Interview with Richard Wolfe, of Pi Theatre
When I found out that I could interview Richard Wolfe, artistic director of Pi theatre, through Spanglish magazine, I said yes before even thinking what I would ask him. I’d seen his work before, most recently when he directed Sarah Kane’s “Blasted”, a play that takes a sharp turn from a relationship drama into reliving the horrors of civil war. I still didn’t how my conversation with Richard would go as I called him up, but being two theatre geeks, I’d figure we’d naturally wade into controversial territory. Our actual conversation ran over half an hour, touching on the tragedy that inspired the writing of their latest show, as well as immigration, inclusivity in the theatre, the role of the artist, and more. Hopefully I’ve been able to do Richard justice in this excerpt, as it is clear how thoughtful he is about his work and its place in society.
Richard Wolfe, photo courtesy of Pi Theatre
Richard: We’re very excited to do [The Events]. We wanted to do it because it fits our Pi mission of intellectually alive and emotionally charged. It’s very smart. It’s not a traditional realistic play. It’s not set in a living room; we don’t do shows set in living rooms. The subject matter itself is very relevant. It focuses on the questions of why an individual would carry out a mass shooting event.
The question specifically for David Greig was around the Anders Breivik shooting, in Norway, where he killed 69 people, who were basically like the young NDP who were on retreat on an island, and injured some 50 more. He also set off a bomb in Oslo. So [that] was the impetus, but the play itself does not represent that incident, it’s a fiction. It’s created a new scenario and it doesn’t sensationalize the subject matter, it doesn’t try to realistically represent the event.
It focuses around one of the survivors of the event, a queer priest named Claire, and her struggle to live after a traumatic event, basically. It sounds very heavy, and it some ways it is, I suppose, but it’s not using a big club to beat you over the head. David Greig uses some *Brechtian devices to detach us from the emotional content occasionally and move us toward the intellectual side, and it also celebrates what’s best in human kind, which is this our ability to come together, to be empathetic, to celebrate community through singing, specifically, in this play. The other really interesting feature about this piece is that it uses community choirs. There’s a different community choir every night from around the lower mainland and they don’t get to meet the actors until the night of the performance. They’re on stage the whole time. They act kind of like a Greek chorus, and they observe. They live through the story with the actors on their night, and they’re visible on stage the whole time.
Victor: Was this part of the script, or was this something you discovered in producing the show?
R: It’s part of it. It’s part of the artistic conception of the piece, and we also felt that this would be perfect at Push. And Norman [Armour] thought it would be perfect because it experiments with form and it also engages the community actively, and it’s a real serious piece of art. [laughs] I hate to use that word, you know. Not only is society anti-intellectual to a degree, it’s anti-art also, to a degree. And Vancouver is also timid, at least the theatre-going public --this is a generalization-- around material they perceive to be too heavy. Push has opened up some space for non-traditional forms, as well as subject matter that may be a little more challenging, so that’s great. People seem to have no trouble seeing films at the International Film Festival where the content might be a little bit more challenging… Hopefully, people won’t be scared away. There’s nothing scary about it, it’s actually quite beautiful and it ends on a positive note.
V: I actually wanted to talk to you about that, because the last show I saw, Blasted, and this show too, are dealing with these very traumatic events happening over there in Eastern Europe, or Europe anyway, and the Vancouver audiences, I agree, are timid about heavy subject matter. Maybe because we don’t experience these types of events here..?
R: That’s part of it. This is going to sound harsh but North Americans are mostly brought up on a Hollywood diet, a fantasy world. The kind of entertainment that we seem to -- even the politics—the politics of personality and the militarization of the US, has bled into fashion and everything else. You know, Call of Duty is one of the best-selling games ever, and it puts people in a place where they construct these… the American dream is the American fantasy, you know? And I do agree if you haven’t experienced something, then it can seem kind of remote. Europe was destroyed in WWII, they know what that is, and the US has never, since the Civil War, had a real was on its soil. And Canada hasn’t’ either, really, so it’s a little remote.
