This interview was conducted by my blog co-writer, Rosie Perera. Thanks, Rosie!
Interview with Ron Reed, actor, playwright, director, founder and artistic director of Vancouver's Pacific Theatre, and writer about films
(Edited from our conversation on 21 March 2011)
Rosie Perera: Let’s start by talking about your acting, writing, and directing. You studied at the University of Alberta, and received an MFA in acting from the California Institute of the Arts. Were you trained in a specific acting style? Would you say you are you a “method” actor?
Ron Reed: The approach at CalArts is the standard approach now in actor training. It’s got lots of Stanislavski in it. It is that you act from yourself. You don’t picture a character and then try to embody that person and copy their emotions. Instead, I imagine me, as if I had been born in the circumstances of the character in the world of the play. And then within that, there’s an objective that my character is yearning for, whether he knows it or not. This is the “super-objective” of the whole play. Then each scene has an objective that is a stepping stone to that super-objective. When acting the scene, I’m thinking what do I do with the other character in the scene. I’m not playing my emotions. All I’m trying to do is to win the other character’s allegiance to me. You don’t think of the audience at all, except that’s where your technical training comes in. You develop your voice, your speech, your body, so that there are no barriers in talking too softly, or whatever. That said, you’re not playing for the audience, you’re playing to the person opposite you. You don’t do what is called “indicating” – which is taking what you might feel and pumping it up so the audience will get it. Don’t do it! Forget that you’re in a play. Live in the reality of it. And then the director can shape it.
RP: You have also written close to 20 plays, including Book of the Dragon, Tent Meeting, A Bright Particular Star, Refuge of Lies, A Wrinkle in Time, You Still Can’t, Dreams of Kings & Carpenters, Remnant, and your one-man show Top Ten Thousand of All Time. Can you give us a brief overview of some of the topics, themes, and ideas in your plays?
RR: Long ago I said to a dramaturge friend “They say ‘write what you know,’ but I think you should write what you don’t know. Your plays should be as different one to the next as possible.” My friend said, “Yeah, as far as the setting of the story is concerned, sure, but I bet the real essence of your stories is the same from one to another.” Then I realized that there are a couple of threads that occur very pervasively. The central one is the preoccupation with two related things: one is the continuum of sin, responsibility, accountability, judgment, all to the end of reconciliation, forgiveness; and then the related thing is new life – we can be changed. Unbelievably, it wasn’t until a decade ago that I encountered the story of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and I realized that that’s my central story. My plays, as different as they are, almost always end with reconciliation – between two characters, between one character and a community, or between a character and God. They are often about something in someone that needs to be reckoned with, and their agonizing journey to reckon with it and be humbled, and reach out to make that relationship right.
Two other things that are common in my plays: a character who thinks they can do it on their own, they are the king of their own world, but they are challenged to accept an outsider, to change their view of how the world works; and that’s the crisis for them and they can’t do it.
And then a common figure that I’ve noticed is the plucky girl. I’ve written a ton of plays where there’s a young woman under 30 who goes up against it and has to tough it out and find a way to achieve what she needs to achieve. For example, Lilia Macdonald in A Bright Particular Star. She’s a compliant first-born, not going to make any waves, gonna be the best person and make everybody happy. However she has an extraordinary ability as an actor and comes alive when she acts. But there are many other things she’s passionate about. Octavia Hill, her mentor, works with the poor in London. She falls in love for the first time with a young man who loves her. She reaches that age where life’s full of possibilities, and then they collide. And she still wants to please her parents. Suddenly all these forces are saying “Don’t be an actor. It’s self-indulgent, it’s spiritually dangerous.” Is she putting it ahead of God, her social concerns, her family, her parents, her lover, her fiancé? She has to decide. The fact that it plays out in a young woman’s story – I’m not sure why.
RP: What specific techniques do you use in your play writing? Do you use any experimental narrative, set design, casting, or other techniques? How would you describe your particular style of play writing?
RR: All the specifics that you mentioned come after the fact. The playwright doesn’t write those by and large. I believe that the playwright needs to write whatever comes to mind. It was a pressing point in my very first real play that I wrote which was on a fishing boat. As soon as I had the idea for it, I said to my director “I want to write the play on a fishing boat. But that’s crazy. So should I set it somewhere else?” He said, “No write the play however you want. The designer will solve the design problems.” Or you’ll do it in later drafts. You get the most exciting results that way. So I endeavor to just write the story. It’s also true that when you’ve been in the theatre a long time, you get theatrical ideas. Bright Particular Star was written without any idea of how it ought to be staged. I simply told the story scene by scene. Every character has that kind of story arc that I described. But one character drives the whole story. When their objective is reached, or not reached, the play is done. When I write the play, I’m finding who that central character is. Sometimes in draft two you rewrite the play; it’s about a different character. Then you go scene by scene. They’re always fighting for something. One thing leads to another. There’s a circle of consequences to each choice. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the dramaturgical structure of the choices, actions, consequences. I carry around blank business cards, I get a scrap of dialogue, a phrase, I see someone in the bank lineup and I go “That’s what Fred looks like!” That’s the soil from which the things grows. When all is said and done, the play might not look anything like that.
