Who is it for?

I’ve struggled with this topic. I love audiences. I love the idea of connecting with someone and reaching across that gap and drawing a picture in a mind I’ve never touched before.

But where is the line? How much can you move someone before you are just, as Bea says, “dumping it all in their laps?”

Also, it seems to me that, as audiences, we want a certain detachment. We want to escape. We want to be entertained. We don’t want things to change, we want to see something and walk away, leaving it behind.

But I what if you couldn’t leave it behind? What if it stayed with you and made you question things? What if it made you look at your own life and think, “what if…?”

When we start out working on shows, and I am talking about work well before rehearsals, just talking about scripts and possible crews and stuff, the thing that comes up most is “can this person or that person handle this in their life right now?” And this is just talking about a musical or a comedy, not something cerebral and moving such as Vimy is.

I find those thoughts troubling. We should be uplifted by theatre. If you imagine it as a burden, think of your life without it. For the crew, the actors and, to an even greater extent, an audience, theatre exists to connect us to each other. So many forces are pulling us apart from each other in this world.

I want to pull us together. Vimy is a play that does that. Derrick, Marlena, Steve, Nic, Remi: these folks will touch your soul with the stories of people just like you. It will stir audiences and disrupt their waking sleep of everyday, busy and unaffected lives. I will be there watching.

Who is it for?

Us. It’s for us.

I will see you from the top.

It is all just a love story…

But, the thing is, you never really know what to think about it. As an audience, you’re trying to piece together the whole chronology of the thing, and then you think it’s over, and then you get the thing at the end.

There I gave it all away without spoiling, see?

The thing is – there are 2 love stories happening in parallel. You have to pay close attention to what everyone is saying, and in some cases Bea has staged it so that the 2 couples are positioned in the same way in different scenes.

But what really gets me is that they are both love triangles with an “entity” as the third wheel. In one case, we might think of it as war, but in another case, we could look at “society” as thee third factor. But you could also insert any number of things in there that come between folks in love in troubled times.

Just a love story.

VIMY–What it’s really about

I’ve been pondering this one a lot lately, but it’s something that I’ve had top of mind since I’ve been speaking about this play to people. 

Which means I’ve been trying to figure it out for 6 months and I’m nowhere close.

Well… maybe I’m getting somewhere.  I think it has to do with the fact that we rehearse scenes and end up laughing, sometimes in complete hysterics, or that people come and watch these things play out and feel totally energized afterwards.  Why is it so much… well… fun?  This doesn’t feel like war.  It doesn’t feel gloomy, it feels bright and shiny and more alive than anything.

Why?  How?

Think about it.  We can’t remember what this time was about, but the relationships formed during this era were closer and tighter than we can imagine.  These bonds were forged of stiffer stuff than the fleeting things that we are familiar with.  The brightness with which these people experienced life is nearly blinding with it’s brilliance, and it’s refreshing to behold.  I can’t help smiling when I picture Sid and Will, sitting at the side of a lake; or JP and Claude, plotting; or Bert and Mike, seeing a vision on Chief Mountain.

Or Clare and Laurie.  Their love is filled with laughter and passion – it’s like a physical presence in itself.  It’s so real, that you can’t help smiling when you see Clare smile.  You can’t help laughing when you hear Laurie laugh.  I mean, he’s me, so that’s a little weird, but that’s kind of the point.

Vimy brings us to life.  These relationships, and that’s really what it’s about, by the way, are so shining bright with vivacity that we can’t help but be affected by.  It shows us friendship and brotherhood and love in their purest forms.

Think about that for a second.

Did you think Remembrance Day was a day of mourning?   Think again. 

“I’m gonna tell you the story of Vimy…”

Billy Bishop, and how I got into this in the first place…

I just finished watching this excellent docu-drama by the National Film Board’s Paul Cowan called “The Kid who Couldn’t Miss“. It’s all about Billy Bishop. It features the regular documentary style reporting, which is very well done, as well as tidbits from “Billy Bishop Goes to War”, by John Gray with Eric Peterson as Bishop and several other characters.

I remember seeing this play when I was a kid, and it got me to thinking about the World Wars and the kind of people they produced – and they did produce people – don’t think that they didn’t.  One could argue quite readily that these 2 events have shaped our current civilization for the past century.

But do we remember them, really?

Bishop is a hero, but his story is so tragic, it almost doesn’t bear thinking about.  Juxtapose that with the fall of his comrades, and you have a real headache on your hands.  Nothing but tragedy, and this from the super-stars of the Great War – the heroes in the sky!

