Chalk up another achievement for Department of Writing MFA graduates: this month, Aaron Shepard is releasing his debut novel, When Is A Man.
Writing MFA Aaron Shepard
Shepard, who picked up his MFA back in 2010, is only the latest in a string of Writing MFAs—including Anne Marie Bennett, Frances Backhouse, Devon Krukoff, Garth Martens, Arleen Paré, Kevin Paul, Melanie Siebert and Yasuko Thanh—to publish. (Expand that to include BFAs and the list grows even further, thanks to the likes of Esi Edugyan, Marjorie Celona, D.W. Wilson and many more than can be listed here.)
But while this may be his first novel, Aaron Shepard has already written some award-winning short fiction, served on the fiction board of The Malahat Review and has been published in a number of Canadian literary journals, including The Fiddlehead and PRISM International. His personal essay “Edge of the Herd” appears in the 2009 anthology Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids (Touchwood).
Described by publishers Brindle & Glass as “an original debut novel that is meditative, raw, and exuberant in tone, Shepard’s When is a Man offers a fresh perspective on landscape and masculinity.” In a nutshell, the novel follows Paul Rasmussen—a young ethnographer and academic recovering from prostate cancer—who retreats to the remote forests and towns of BC’s fictional Immitoin Valley, where a drowned man and a series of encounters with the locals force him to confront the valley’s troubled past and his own uncertain future. As Rasmussen turns his attention to the families displaced 40 years earlier by the flooding of the valley to create a hydroelectric dam, his desire to reinvent himself runs up against the bitter emotions and mysterious connections that linger in the community in the aftermath of the flood.
- Join Aaron Shepard in celebrating the release of When is a Man at the reading and launch party from 7-9pm Tuesday, April 8 at the Copper Owl, 1900 Douglas Street in Victoria. The event will be hosted by Writing professor David Leach.
Calling it “an intimate and affecting exploration of screw-tight landscapes of the Interior,” Canadian novelist Mark Anthony Jarman praises Aaron Shepard’s freshman effort. “Shepard paints scenes in smoke and snow and light and dark, and the crack language and iron settings of river, mountain and forest put me in mind of the best of Ken Kesey the merry prankster,” he writes. “When is a Man is complex and stubborn and a serious joy.”
Focus magazine book columnist Amy Reiswig is also clearly a fan. Writing in the April 2014 issue, she notes, “Shepard blends his great love for and experience of rural BC communities with the freedom of fiction, resulting in a book that deals head-on with specific BC issues but isn’t bound by specific BC history. Rather, Shepard creatively combines his own personal concerns with knowledge and research from a variety of very real events.” Reiswig also describes how Shepard’s “raw, honest look at male sexuality and constructed ideas of masculinity will encourage conversation about prostate cancer and about self-acceptance, patience and respect—another set of powerful unseens—that we could do well to extend to one another and ourselves.”
Shepard, who works by day as a writer for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (“Way too much desk time,” he admits), took some time to discuss the origin and intention of When Is A Man recently. Explaining that he had “essentially mapped out the novel before I started the MFA program—a much more surreal version than what I ended up with,” Shepard says he only wrote the first third as his MFA thesis. “After I graduated, I wrote the rest. Once I had a rough draft of the whole novel, the revision process—which is basically glorified problem-solving—took me in unexpected directions because now I was focusing on character development, which tends to disregard things like chapter outlines.”
His inspiration came from living and working in the West Kootenays, where he spent a few summers in his twenties building hiking trails beside rivers and doing some fisheries work. “River imagery took over a lot of my writing,” he explains. “I’ve always been interested in water issues, whether it’s the pros and cons of run-of-river dams, fracking, and so on. I was also inspired by the notion of time and events repeating themselves. One of the characters in the book embodies that idea: he keeps encountering the bodies of drowned men until he loses all sense of time . . . . As I wrote, these ideas somehow led me to thinking about the parallels between an altered landscape and an altered body.”