V: This is more of a 2018 question, the way that identity politics is going. The idea of being a Canadian company putting on these shows, and maybe most people working in it haven’t experienced these events first hand, how do you see your role producing these shows?
R: Well, I didn’t write them for one thing. And they’re stories. We’re telling stories. I feel we can’t go too far down that rabbit hole or no one would do anything. People look at the World through their own eyes, and they comment on it. That’s what artists have always done. Once we start saying that an actor can’t portray any character that is in any way not themselves then there’s no art in acting. There would be no art of fiction either. Fiction is made up stories, right? In terms of content, when you approach difficult material you do your research.
It’s not like Canada as a country hasn’t experienced things. It seems to be centred in Quebec, the worst examples, with the Polytechnique massacre of those women, and most recently the shooting in the Mosque, so it’s not alien to our country. And certainly, these larger events can affect us in a universal, almost Jungian way where our psychological, our emotional souls are tortured by this relentless newsfeed of horror—
V: Right. All of it is local, in a way.
R: Yeah. Las Vegas, in the States, was recent. [People] very rarely have the time, and the patience to go in depth with any sort of context, so the role of art, I think, is to frame and lead a conversation, and the role of an artist is to look through their own eyes at a subject and comment on it. Greig went to Norway, he worked with a Norwegian dramaturge there, and he did in-depth research, and, again, he’s not writing the story about that particular event. He invented his own story. We’re just bringing David Greig’s two-dimensional story to life, with Vancouver’s audiences, and some Vancouver artists.
V: I agree with you, by the way.
R: It’s becoming so reductive. It’s all atomized and I think it has something to do with this whole idea of the self, right? We’re living in the age of the Self. The selfie, the Self, everything’s ‘me,me,me’. This idea of shared experience that actually has existed and continues to exist through the ages seems to get ignored. I think it’s a kind of divide and conquer thing. I understand you can reduce, you can say ‘well, this country, or this group of people, this gender, this sexual orientation...’ and within that group you start drilling down, and there’s a generational issue, an economic issue, and there’s a very particular culture… Where do you stop? Obviously there are specific [concerns] but we [all] try to find meaning, belonging in our lives, emotional contact. We try to realize our aspirations, we try to celebrate life, laugh, cry…
V: Yeah. The theatre is supposed to be communal, and there’s something healing about seeing someone play your part as well. I’ll say, as someone watching white people go onstage and play Latinos, it’s nice to see how we’re seen.
R: I take a slightly more left approach to things. Remember the phrase ‘workers of the World, unite’? Well, that movement, the union movement, was completely inclusive. And in terms of sexuality, politics, the rainbow flag was supposed to represent full inclusivity, and I believe that hopefully we’ll go through this and things will hopefully come together.
V: You look at it historically from other societies, and they go through phases like these. I think North America feels unique because they think they’re the only ones that have ever gone through these problems.
Douglas Ennenberg as "The Boy" and Luisa Jojic as "Claire". Photo credit: Emily Cooper
R: But I do feel, obviously, that people should, everybody should have a voice and nobody in society should be made invisible, and all of those real key implements of identity politics I agree with.
I started a long time ago. The range of stories is a lot more interesting than it was. Canadian theatre, Canadian playwrights, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. It doesn’t go that far back. You can place it to the 60’s and 70’s even. Stratford was a tent in 1958 and it was doing work form ‘the Motherland’, whatever. In that sense, the diversity of stories is much more interesting, much stronger. Canada, as a nation, both Canada and Australia, lead the World in terms of accepting immigrants. Obviously, the people that were here first got run over, and then there’s been this influx.
As the percentage of the population continues to diversify away from Europe, the more interesting the stories are going to become, in terms of how they intersect. When we see that we are not standing alone, but that all of these things make this country what it is, the artistic expression of this country will continue to become more interesting.