Last winter I went back and forth with John Gray by email, trying to convince him to let VOS have the right to put on the Bishop play this November.  Trouble is, he and Peterson decided in the beginning that they didn’t want the show’s message diluted and they certainly didn’t think the show deserved to be served up dinner-theatre style with martinis and coffee.  I quite agree, and although I assured him of our intent, I am glad he stuck to his word, for in the end it led me to Thiessen’s Vimy, and in that we were able to convince him to let us perform it in Cobourg’s Victoria Hall.



Along with “Billy Bishop Goes to War”, which has been reprised many times by Gray and Peterson, most recently with Soulpepper in Toronto this past summer, red-baronyou also have the new-ish film “The Red Baron” which delves into von Richthofen’s life a little bit and shows the other side of the trenches with equal ethos to anything we’ve seen thus far.  I highly recommend either show if you’d like to see some interesting details of the lives of these flyers.

But, dig a little further and you’ll find  Passchendaele, directed by and starring Paul Gross, which, although highly romanticized, also shows the war as it’s seen from the trenches as well passchendaeleas back home in small town Canada.  It’s a tragic but also enlightening look at the battle on a large scale as seen through the microscopic lens of a single pair of eyes.

Most compelling for me was the fear that men showed in the trenches, and how the “down the line” verbal communication was so important.  Each soldier was a lifeline to the next man beside him.  It makes each death that much more of a profound loss, since it further separates the survivors from each other.


I’ve gone too far with this, but I’ve come back around to Vimy, which I won’t comment on too much, since I hope you’ll come and see it for yourself, but expect more from me on the process of preparing to stage this drama.

More later – joel.

Finishing reading "The War Diary of Clare Gass"…


Last night was a long night.

We ran lines in rehearsal, everyone trying desperately to get off-book or to capture that little something in their character that had been eluding them.  At least, that’s how I felt.  The rehearsal was run by the assistant director, and the director, Bea, wasn’t there.  This was all on purpose to let us do our own thing and figure it out for ourselves.  I’ve never had the benefit of an asst-director before – but it’s cool because you can solicit feedback from someone that knows everything that’s happened up to this point in the process, but it’s been routed through a different mind and shaped into a new idea.  It really worked and the atmosphere was tense.

It became almost ridiculous when, also as per Bea’s plan, we switched roles and started reading everyone else’s lines.  It was one of those moments, and I wonder if this didn’t happen in wartime as well, when the weight of the circumstances is so heavy that all you can do is laugh.  Well, we laughed like crazy, shouting out lines and cracking up over M’s attempt at a French accent, or R’s reaction to it.  For me, it was incredible to see the voices that I had grown used to, both of my friends and the characters, coming at me in different way.

Anyways, back to Clare Gass – it really reads like a series of tides.  How day after day after day men and “laddies” would come to her ward to be patched up, healed, or to die, some to be sent home, others to go back to the front.  She is extremely guarded with her mentions of Laurie, and I found myself looking for hidden, secret references to her lover.  I think I found a few, but I will let them remain her secret.

One of the questions that has been in my mind the last few days is what song Laurie might whistle while on leave at the sea-side with Clare.  I found it in a semi-cryptic diary posting, hanging at the top of a day’s listing, several months after Vimy and all its sorrows: “The Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond”.

Listen for it, if you come.  Come if you can.

more later – j

Waiting is no fun

The hardest thing about theatre is the waiting.

I auditioned for Oklahoma! on Monday, as did my daughter. Now we have to wait. Hopefully not for too long…

Also, the way Vimy rehearsals are scheduled, we have nothing from Tuesday through Saturday, so I tend to disconnect a bit from all the stuff that transpired and unwound itself on Sunday or Monday. Soon we will be crazy mode, though, and November will be staring us in face – saying Are You Ready?

But for now, I wait… Hmm. Maybe I should memorize some more lines…

Oh – btw, I found this poem yesterday from the War Diary of Clare Gass. Apparently it is the main evidence of the relationship between her and Laurie. Pretty cool.

More later – jv

Chopin, tides, and soft ice cream

Last night nearly overwhelmed my senses. For the first time I experienced the emotions of my character and the reality of it was beyond me. If we hadn’t moved on to something else…

The night started with a “tide” of men choreographed into dying in time to Chopin’s Raindrop prelude. We were all in stitches laughing at it. It was appalling but very very cool when the dudes actually pulled it off.

Then, we started timing up the team pieces, the rapid fire sections where everyone is piping in and a mini battle is fought right there and Clare loses it on the dudes.

And Laurie is so… himself. Like me, he had a helluva time trying to make a simple hug look natural, but the dark stuff came naturally. Too much so, but I guess it’s better to be done with being affected by it early on.

Standing in a soft ice-cream freeze may be difficult, though. Just saying.