While it’s been a couple of decades now since Robert Bly brought men’s issues to the forefront, both When Is A Man and his essay in the Nobody’s Father collection both touch on issues of masculinity. Does Shepard feel the representation of men and men’s concerns is somewhat ho-hum in literature right now?
“I often feel like the conversation about masculinity in literature is one-sided, that we expect our male characters to grapple with the so-called ‘crisis in masculinity’ through the familiar tropes of drinking, fighting and fucking,” he says. “Those are presented as the only ways to confront any type of emasculating force—like economic hardships, divorce or boredom. Any kind of weakness, like Paul’s impotence and incontinence, is usually reserved for satire or parody—that’s how we mock or punish characters.”
“As I developed Paul’s character, I thought, ‘What if things like impotence could be seen as a type of opportunity for an alternative take on manhood?’ I liked the idea of someone trying to avoid the questions of sexuality and gender role as they re-examine their identity,” he continues. “Paul learns it’s not a simple matter of choosing a monk-like seclusion or a ‘life of the mind.’ So the questions can never be entirely avoided, but there’s value in the searching. In that regard, I was influenced by [international novelist] A.S. Byatt, which sounds odd, but her female characters are often looking for a way of life that’s not strictly tied up in sex and gender roles —they want to be free just ‘to think.’”
- Shepard will also be participating in the At the Mike: Fiction Night! alongside guest authors M.A.C. Farrant and Margaret Thompson. That kicks off at 7pm Tuesday, April 15, at Russell’s Books, 734 Fort Street in Victoria.
Lorna Jackson (Photo by Diana Nethercott)
Before she became his MFA advisor, Department of Writing professor and acclaimed short story writer Lorna Jackson taught Shepard as an undergrad. “I thought he had a ton of promise,” she recalls. “He had a great attitude, his writing was original and well-crafted.” When they started working together toward his MFA, Jackson was even more impressed. “I really found his preoccupation with masculinity and landscape interesting and appealing, as well as his resistance to writing it as a romance, staying really strong in the idea of who the character was and what he wanted to accomplish. Aaron was really open to suggestions about what the story might need—especially to do with the body—but he’d always take an idea, really develop it and make it his own. That was the pleasure of working with him: seeing what he would do with a suggestion.”
“We had long discussions about the philosophical elements of the book—or, rather, why I want to tell this particular story in this particular way,” Shepard recalls of working with Jackson. “We studied a lot of writing about landscape/body, essays on watching and playing sports, things that helped refine certain ideas and lend a more focused approach to my writing.”
An author’s favourite kind of selfie
While he admits that setting his book in the interior of British Columbia was “a bit risky in terms of broad appeal” when it came to landing it with an agent, Shepard proudly stands by his Man. “I suspect many agents felt the book was too ‘regional’ or ‘local.’ For When is a Man—and this is also true for the novel I’m currently drafting—I’ve been wrestling with my own ideas for too long to worry about what’s selling, or what’s popular with agents and publishers, etcetera. Maybe down the road, if I start with a blank canvas, I’ll be more strategic. But I doubt it. Then again, my next novel does deal a bit with climate change, so maybe my interests and the publishing world’s interests will intersect. In the meantime, I’m grateful to Brindle and Glass for believing in the story as is.”
But when it comes to placing that first novel, Lorna Jackson doesn’t feel bigger is always better. “I’m sure he wanted a great big publisher to get all excited, but it’s a different kind of novel than that,” she says of Shepard’s debut. “I think it’s great he’s found a smaller press to release it—I’m all about the small press. They’re so interesting and so not commercial, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure we’d all love a rousing commercial success, but it doesn’t always serve the art. Aaron’s a pretty arty guy—he’s a deep thinker and a deep feeler, and sometimes that doesn’t translate into massive sales.”
