing was we got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to bring in Syrian refugees for free to the show. We’ll have quite a group of refugees who will be attending the show and we are offering some Arabic translation – a synopsis of the play and the information from the program. We’re going to have Arabic speakers at the show in the lobby and to help facilitate the Q&A afterwards so if any of our Syrian friends want to ask questions and interact with the actors, we’ll facilitate that. We’re excited to invite them to the show…. We have connections through the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and other various organisations, so most people already have their tickets, but if anyone hears about this who is a Syrian refugee or is a sponsor of a refugee family, they can call our office and we will arrange for free tickets. We’re really happy to offer this neat program through the support of the Canada Council.

Bello by Vern Thiessen tours elementary schools February 2 – March 24. Public performances are February 17 and 18 at La Cité Francophone, 8627 Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury (91 St). Tickets for public performances are $19 for adults and $16 for students/seniors.

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