More later – jv

Approach to Character

Playing a character based on a real person is tricky. Bea told me some stuff yesterday that really sealed in a different way of looking at that makes it a more approachable thing.

Learn everything you can about the background first, get all the information that you can. Put it inside you.

This is different from a “get inside the head of the character” approach, and it allows you the ability to make it come from something real. Instead of starting from a pretense built upon from some feeble research, you can emit a ray of truth while still looking through a different person’s eyes.

The flashbacks will still be tough. There is a moment at the end of the play when the audience knows something that my character doesn’t. I will have to practice in the mirror.

More later – joel

Rehearsals for Vimy start this weekend

I am excited for this to begin – finally! It’s been a long haul getting from a first read of the script back in December, securing the rights in January are a bunch of back and forth after that. We are the first, to my knowledge, community non-professional group to do this play, so that is pretty cool in itself.

It took quite a while for us to find a director for this show, and it’s never an easy task at the best of times in this kind of organization. You have to give as many people a chance to read the script, but you can’t go to a bunch of people at the same time.  We talked to several people, and while they were interested, they were either involved with something else, or felt that after reading the script, the show was just out of their comfort zone. So we went through Theatre Ontario and asked them to recommend people to us. Then I talked to Bea Quarrie on the phone, and instantly her passion and vision for this script flicked a switch in my brain. Sometimes you need that little bit of confidence coming from someone else to validate the stuff you’ve been feeling, and that was the case here. Bea impressed me right away with her integrity and capability in approaching a show of this depth. Also, she really seems to “get it” when it comes to dealing with the kinds of abstract ideas that Vimy deals with.

At auditions, I was appalled at how few turned up, given how much effort and money the VOS board had put into advertising the audition date and time to the community.  I really felt that there were actors in our community that would jump at the opportunity to seriously engage with these characters.  Be that as it may, those who DID show up, are top notch people, and I can’t wait to hear them become someone different in the way that they all did during the audition read-through.  It was a group format, and each of us read a bunch of different parts.  It was a great experience, and I had goosebumps for a good portion of it.

When the show was cast, Bea immediately put us all into preparation mode with a phone call to each actor. She challenged me to delve deeply into the character and to discover all the things about both the real person and my character that would put him in that field hospital after the battle of Vimy ridge.

So that’s where I am right now, with a history of “Laurie McLean”, who I have discovered in real life was based a little bit on Laurie Gass. Turns out he was 2nd cousin to Clare Gass (Clare Lewis in the play, the nurse) and is mentioned several times in her diary, which is published and widely referred to as an important historical look at the life of a nurse in the 1st World War.  It’s called “The War Diary of Clare Gass” [Amazon.ca Link].

clip_image001I turned up a bunch of great material on Laurie, including photos, one from a newspaper clipping when he at McGill, and another one that states his military service. There is even a typed letter to his mother from Laurie’s commanding officer which brought me to tears when I read it the first time.

There are parts of Laurie’s story that immediately connected with me when I first read the script: how he followed his girlfriend to war to be near to her; how he behaves when he has to explain that the war is having on him; how he feels at the height of battle itself. I can’t imagine how he must have felt, but I feel I can do his memory, and the memories of those connected to this war, a small service by exploring them and bringing them to light on stage.

You have to realize, though, that Vern Thiessen’s Laurie Mclean, isn’t Laurie Gass, but rather an exploration of the kind of person that he represents, and a tight rolling together of his relationship with Clare and his heroism as a Nova Scotia Highlander.  I can’t know what it’s like to be Laurie Gass, but Laurie Mclean is who I will become for a few brief days and nights this November.

It’s my feeling that the kind of brotherhood shared by soldiers in war isn’t something that we men of the 21st century have experienced. Vimy opens that brotherhood up and digs deep inside the kind of feeling that men in that time had for each other. When you spend every moment together, waking and sleeping, full of terror and full of quiet waiting, rain and snow, sun and wind, dying and broken, alive and elated. I don’t know what that feels like, but I think Thiessen has some clues on how to explore it.

Tickets are on sale now for Vimy, click through to the VOS website to get more details.

More later – joel

Review of Stratford Festival’s “Camelot”


I took in the 2pm showing of Stratford Festival’s “Camelot” yesterday, and we left with a lot to think about and even more to write about.  I have to confess, while I’ve read and seen several Arthurian adaptations, I’ve only read the first portion of TH White’s “The Once and Future King”, the second and third parts of which Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot stems from.  So I only have my own love of Arthurian tales and legends to lean upon for a frame of reference for this review.