Current Department of Writing faculty
Finally, Shepard credits the MFA program for being “hugely influential in shaping and refining the starting ideas,” and praises other Department of Writing faculty members, notably Bill Gaston (“He’s a great ‘big picture’ person—he had a lot of good advice for thinking about the book as a whole, which came in handy after I finished the program and still had two-thirds of a novel to write”), Tim Lilburn (“his class on nature writing was, for obvious reasons, extremely useful and inspirational”), David Leach (“his class on travel writing helped improve my sense of pace”) and retired professor and novelist Jack Hodgins. “Three years later, funnily enough, John Gould—another instructor—was chosen by Brindle and Glass to work with me on the final edits after they’d accepted the manuscript.”
What’s up next now that first novel hurdle has been leaped? “I’m working on the next novel, just in the rough draft stages,” he says. “It’s slow going, and I’m bad at multi-tasking, so that’s the only project on the go right now.”
Here’s a bit of welcome news for cash-strapped arts students: the BC Arts Council Scholarship program is currently taking applications for BC residents planning to attend a full-time fine arts degree or diploma program in fall 2014. For any new or returning Fine Arts students, that’s you!
BCAC is providing scholarship funding of up to $6,000 per individual per year. As long as you’re a BC resident who has been accepted for full-time studies and is pursuing a fine arts diploma or degree at a recognized college, university, institution or academy, you can apply. In fact, you can apply to attend any institution in the world; your place of study doesn’t have to be in BC.
Here’s the important part: the application deadline is April 30, 2014. Click here for complete information, guidelines and application forms.
Last year, 144 BC students shared $750,000 in scholarship funding, with their fields of creative practice ranging from music, theatre, dance and creative writing to visual arts, media arts, museology and conservation. Jury panels representing BC’s arts and culture
community evaluate applications and award scholarships.
Better still, provincial support for the BCAC Scholarship program increased in 2012-13 from $150,000 to $750,000, nearly tripling the number of scholarships awarded and increasing the maximum grant from $4,000 to $6,000.
Esi Eudgyan with her Giller Prize (photo: Chris Young/Canadian Press)
Scholarship recipients from previous years have gone on to achieve success in the arts, including Victoria native Atom Egoyan, now one of Canada’s top filmmakers, and Department of Writing alumna Esi Edugyan—now an acclaimed novelist and Giller Prize winner for Half-Blood Blues.
“BC Arts Council scholarships make great investments in the future of arts and culture in British Columbia,” says BC Arts Council chair Stan Hamilton. “The program has helped inspire many talented young British Columbians to build fulfilling careers in the arts. Their success helps British Columbia’s vibrant arts and culture community continue to achieve excellence across the full spectrum of the arts.”
Bottom line: they’ve got money to spend on arts students, but the only way to access it is to apply. Again, the application deadline is April 30, 2014. Click here for complete information, guidelines and application forms.
Whatever the season, our Fine Arts faculty always seem to be in the media. The only trick is keeping up with it all!
Kicking off 2014, History in Art’s Victoria Wyatt was announced as a contributor to the influential Edge blog. For those not familiar with Edge, it’s an ongoing conversation of intellectual adventure. As they say on the Edge website, “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.“
The 2014 Edge question was, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” and it’s a bit unusual for a History in Art professor to be asked to contribute to the conversation. But Victoria Wyatt was more than game for it, weighing in with her idea that “it’s time for the rocket scientist to retire.” She’s not talking about the folks at NASA, mind you, but that tired old cliche, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to . . . ” Read Wyatt’s engaging short essay here. All the responses are compiled in one really long list, so if you want to find hers quickly, just search for “Wyatt”.
The online Edge salon is, as they put it, “a living document of millions of words charting the Edge conversation over the past 15 years wherever it has gone.” In the words of the novelist Ian McEwan, Edge.org offers “open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful . . . an unadorned pleasure in curiosity, a collective expression of wonder at the living and inanimate world . . . an ongoing and thrilling colloquium.”
