PGC's Q & A with David Belke
Playwrights Guild of Canada talks to PGC member, David Belke about the desire, determination, and diligence needed to put on a play at a Fringe Festival, how Fringe Festivals offer a boundless playground of theatrical possibility and how Fringe Festivals have been David’s classroom, workshop, laboratory, testing ground, and arena for new work. David Belke also reminds playwrights to write for your own enjoyment and never forget to have fun, that every single opportunity to produce a play is a treasure, and shares details about his upcoming play, Von Mitterbrink’s Second which explores how the ritual of a dual can sometimes become more important than the actual object of the original dispute.
1. You’ve written 27 plays over 22 years, which have debuted at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.
A) Can you talk about your experience as a playwright at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival and why this forum continues to draw you as an exciting platform for your work?
The fact is that I wouldn’t have become a playwright if it hadn’t been for the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. I made my debut back in 1991 and up until then I hadn’t given much thought to becoming a professional writer. I had dabbled, writing some sketch comedy and scenarios for murder mystery dinners. But mostly I was concentrating on my teaching and trying to build a career as an unemployable stage designer.
But one summer some friends of mine had idea for a play and doubting they could actually write the script themselves, they approached me to write it for them. It sounded like a lark, so I agreed to write a play that summer. And I’ve been agreeing every summer ever since.
This story demonstrates a couple of the great attractions of the Canadian Fringe model. The Fringe provides opportunity and liberty. Anyone can produce a Fringe show, either by getting into a venue provided by the Festival (fully equipped with professional technicians provided at no extra cost!) or by providing your own venue (a BYOV in festival parlance). If you have the desire, the determination and the diligence you can put on a play. And the Festival is there to provide support and resources. It’s a strangely Canadian attitude (especially when compared to the cutthroat world of the Edinburgh model).
But more than resources, the Fringe provides creative freedom. Anything you want to write or produce is fair game in the Fringe’s un-juried world. Over the past 23 years, the Festival has been my classroom, my workshop, my laboratory, my testing ground and my arena. Almost every one of my Fringe plays has been a full-length production with two acts and an intermission (unlike some Fringe festivals, the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival still puts no limits on running times). This means that the plays that I’ve created for the Festival can easily find homes at theatres outside the Festival. In fact, two of my earliest works that debuted at the Festival, The Maltese Bodkin (1991) and The Reluctant Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1992), still continue to have new productions across Canada and around the world to this very day.
My first few years writing for the Fringe are when I honed my craft and learned my skills. Many of my earliest plays were genre pieces and jolly comedies. But as I gained confidence and expertise, I started mining my life and experiences for subject matter, coming to embrace drama and verisimilitude. In the last few years, I’ve tried to use my Fringe plays to push myself as a playwright, testing out new forms and subject matter. Although, of course, I will still tackle an idea if it strikes me as fun. In over 20 years of creating Fringe plays, I’ve written comedies, dramas, musicals, pseudo-gameshows, plays that have integrated improvisation into the action, historical pieces, disguised autobiography, supernatural fantasies, mysteries, genre spoofs, romances and even a radio serial.
And this is what brings me back to the Fringe every year. What other place in the world can offer such a boundless playground of theatrical possibility?
B) Does the process of writing a play for a Fringe Festival differ from writing a play for other types of venues?
I think it’s dangerous to draw divisions between a play for the Fringe and plays for any other venue. Certainly the Fringe imposes certain production limits on what you can write, but then so does writing for any small theatre space. I know there’s a mindset out there that defines a Fringe play as something broad, comedic and bare, with few production values and a running time of about an hour. But I honestly think that if you start to fence in your own sensibilities to please those of some mythical Fringe-goer, you’re only going to hurt yourself.
It may be that I’ve been spoiled by producing plays for the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival (whose audience is, after 30 years, seasoned, experienced and willing to take a chance on even the untested and exotic), but I believe that any opportunity to bring a play to an audience has to be taken quite seriously. It demands nothing less than your fullest talents and commitment. Certainly writing a Fringe play means that you have to forego the resources and development investment a theatre company can provide, but that doesn’t mean the creation of the play should be any less important.
And compensations in creative liberty are enormous. Although many Fringe touring artists limit themselves to single actor playlets that can be packed in a suitcase, this a consideration of finance rather than opportunity. Because Fringe shows are produced under a special co-op agreement rather than the standard PACT contract, it means the only limit is the comfort zone of your collaborators. As an example, one of the plays I wrote for the 2011 Festival was a two act period comedy/mystery featuring two live musicians, sword fights and a cast of six actors playing over two dozen characters in Shakespearean dress. Such a play can easily find a home in a Fringe festival, but just imagine trying to pitch it to Lunchbox Theatre.