I do think of staging things. There are two plays that I want to start. One of which is a straightforward adaptation of Longford, the film that Peter Morgan wrote. I’ve been in touch with his agent and he says I can adapt it for the stage. That’s fairly straightforward. The other one is a non-fiction work that reads like a novel about some events in the 19th century, and I won’t say what they are because I don’t have the rights yet. In this case, I can picture how it’s staged, and written in the play will be the fact that one woman plays all the female characters; words/definitions/phrases are projected onto the stage and included in the sound design at certain points in the story. So sometimes I think of the staging of it and sometimes I don’t.
RP: Who are some other contemporary playwrights whose work you particularly admire? And how does your work compare to theirs?
RR: One is Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the “A” Train). Extraordinary writer. His themes are mine. This constant attention to sin, redemption. Always complex. Not a straightforward narrative of “do something bad, apologize, God loves you, go to heaven.” It’s shocking to find such complex, unsolvable kinds of questions in plays that are so popular, contemporary, edgy. His great strength is dialogue. Sometimes story structure is not important to him. In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, it’s more about what each successive witness says. They each hold the stage in a remarkable way. Is there really a story? Yeah, but I always lose track of it. The important thing there is the line of the argument. I actually value storytelling above following the line of an argument. So for me that is not the strongest thing about The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. That said, I couldn’t care less. It’s stunning on stage; you can’t take your eyes off it.
There is also Lanford Wilson. I love his stories, I love his characters. I love the fact that every play is drastically different than the last one. Same thing is true of John Patrick Shanley.
RP: Do they all have that same sort of common theme that you can pick up in their plays even though they’re all different?
RR: I can’t come up with it in Lanford Wilson. My favorites of his are Talley’s FollyFifth of July) and Talley & Son. Another of his that I really love is Angels Fall, about a priest, a native American young man who’s becoming a doctor, and a tennis player. With John Patrick Shanley, there are themes in common. Widest possible variety of styles. He’s a complete chameleon. I get a whiff of what his themes are. But I have a hard time putting my finger on it. Next season at PT we’re hoping to do a John Patrick Shanley trilogy, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which is very dark. These are characters that would easily fit in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s neighborhood. Really troubled characters. And there is real hope and restoration in the end of the play. Small enough glimmers I suppose, but in light of how dark their circumstances and their personalities are, it’s incredible. And then Doubt, which won the Pulitzer Prize; I’m going to direct that. And then concluding with, we hope (this is the only one that’s not confirmed yet) a musical version of Joe Versus the Volcano, which is a wacky, absurd, romantic comedy. For those who love it, like me, it’s off the charts lovable. They are so different from one another. But the whole idea for that season occurred to me when I was watching Danny and the Deep Blue Sea last summer. I thought “oh my goodness, that’s like Joe Versus the Volcano.” And it’s a bizarre thought. They are worlds apart. Joe Versus the Volcano is all about living day to day, celebrating life. His character is told he has X number of months to live, and so he says “what the heck, I’ve got nothing to live for.” And he finds a remarkable freedom and becomes a full version of the person he can be. I see something of that in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. As well as specifics. They’re both love stories. Doubt doesn’t fit those things. It’s about the uncertainty – well, doubt – about things. The central character, Sister Aloysius, is either on a horrific witch hunt, because she’s a closed-minded, frightened, almost McCarthyist, maybe anti-homosexual. Or she’s right, and she’s a proto-feminist woman, protecting helpless victims of a pedophile in a male hierarchy where she has no voice. And Shanley swings you back and forth between these two things until you’re completely dizzy. If in one scene you think that Father Flynn is being persecuted, in the next you go “no, he’s a monster,” and the next thing you go “no, he’s fine.” And Shanley does it with complete mastery. That play is about certainty and faith, the danger of faith, the need for faith, the nature of truth. But it’s more relational, it’s about…is she destroying a man’s life who is innocent, or is she bringing justice? If you want to go way back to the question you asked before about my themes: Justice in a dialectic with mercy. That’s huge for me, and Doubt is absolutely there.
Interestingly, Guirgis and Shanley both grew up Catholic, both I think let that go, and then it cropped up tremendously in their playwriting, more and more progressively, to the point where Stephen Adly Guirgis, in the introduction to A Jesuit Off Broadway, makes it very clear that he has come to, at the very least, honor his Catholic faith. And Shanley – I don’t know, but last year he spoke at a big conference of Christian universities. He doesn’t seem to be the least bit shy about questions of faith. So there are some favorite playwrights. And I should throw in Shakespeare, not as an obligatory “well you have to have Shakespeare” but truly. [I can tell from his bookshelves.]