In other History in Art news, Allan Antliff recently edited a special issue of The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies focusing on “Anarchist Modernism in Print” (Volume 4, Number 2, 2013). As Antliff says in his introduction, “This issue of the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies examines political engagements with modernism in journals where productive comingling gave rise to new modes of anarchism contiguous with modernism, while modernism itself was propelled in new directions. In this instance we have a critical/creative nexus . . . keyed to values profoundly at odds with modernity, including its ‘socialist’ guise. Anarchism’s modernisms grapple with such issues as power relations, sexual difference, colonialism, and the economics of art—to name a few—with revolutionary intent.” Read more about Antliff’s issue here.
Allan Antliff’s latest book, Joseph Beuys (Phaidon Focus)
Antliff also has a soon to be released new book about sculptor, painter, draughtsman, teacher, theorist and political activist Joseph Beuys. Simply titled Joseph Beuys, the 144-page book from Phaidon Focus is part of a groundbreaking new series that offers accessible, enjoyable and thought-provoking books on the visual arts. Described as “An enigmatic figure whose complex imagination drew on his research across a wide range of themes . . . Beuys strove to establish a truly democratic approach towards artistic creativity, and prove that modern art need not be confined to the museum or the gallery.”
Phaidon notes, “As Antliff effectively demonstrates, the ecological and political issues that informed much of Beuys’s art can be considered as relevant today as they were in his own lifetime.” You can read more about the art and life of Joseph Beuys in this article and this one. The book will be released on March 23.
A happy—and no doubt relieved—Carolyn Butler Palmer watches as the big button blanket is raised in First Peoples House (UVic Photo Services)
Still in History in Art, Carolyn Butler Palmer‘s Big Button Blanket project—which earned all sorts of media attention during its fall 2013 creation—continued to make headlines with its 2014 public debut. Times Colonist art writer Robert Amos called the blanket’s exhibit at Legacy Gallery Downtown‘s Adasla: The Movement of Hands (continuing through to April 25) a “stimulating and multi-faceted show” in his review. Following the blanket’s debut at the opening of the Diversity Research Forum, UVic’s Ring newspaper previewed the upcoming performance by blanket co-creator Peter Morin and former Department of Visual Arts Audain Professor Rebecca Belmore in this article, and the Times Colonist also ran this article previewing the February 22 performance, summarizing the history of the button blanket and this blanket’s specific intention.
Peter Morin observes the big button blanket after it has been raised in First Peoples House (UVic Photo Services)
Local visual arts writer Robert Amos also ran this Times Colonist article about Adasla, describing it as a “stimulating and multi-faceted show.” The exhibit was also featured in the February/March issue of Preview: The Gallery Guide magazine, was written up in this article for the UVic student newspaper Martlet and appeared in the Victoria News article, “Big Art Emerges From A Big Blanket.”
Shifting to the Department of Theatre, professor emeritus Juliana Saxton was the focus of this March 7 Montreal Gazette op-ed by Andrea Courey about life-long learning. At 80, Saxton certainly knows how to walk the talk! (“When asked to comment on the fun of still ‘coming to class,’ Saxton said she had no time to talk. She was off to teach a class! Bingo. I smiled and remembered the old adage: If you want to learn something, teach it. And if you can, keep learning.”)
Some of the cast of Unity (1918), on to March 22 at Phoenix Theatre (photo by David Lowes)
Phoenix Theatre’s last production of the year—the award-winning Unity (1918), written and directed by Department of Writing professor Kevin Kerr—picked up a great deal of media attention in advance of its March 13 opening. The Times Colonist, CTV VI and CFUV’s U in the Ring all featured previews of the production, and the reviews coming in have all been outstanding (“Who knew a play about the flu could be so moving?” writes the Times Colonist). Click to this separate post to read a roundup of the press surrounding Unity (1918).
School of Music instructor Colleen Eccleston was a guest on CFAX 1070’s “Cafe Victoria with Bruce Williams” show (unfortunately not archived online). Eccleston spoke about the recent anniversary of the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and the impact they have had since that day 50 years ago. Music’s Wendell Clanton was also featured on CFAX 1070 in February (but also not archived); both he and members of the UVic Vocal Jazz Ensemble were interviewed about their Singing Valentines fundraiser.