Camelot | On The Stage

Proposition: the New York Times review of the two Stratford musical productions this season by Charles Isherwood evokes pissiness where it attempts to draw us into pithiness of the “greatest story ever told.”  As if a bit of a lisp would excuse him for dismissing Stratford’s Camelot efforts as somewhat irrelevant because it isn’t the blockbuster that Jesus Christ Superstar.  Of course, only us Arthurian legend-lovers would confuse what he means by the greatest story ever told.  Either way, I feel that Isherwood was speaking more to downplay the fact that a theatre company may eventually descend from the north and successfully take on Broadway.  I think he feels pissy about that.

Which leads me back around to my own critique: I absolutely adored watching and experiencing this show.  The proscenium stage appeared as a wonderful, shining and spotless platform, complete with with Celtic and old English symbols to set us in the proper mood.  The copper and iron tree in the middle caught the light beautifully, although I would suggest that they adjust the leaves somehow so that they don’t jangle together when Arthur leaps from it.  A minor distraction, but important.

In the opening seen we are treated to a live hawk descending from the ceiling into Merlin’s outstretched hand, a nice touch.  The opening was superb with run-throughs of gradually aging Arthurs until we are left with Geraint Wyn Davies, sitting in the tree waiting for Guenevere to arrive.

Which leads me to Arthur.  Proposition: Arthur ought to be portrayed, if not as the greatest king ever, than at least with a knowledge of the dearth of legend behind and beneath him.  Shouldn’t he be the kind of king that looks off into the distance, not straight at the camera?  Davies successfully brings out the humorous and irreverent side of the King, as he is portrayed in the script, but it leaves him looking unabashedly incompetent instead of merely possessing a fatale flaw – missing his tutor whom he has relied upon in the past.  Even if Arthur is a bit over-funny, at least they could have given him better hair – his limpid locks of Act I didn’t help his cause in the least.  To Davies credit, though, he can deliver his lines powerfully and with great effect.  His accent is impeccable, and elocution near perfect; I expect this is why he was cast, as his singing voice is reminiscent of late era Harry Chapin, and I found myself spending more time watching to see if his spittle cloud would visibly dampen Guenevere’s face.

Oh, and what a Guenevere we have.  Kaylee Harwood has a spectacular voice that grabs us from the very first note she sings.  She spoke a bit much from the throat, I thought, and her British seemed a bit heavy for her character, but she consistent and overall, delightful.  She will bring audiences back to Stratford year after year if she sticks around.  Her stage presence to those viewing in front, beside and behind her made her seem like she was always aware of the effect she was having.  Her and Davies worked the stage very well together – their chemistry was palpable and the very air between them at times seemed to twitch with electricity.  Not so between her and Lancelot.

Camelot | On The StageNow, let’s speak of Sir Lancelot.  If we must, and yes, we really must.  Jonathan Winsby has a great voice, he shows right away upon his first entry, but really.  He’s played as a dolt, he seems to simper around the stage, almost as if he’s afraid to make any noise.  I can only surmise that he’s been told to play it like this, but there is little or no connection between him and “Jenny”.  It’s a real shame, because Winsby has the pipes and prowess to be a force on stage, but he never really challenges us to form a triangle in or minds of himself, Arthur and the Queen.  He more or less seems to stand alone.

I think the play was cast strangely, and this is probably what holds Camelot back from being the kind of breakaway success that it could be.  In order to have true contention between their love for each other (brotherly, of course) and for Guenevere, Arthur and Lancelot must be like brothers – they must be of an age and they must be near equals in battle.  The difference between them is that Arthur is tied to his kingdom, and Lance is not.  Arthur is stoic, flawed and funny, Lance is confident, free and poetic.  Each is bound by chivalry, and to choose between them is like death for Guenevere.

My long winded criticisms and musings aside, the show was wonderfully done, and a most excellent way to spend less than 3 hours.  Yes.  Less than 3 hours.  Scene changes were nearly absurdly quick, so much so that one didn’t quite know whether to clap, since the previous players had gone and the next one were ready to go before the realization that the scene was changing had kicked in.  Also, the choreography was stunning and effortlessly watchable, especially from the variety of angles afforded by this kind of stage. At one point (pictured below), we see one of the knights leap from a lifted table top and land with nary a sound.

Camelot | On The Stage

Yes, most of the production featured near-silent dancing, and I suspect this was to make it easier for the sound folks to balance the orchestra with the singers.  This too, was nearly flawless.  Kudos to Rick Fox, the musical director, and sound designer Peter McBoyle, for that feat, since the exaggerated viewing angles mean many and more listening angles as well.

To conclude, Camelot is a great bit of theatre, with lots to contemplate on how things might have been had they been just a bit different.  ‘Twas ever thus where Arthur and his knights were concerned.

Camelot plays at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario until October 20, 2011.

more later – Joel Varty