RP: In 1984, you founded Pacific Theatre, which exists as “a non-propagandist professional theatre where [actors, etc.] would be free to explore work having particular meaning to them as Christians.” How do you do this? How is the work meaningful to Christians? How does it avoid any appearance of being propagandistic to someone outside the Christian community?
RR: Well, I can’t speak to whether it appears propagandistic to anybody. But I know it’s not there to propagate the faith or to persuade anyone to believe anything in particular. There might very well be actors in certain plays who pray every night that people will become Christians by seeing the play. I’ve prayed that. But that’s not the intention of the work. I’m an evangelical Christian, but I’m not a Christian evangelist. My work as an artist is to explore, to push the boundaries. I don’t make plays about what I already understand. I make plays about what I don’t understand. Fundamentally our mandate is to explore spiritual experience. As Artistic Director, I choose works that interest me. Most of them deal with questions of faith, spirituality, those kind of things. Now and then there’s a play that doesn’t have any apparent spiritual content. But actually, there’s usually a way in which some element of that play speaks to what is for me a spiritual or Christian theme. I sometimes program plays that don’t absolutely fascinate me but that round out our season. That’s another job as Artistic Director. If I’ve got a nasty, dark, challenging piece, there’s gonna be something very light and reassuring and sweet and wonderful; and if I’ve got a musical, there’s going to be a piece that’s somehow experimental in form. I’m always looking for things people haven’t seen on our stage before.
We do not call ourselves a Christian theatre. It’s such a problematic adjective. We never have hidden the fact that our company is about spiritual questions, spiritual experience of people, particularly from a Christian perspective (though we’re not limited to that). It meant that for a decade, funding was almost impossible. People hardly even saw our work, but assumed it must be propagandistic. We’re way, way past that. In the last five seasons, my great delight has been how many people from the theatre community will see a play like The Woodsman, Grace, Prodigal Son, Mourning Dove, and go, “Nobody else is doing plays like that! It’s edgy; it’s challenging, ethically complex, and provocative, and asks these questions that are so hard to deal with.” I respond, “Oh sure they are!” Prodigal Son was a co-production with Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver; in fact they initiated the play. So clearly other companies are doing that. But we do have a track record that every season there is at least one play that is going to be a challenge at an ethical, philosophical, spiritual level. Refuge of Lies last season, Jesus Hopped the “A” Train this season. Balanced by, this season, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is no trite superficial play. But it’s not going to offend people. We don’t usually put up something that’s just plain dumb but will sell tickets. We’re small enough that we don’t have to.
RP: How do you think what Pacific Theatre is doing is typical? In one way, its spiritual vision sets it apart from mainstream theatre. Are there other theatres with a similar Christian vision? If so, what are they, and how do they compare to Pacific Theatre? (I’m thinking of Chemainus Theatre on Vancouver Island, Taproot Theatre in Seattle.)
RR: There’s also Rosebud Theatre in Alberta and Lamb’s Players in San Diego. Those companies have a core mandate that is very closely aligned to PT’s, but in each case is very particular to the community out of which they sprung and/or the vision of the artistic director. Chemainus puts on plays that go well with dinner theatre, that serve tourists. They rarely put on a play that has Jesus in it. For a while they called themselves “theatre with good taste.” Nobody’s going to smoke, nobody’s going to swear. I don’t mean to trivialize it. They need to sell a lot more tickets than we do, so they need to go for things with wider appeal. And they are going for tourists, among others. So it does tend to make their choices a lot more mainstream than PT’s would be. That said, they every now and then do something very substantial. The past Artistic Director and the current one are very much Christians of faith; and there are a lot of Christians in the company. Not exclusively. Not exclusively at our theatre either. Not exclusively at any of the theatres we’ve mentioned. There is almost no overlap between Chemainus and PT, except for the works of Lucia Frangione, for various reasons, mostly relational. The one of her plays that is the most explicitly Christian or spiritual is Espresso which they have not done, because it’s too religious for their mainstage, and it’s too provocative, the language and the sexuality. So we’re lucky. We’re an urban theatre, and we can be as edgy as we want. We’ve had to build that up. We’ve had to educate and win the trust of an audience over almost 30 years. But we have done so. It’s been a long time since we’ve worried at all about putting up a show that was way over the line for most companies, Christian or not. Read the opening monologue of Jesus Hopped the “A” Train and decide how many theatres with a mandate like ours could do that. Lamb’s Players is the longest established of any of those companies, and they have to play it pretty safe because they are the biggest of all these companies. They are apparently one of the 50 largest theatres in America. So they have to put plays up that will sell lots of tickets. That means there are shows that they can’t take the risk on that we can do. So it’s another benefit of the size of our company, and the reputation or the style we’ve built, the expectation of our audience.