The UVic Wind Symphony and the Naden Band appeared on Shaw TV’s Go Island South show in advance of their Naden Scholarship fundraiser concert on February 7. Also in the brass department, congratulations go out once more to School of Music professor emeritus Ian McDougall on his latest Juno Award nomination! His album The Ian McDougall 12tet LIVE is nominated for “Traditional Jazz Album of the Year.” The winners will be announced on the March 30 broadcast from Winnipeg.
The School of Music’s new live streaming initiative also sparked this Times Colonist article about the pros and cons of digital content when it comes to audience impact. Concert Manager Kristy Farkas was interviewed, saying “she knows of no evidence suggesting that this program compromises attendance at UVic concerts.” The TC’s Kevin Bazzana quoted Farkas on how technology is “broadening our reach with the community” by allowing a student’s family in another city to watch a graduating recital, for example.
Sandra Meigs’ “The Basement Panoramas”
Over in Visual Arts, the Toronto exhibit of Sandra Meigs‘ new series of paintings The Basement Panoramas got a great full-page review in the Toronto Star, which called it “perhaps the most potent work of Meigs’ career.” As anyone who saw the show when it appeared locally at Open Space back in November 2013 will recall, these are really, really big paintings—so large the Toronto exhibit was split between two galleries!
Daniel Laskarin at Deluge
Current Visual Arts chair Daniel Laskarin had his fourth exhibition at downtown’s Deluge Contemporary Art from January 31 to March 8. In fallen and found, Laskarin returned to a decades-old preoccupation with the role of the sculptor as matterist in this solo exhibit, and you can hear him discuss the work in this video interview from ExhibitVic website.
And the timing was perfect for Carol Wainio’s March 12 appearance as the latest in the long-running Department of Visual Arts VIsiting Artist series. Wainio had just been announced one of the recipients of the 2014 Governor General’s Awards for Visual & Media Arts on March 4, alongside Visual Arts alumnus Kim Adams
. Wainio’s talk was teased by an advance photo in the local Victoria News
Finally, in the Department of Writing, Joan MacLeod
‘s latest play The Valley
opened in Winnipeg recently, earning her this Winnipeg Free Press article
: “Over almost three decades, the Victoria-based MacLeod has won a shelf full of awards for her plays, including the 2011 Siminovitch Prize, Canada’s richest theatre award. She is taken aback by the news that anyone thinks of her as a groundbreaking dramatist. ‘That’s extremely flattering and shocking,’ MacLeod says from her office at the University of Victoria, where she teaches. ‘When I sit down to write, I never feel like a master playwright. It’s nice to hear people think that. I’m blushing.'”
Fellow Writing professor and Technology & Society program director David Leach
wrote a great piece for BC Business magazine’s special all-TED issue
in February. “Over the past 30 years, the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference has grown into a media juggernaut, fuelled by “ideas worth spreading” (as its tag line promises) and the most effective marketing on the social web,” writes Leach. “Today, this brand without borders aspires to reprogram our entire global operating system for the greater good.”
And the 2014 Southam Lecturer, Tom Hawthorn, popped up in the news a few times recently—not surprisingly, given that his Southam course focuses on sports journalism, and we’ve just come through a flurry of coverage on both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. While it’s no longer archived, Hawthorn spoke to CBC All Points West host Jo-Ann Roberts—also a former Southam Lecturer herself—about his January 29 public Southam Lecture titled, “In Defence of Sports Writing (Not All of it, Just the Good Stuff)”.
Hawthorn also spoke about the importance of UVic’s new Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) in this article for the CARSA website: “When it comes to training facilities, there’s no question: CARSA will attract a very high level of athlete,” he says. “You’re going to attract people who want to succeed in athletics—that will definitely be weighed in their decision of where they’re going to do their studies—and you’ll have more people dedicated to success at that elite level.”
