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.


birdsongI’ve been reading this amazing novel by Sebastian Faulks called Birdsong which is set in and around France in the First World War.  He also wrote  Charlotte Gray, which has an excellent adaptation. It starts in 1910, and jumps to 1978, but really, it centres on the War and it’s effects on the human psyche. 

It’s riveting.  The depiction of human relationships in here is so compelling, it almost hurts to read it, but I can’t put it down because it’s so real.  I wonder through it all about my own life, and I might have been affected had I seen and experienced all of those… things.

You probably won’t read this book.  If you do, that’s awesome, and I want to know what you think of it.  If you won’t, here’s a reason why.

In one of the trickiest sequences in the book, the main character, Stephen, takes a “home leave” to England.  He goes into an expensive London shop to get some new clothes.  The reaction of the shopkeeper says a lot:

Stephen saw the man’s eyes run down him and register his uniform and rank.  He also saw, beneath his formal politeness, an involuntary recoil.  he wondered what it was about him that repelled the man.  He did not know if he smelled of choride of lime or blood or rats.  He reflexively put his hand to his chin but felt only a minimal scratch of beard that had grown back since he had shaved in the Hotel Folkstone.

So here we have, in the midst of war-torn England in 1917, a soldier trying to buy new clothes to wear while on leave.  The shopkeeper ends up, more or less, asking Stephen, an officer in the army that is supposedly preserving his very liberty, to get out of the shop.  Why? Stephen thinks.  Is it my rank (Lieutenant)?  Do I stink?  Am I unshaven and scruffy?  No.  By sacrificing himself in the trenches, and even if he hasn’t died it is still a sacrifice, he has inexorably set himself apart from humanity.  Stephen’s eventual acceptance of this state of affairs is almost triumphant in its sadness.  It’s hard to explain, and it’s one concept of many others that Faulks explores in Birdsong.  

Shit, just read it.

What really gets my hot under the collar is how the notion of remembrance is so repellant to some, like the shopkeeper who doesn’t want the soldier in his store.  We have to open our eyes to see.  We have to open our hearts to feel

We have to remember.

much more later – joel

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

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