Those are companies that have been around for 15 years or more. And that was kind of the end of it. When all these companies started, evangelical Christians had recently emerged from a sort of separationist stance toward culture. If you were an evangelical and a creative person, what did you do? Theatre was one of your best options. Or music. Hence the burgeoning of the whole Christian music, Christian rock thing. In the past decade or so, evangelical culture is much more engaged with the broader culture. Not always – sometimes it can be very separationist – but far more so. Nowadays you can buy a HD video camera and editing software and make a movie. So a lot of the folks who would have made theatre headed toward film. That said, there have been some new ones. There’s Firebone Theatre in New York City founded by Steven and Chris Cragin Day, and Fire Exit Theatre in Calgary. There’s also a new company in Orlando. So I guess it is bubbling up again. That could be because there will always be a hunger to be in the same room as actors who are living out a story. I love film, and I wouldn’t rank one above the other. There’s so much of what they do that’s the same – that need for story. But a play is people literally breathing the air you breathe. In my theatre, you have your feet on the stage, if you’re in the front row on either side, where the actors are walking. You feel the vibrations in their feet treading on the stage. If they stand close and turn the wrong way, you might get spit on. It doesn’t happen too much. But it’s that visceral and close. And when a real person’s standing in that room with you, if they’re working the way I described, immersed in that world, and they’ve just found out that the person they love will die, and they weep, it’s almost unbearably tender. I have a friend who won’t sit in the front four rows of the theatre, it’s too much for him, too intimate. I know movies can do that, sort of. I’ve sobbed through many movies. It’s still just a little different when it’s a real person. And there will always be people who want to see that and people who want to do that. When I put on a play, every night I get to tell a story from the beginning to the end. When I make a movie, as soon as they’ve got a good take, good coverage for the sound, and the light was right, they move on. I will never do that scene again. As the person living in the story, there are two kinds of actors that are shortchanged by filmmaking. One is the performer who lives to share the experience with the people in the room. The film actor doesn’t get that. To a slight degree, the audience is the crew, the director, whatever. But it isn’t the same. And the other kind of actor that is shortchanged is the storyteller – that’s me. I’m not about performing for the audience. The big deal for me is living in it, like make believe. To be caught in that world and live in it and imagine myself in it. That’s what I live for. The world is so chopped up when you make a movie. I don’t get to tell a story from “Once upon a time” to “…and they lived happily ever after.”
RP: Where is theatre going in the future, from your vantage point?
RR: Well, it’s not going away, that’s for sure. I think that’s important to be said, because with the dominance of television, film, and then the convergence of those on the Internet, it would be easy for people to think that’s it for live theatre. But the fact is, the obituary got written in the 1930s, when radio took over, then television. Now you can have DVDs in your home. But you know what? We kind of reached rock bottom as far as our share of the cultural marketplace, and that’s where it will stay forever.
Where will it go? Who knows. It is a plant with regional varieties. It needs to be highly adaptive to survive. Two things happened in Vancouver that created a specific emphasis in the theatrical art that’s created here now. One is the fact that there was a tremendous shortage of performance spaces. (That’s being rectified to some degree.) Secondly, back in those postmodern days, there was a fascination with highly theatrical, non-narrative performance. So it gave rise to site-specific work, plays performed in a parking garage, in a closed factory, under a bridge, in a forest, you name it. Survival technique. Can’t do it in a theatre? Do it somewhere else. Also what a great pace to have 30’ high puppets hanging from the trees and project light and have someone come up through the earth. So in fact, Vancouver has become a source for a tremendous amount of site-specific work that happens outside a theatre. I suspect that’s becoming more and more common in other cities as well. And that could be because of the need to get the public’s interest, to ask them yet again to come into a theatre and sit in a chair and watch a play. If you can say the play moves from the top of this tower to five stories underground in a parking garage, the response will be “Really? Oh, that will be cool!” So there’s a novelty factor too, I suppose. There was a movement, again with postmodernism, away from narrative, and that’s now kind of part of theatre culture, I suppose. I may be betraying my biases, but I feel like narrative has returned very strongly. It might be splintered, scenes might not be in chronological order. Playwrights will play with that, but a strong commitment to dramaturgical structure has returned. Film has gained a new prominence in the culture in the last 20 years. And film, except for certain European film, certain independent film, is predominantly narrative, story. It may be told more visually. Live theatre may be told more in dialogue, but they’re both fundamentally, in the North American mind, storytelling media.
RP: That’s a good segue to talking about film.
Please read Part II of this interview.