Cleve Dheensaw, sports writer for the Times Colonist, also talked to Hawthorn ahead of his lecture in this article. “Even people who don’t follow sports should read the sports pages because sport tells us a lot about ourselves as a society,” he says. (Plus, who wouldn’t want to take a class where your homework is watching the Super Bowl?) And Hawthorn talked about the likelihood of queer activism at the Olympics in this Victoria News article. “I fully anticipate that some athletes will make a display of solidarity with gay people in the community of Russia,” he said.
Here’s a tip if you’re planning on seeing Unity (1918) at the Phoenix Theatre this week: book fast! Given the outstanding reviews the show has been receiving, tickets won’t last long—and the show closes after two final performances on Saturday, March 22. Click here for ticket information.
Some of the cast of Unity (1918), on to March 22 at Phoenix Theatre (photo by David Lowes)
Writing professor Kevin Kerr directs his own Governor General’s Award-winning script with style and grace, crafting a heartfelt and surprisingly funny look at the impact of the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic on the small town of Unity, Saskatchewan. As discussed in this post, this is the first time Kerr has directed Unity (1918), despite his long and lauded career in theatre as a playwright, director and artistic director.
You can find out more about the backstory to this production in this Times Colonist preview—wherein Kerr reveals the play’s teenage female undertaker is based on a friend from high school (“She said, ‘I think I’m going to become a mortician.’ This beautiful, vivacious 17-year-old was saying, ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life in death.’ It was like, wow, really?”)—and this podcast of U in the Ring, the CFUV weekly campus radio show (fast forward to the 18:40 mark). CTV VI also offered a preview of Unity (1918) in the March 13 episode of “Your Island Arts & Lifestyle” (skip ahead to the 1:50 mark), as did CHEK TV in this clip.
Phoenix students Keshia Palm and Logan Mitev (photo by David Lowes)
Reviews of the production are unanimously strong. “Who knew a play about the flu could be so moving?,” writes Adrian Chamberlain of the Times Colonist in his four-star review. “The University of Victoria’s student cast does a superior job with a challenging script—the sisters [student actors Haley Garnett, Gillian McConnell and Amy Culliford] are particularly convincing. Kerr has directed his show with panache and grace. Mounted on the thrust stage of the Phoenix’s Chief Dan George Theatre, the production’s simple, bold design elements are first-rate . . . . Kerr & set/lighting designer [Allan] Stichbury have conspired to make Unity (1918) a visual poem.”
Busy local arts blogger Janis LaCouvee was also mightily impressed with the production, describing it as “a masterpiece by any measure” in her review. “Unity (1918) is an ode to our human capacity to endure, to continue to dream, even among unimagined horror,” she writes. “A remarkable production and a fine tribute to preserving our ancestors.”
Local theatre blog The Marble was also very enthusiastic, hailing “Unity is a triumph. Performers . . . never appeared to be giving an ounce less than their best.” Noting that the script “trembles with emotion”, reviewer Drew May also praised the show’s design as a “combination of detailed, turn-of-the-century objects and costumes, and a sparsely decorated but ingeniously flexible set will draw in even stubbornly realist audience members. Detail is used to suggest, rather than assert, and the result refuses to distract.”
Allan Stichbury’s effective set (photo by David Lowes)
CBC Radio’s On The Island also reviewed the production, with veteran theatre critic Monica Prendergast noting the opportunity “to see a Governor General’s prize-winning play is always a must-do for any theatre lover, especially a Canadian theatre lover.” Prendergast also felt the age of the characters well-matched the student cast—she singled out leads Amy Culliford (Beatrice) and Logan Mitev (Hart)— and enjoyed how “this event in history is shown through the eyes of its effect on young people.” She also enjoyed Stitchbury’s set, but wasn’t so much a fan of the show’s three-hour run time.
Local online arts source CVV Magazine also praised the production in this review simply titled, “You should go!” Melanie Tromp-Hoover, wrote “Unity (1918) is about so much more than just the flu. It’s a look at the enduring struggle we all face in our ambition towards love and purpose and family; the Phoenix’s production simply gives us an elegant, intuitive tool to better explore it.” Tromp-Hoover was particularly keen on cast members Danielle Florence, Marisa Nielsen, Amy Culliford, Haley Garnett and Francis Melling, as well as Colette Habel‘s sound design.