Every single opportunity to produce a play is a treasure. You’d be foolish to waste it by dismissing it as something frivolous.
This is a long way round to a short answer, which is: I don’t treat the process of writing a play for the Fringe any differently than writing for other types of venues. While writing, whatever I’m working on is for that moment the most important play of my career.
2. Your new play, Von Mitterbrink’s Second, will be opening at this year’s Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in August 2012. Tell us a bit about the play, the themes and what inspired you to write it, and what you hope the audience will take away from it.
It’s a play about a duel. A duel for honour and reputation that keeps constantly being postponed leading to frustration, anger, comedy and a lesson learned.
How much to tell you? Well…
It’s 19th century Vienna and Alaric Von Holtzburg has been gravely insulted at a party the night before. While Alaric was chatting up a beautiful young woman, Klaus Von Mitterbrink had the audacity to try to introduce himself to the object of Alaric’s desire. Naturally, Alaric challenges Von Mitterbrink to a duel. Alaric shows up at the appointed place with his good friend and second, Leandro, expecting to quickly dispatch the upstart.
Then things go wrong. Von Mitterbrink’s second turns out to be a guileless young woman (Mädchen) who knows nothing about how things are supposed to be run. And what’s worse, Von Mitterbrink himself is a no show and the duel has to be postponed. And postponed. Again and again. Von Mitterbrink never shows up and Von Mitterbrink’s second keeps making a hash of things (she even tries to make a picnic of it all on one occasion). By the end, Alaric’s frustrated pursuit of satisfaction and honour has taken over his life, driven him to distraction and cost him everything he holds dear. And that’s when Mädchen reveals the final lesson.
It’s going to be a three-handed one act and I imagine it’ll be about 75 minutes when all is said and done. It will also be my 23rd consecutive premiere at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.
I had featured sword fighting in a number of my plays as a plot device, but while reading a book about the history of dueling, I became intrigued with the observation that the ritual and the mechanisms of the duel often seemed to become more important than the actual object of the dispute. It seemed to me there was room for a little fable there.
While that notion was floating around in my head, I got a chance to look at the new Arts Space at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. For the past six years, the church has been my venue for the Fringe and the congregation has enthusiastically embraced the idea of bringing arts of all kinds into its beautiful facility. The recent creation of a new space that could function as a rehearsal room, a gallery, a lecture hall and performance hall was only one of the many ways it has reached out to artists. With its high ceiling, sprung floor and black box adaptability, I was struck by the notion of creating a play that would incorporate elements of physicality and movement much more than any of my previous plays. The space provided a chance to try something new.
And since I already had the idea of a story about a duel, well…
So it’s serendipity. I had the duel idea, then the perfect space to create a physically expressive piece of theatre presented itself. Sometimes you choose the play, sometimes the universe chooses it for you.
As for the audience, I hope they will be amused, entertained, intrigued by the characters and the mysteries and hopefully a little shocked by the ending. Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll show up.
3. You’ve been the resident playwright with Edmonton’s Shadow Theatre for 16 years. Can you describe what that experience has been like?
I think my situation with Shadow Theatre is rather unique. Certainly, I think my relationship with the company is quite different than most resident playwrights that I know of. For one thing, I have held the position for over a decade now and I will continue to do so as long as I choose. What’s more, Shadow has made an extraordinary commitment to my work.
The circumstances for this are rooted in the circumstances of the company’s creation, so forgive me while I share a little history.
Prior to joining Shadow Theatre I had been independently producing my own plays for a number of years, both at the Fringe and elsewhere. I had also been designing a number of shows for John Hudson’s infant Shadow Theatre who was presenting one or two shows a season as an independent co-op. We were often hiring the same talent and producing in the same venues. Eventually it occurred to us that rather than splitting our resources, we should actually combine our efforts and create a stronger company that could immediately offer three shows a season (enough for a subscription season).
When my own production company merged with the prototype Shadow Theatre, I was in an interesting position. Since my little company was originally dedicated to showcasing my work as a playwright, I naturally became the merged company’s resident playwright. But more than that, Shadow Theatre made the commitment to produce one of my plays every season, either a premiere or a remount.
Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily generous promise. Shadow Theatre’s ongoing pledge to support me and my work has been of inestimable value. It has provided me with a safe and secure showcase. It has allowed me to experiment and grow. Along with productions, Shadow has given me financial, emotional and artistic support as a guarantee.
As a Canadian playwright, I am in the rather unique position of knowing that every season there is at least one theatre company in this country that will produce my work.
I am very lucky.
The programs at PGC have been simply invaluable. Aside from PGC’s copyscript library providing a resource for theatres and the public looking for my plays, the amateur rights program has provided an ongoing life for many of my plays.
Plays are meant to be performed. Plays are meant to seen. Plays are meant to be enjoyed. And a simple registration into PGC’s amateur rights program and submission of my plays into the program will provide that.
I am simply delighted when I receive the notice that a play of mine is being produced somewhere I’ve never been by people I’ve never met for audiences I’ll never know. After all, isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
5. What is the most valuable piece of advice you received as a beginning writer and/or what advice would you offer to emerging playwrights?
How do you avoid descending into platitudes with this one? But there are some truths that I believe are self-evident in the world of playwriting. Here are a few that I’ve discovered:
The best way to learn to write is to keep writing.
When you write, write for your own enjoyment. Chances are if you are entertaining, amusing and surprising yourself, you will do the same for your audience.
Never write down to your audience, always assume they are just as intelligent and possibly even more intelligent than you are.
Take every opportunity to write and produce that comes your way. Every chance is valuable and has the potential to be your best work ever. Writing may begin with a seed of talent, but it blossoms with discovery and experience. (Sorry. Went a little Confucius there for a moment.)
Writing the play is easy. Forcing yourself to write the play is hard.
Attend performances of your plays. Observing your audience’s responses can teach you more than most workshops.
Trust your colleagues. Give your director, actors and designers the chance to showcase their talents as well. They might show you facets of your work you never dreamed existed.
And finally, do it for the love of doing it. The money is unreliable and the recognition is fleeting, so you might as well have fun.
6. What have you been working on lately? Tell us a bit about your current writing projects and if you have any upcoming projects planned?
With the sun out and the snow melted, my current focus is primarily on the new play for the Fringe: Von Mitterbrink’s Second. While I’m wrapping up the first draft, my colleagues and I are presently finishing the casting and working out the production details.
I am also writing a bluegrass adaptation of The Ugly Duckling for a local puppet company. That’s also going to be a Fringe production.
On top of that, in July we will have the first workshop of my new play for Shadow Theatre’s 2012-2013 season. Flight of the Viscount is a comic chase across the face of 19th century Europe as a determined maid hunts down a young noble intending to force him home to assume his responsibilities. At present, I’m really enjoying getting to know the characters. And I’m already having fun playing with the class differences and the quickly changing settings. And it’s been wonderful to play with the heightened language.
In addition to all that, I’ll be producing my annual game show for New Year’s again and I’ll be remounting one of the shows I wrote for performance at Holy Trinity Anglican Church to mark the building’s 100th anniversary in Spring 2013. So I have to pull all that together.
Somewhere amidst all that I’m trying to assemble a collection of my plays for publication, while at the same time paying most of my bills by teaching in the Edmonton Public School system.
I’m really hoping I can find some time to sleep during the upcoming months as well.
7. Many authors have a favourite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. Please share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer:
“(Words) deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”—Tom Stoppard
DAVID BELKE was born in Winnipeg, Canada but was raised and continues to flourish in Edmonton, Alberta. He graduated from the University of Alberta with a B.Ed. and where he also studied stage design. He fills many different roles in the theatre: performer, producer, designer, teacher, award-winning playwright. His first full-length play was produced for the 1990 Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival, the largest theatre festival in North America. Since then he has written a new play for each subsequent year, becoming one the Fringe’s mainstays and one of the city’s favorite playwrights. 2009 marked his twentieth consecutive premiere for the festival.
David’s plays have been performed across Canada, as well as in the United States, England, Northern Ireland, India, Ghana and Greece. David currently works as resident playwright with Edmonton’s Shadow Theatre where he is in charge of new play development and is also an Artistic Associate. Shadow Theatre usually produces one of David’s plays a year, either a premiere or a remount. A multiple Sterling Award winner, David also received prestigious Samuel French Inc.’s Canadian Playwrights’ Award in 2000 and they have since published five of his plays.
Active in Edmonton’s theatre community, David currently serves as the Alberta regional representative for the National Council of the Playwrights Guild of Canada and is Vice President of the board for Alberta Playwrights Network.
Photo Credit: The Edmonton Journal