Finally, the Coastal Spectator blog was mostly impressed with the show, particularly the “memorable performances” of Marisa Nielson and Keshia Palm. “Phoenix’s production of Kerr’s award-winning play did the university proud,” writes Nadia Grutter.
Bottom line, don’t miss this fantastic production!
Kevin Kerr is coming full circle. Back in 2002, the noted playwright received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Unity (1918); now a professor in the Department of Writing, Kerr is directing his first show for Phoenix Theatre this month—and it’s Unity (1918), a play that is regularly studied in first-year theatre classes. More significantly, however, it’s the first time he’s ever directed it.
Kevin Kerr on the set of Phoenix’s Unity (!918), opening March 13 (photo: Adrienne Holierhoek)
Set during the final few weeks of World War I, Unity (1918) is a touching and darkly comic tale about the fear and desire sparked by the convergence of the Spanish Flu pandemic and a returning soldier in the small town of Unity—a real town in Saskatchewan. But while this critically lauded play has been mounted repeatedly across Canada over the past decade, Kerr—an accomplished director himself—has never had the opportunity to tackle it before.
“I never really thought of directing it,” he says of Unity, which he’s also adapting for the screen. “There was always another director interested in doing it.” But after Kerr was hired by the Writing department in 2012, Phoenix offered him the chance to direct a mainstage show—and they were already considering Unity. “It was such a generous welcome to the Faculty of Fine Arts,” he says. “Granted, I felt a little funny about directing, as my relationship to it had always been from a writing perspective. And since I’d seen a lot of the other productions, I felt a little intimidated—how do I let go of those other shows, and shake up my own expectations of what the script is?”
Kate Braidwood and Zachary Stevenson in Theatre SKAM’s 2004 production
A good question for any writer tackling his own material. “Sometimes I say to myself, ‘What was I thinking when I wrote that?’,” he laughs. “But overall, I’m enjoying the process of trying to figure it out again, instead of creating it new.”
This is also only the second time Unity has been performed in Victoria; the first was Theatre SKAM’s 2004 production featuring eight Phoenix alumni in both cast and creative roles. (For Phoenix fans, here’s the impressive list, which almost reads like a “who’s who” of current theatre: Kate Braidwood, Annette Dreeshen, Amiel Gladstone, Lucas Myers, Megan Newton, Matthew Payne, Zachary Stevenson and Jennifer Swan.)
Listen to this podcast of Kevin Kerr’s March 14 preshow lecture about Unity (1918).
Tear The Curtain! at Vancouver’s Arts Club
Kerr co-founded and is now an artistic associate of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre—a collaborative company that specializes in “spectacular physical and visual imagery, cinematic vocabulary, and the quest for authentic connection in an accelerated culture.” He has earned accolades for his Electric Company productions (including the likes of Brilliant!, The Score, and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) and for his skill in conceiving plays that push the boundaries of theatre itself. But how does he square recent work like the acclaimed film/theatre hybrid Tear The Curtain! with an early show like Unity?
“This is my ‘straightest’ play, so it lends itself to a particular style of direction,” he admits. “It’s not quite the process I’m most familiar with—usually, with Electric Company, we create and build a show collaboratively—but I’m finding it really satisfying to work in a more traditional model.” But, he hints, we can still expect a few surprises with the upcoming Phoenix production. “It’s going to have some great physical elements that give us both the strength and scope of the Prairies, but still play with a sense of intimacy.”
Clearly, Kerr is enjoying the process of returning to an earlier work in a whole new role. “For me, it’s the balance between finding the authenticity and naturalism in the acting, but still allowing the piece to have the necessary theatricality to really embrace what theatre does—to activate our imaginations and let us be participants in an image world that’s not as literal or singular as a photograph,” he says. “It’s fun to find those parts in the play.”
Unity (1918) runs March 13-22 at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre. Call 250-721-8000 or click here for tickets.