PGC's Q&A with Daniel Thau-Eleff
PGC caught up with Winnipeg playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff to talk to him about the role of the playwright at festivals, the business of being a playwright, how "everything is political", and what it's like to write and perform a monologue.
1. Over the past little while, you've attended various festivals, such as the PuSh Festival in Vancouver, Magnetic North in Calgary and SummerWorks in Toronto. As a playwright, why is it important to attend these festivals? What have the experiences been like?
Well, it's an experiment. And I'm early on in it. I'm much closer to the “hypothesis” stage than “conclusion.” But I do think it's important, for two reasons: 1) inspiration – I'm getting to see much more theatre and more diverse theatre than I would if I just stayed put and 2) networking, in the best sense of the word. If I'm going to eventually partner with other companies, and/or be produced by other companies, it seems much more likely to happen if people know me than if they don't. And I'm getting to meet and talk to a lot of other artists. Which is important.
The experiment started about a year ago, with advice from Michael Rubenfeld. I'd also been talking to Ken Cameron for a number of years, starting when he was artistic director of Mag North, and my mentor, friend and collaborator Chris Gerrard-Pinker went to PuSh the winter before I did. And they were all telling me I've got to get out there and see who's doing what.
And what have the experiences been like? Really interesting. And fun. Each festival is different, with some overlap in programming, and some familiar faces. And there are others - I was going to go to playRites in Calgary and the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (both of these are probably especially important for playwrights) but I ran out of money. So... maybe next year.
2. You were in Norway House, Manitoba, recently and lead a workshop with high school students. What was that experience like? What sorts of questions, ideas, and concerns did high school students have about theatre and playwriting and what did your workshop involve?
It was a Theatre for Living workshop, a style I studied in Vancouver with David Diamond a number of years ago. I find it's a very efficient way to get people to start creating theatre with their bodies and interpreting the material as they create it.
It's a type of work I really like doing. Norway House is a very isolated community. They had a great drama program for many years until their drama teacher retired. So the students really gravitated towards the workshop. And it was a lovely group. I felt like I learned a lot about them just from watching them interact and create images (a lot of the work we did is called Image Theatre). I find high school a really interesting time of life, in terms of the struggle to figure out who you are and where you fit in in the world. I wish I could have had more time with them to actually make some sort of show and present it. Hopefully next year.
3.You've stated that you have been working on where, when, and how you will next present your play Good People, Bad Things. Could you comment on the role of the playwright in promoting his or her plays? Has the process changed from what it used to be? Do you think this is a good or a bad change? And what sorts of challenges and opportunities does it present for the playwright?
I don't know what the process used to be. I know it's a big, big advantage for a playwright to be able to do the business side – which can mean promoting the scripts to other production companies, but for me it mostly means self-producing. If I wasn't producing my own plays, I still would never have been produced.
What are the challenges? Well, you're running a business. So you have to develop this whole other skill-set, and there's always a million things to be done, often in no particular order, and it saps your time and energy. Time management is a huge issue – I'm slowly getting better at it.
The opportunities – well, first of all, writing plays is, in and of itself, a huge opportunity. So, for me, doing the business side makes it possible for me to work as an artist. But also, I think for the people I interact with, whether on the business level or potential audience members - I think people appreciate about having direct contact with the playwright. I think it's important for artists to be accessible.
4. Your play Good People, Bad Things is a monologue. What are the unique challenges and attractions of writing and performing a monologue?
Well, in my opinion, it's a whole different form than a multi-character play. And it's more convoluted. If plays are narrative unfolding through action, a monologue is narrative unfolding through action implied by narration. Which means there are two timelines: the “story,” usually past-tense, and the action, which is usually understated (if not unstated), but it's the real plot, and that is the journey the performer is going on during the performance, through the telling of the story. With Good People Bad Things, it's all past-tense, the words at least, and it's all very unstated, and we're only now really delving into the present-tense element. I'm really looking forward to seeing how things come together in the next version of the play.
Also, I completely love the dynamic of interacting directly with the audience. Creating the piece for them each night. Performing, in other words. It's such a privilege. But my next play is going to be multi-character, so somebody else will get to do it.
5. You are a devoted activist and many of your plays, for example Good People, Bad Things, feature contemporary and pressing issues. What do you think is the role of politics in theatre, and vice versa? How does the playwright fit in?
Everything is political. The “issues” - contemporary ones and the age-old ones - are there whether you address them directly or not. Politics – and to define “politics” (I just looked it up on the internet) one definition I found said “relationships between people in society.” I might expand it to include opinions about these relationships – about power, about what is okay and what's not okay, biases, both societal and personal – these kind of politics tend to become as invisible to us as the air we breathe. So I think the most important thing for artists is to become aware of politics, so that they're not as invisible to us as the air we breathe.
Playwrights at least. Actors, maybe not. Because if you are aware, it will probably lead you to turn down a whole lot of work. Well, maybe for playwrights too, right? I haven't really had to deal with this yet, but as I get more successful – what about the issue of dirty money in the arts? The Enbridge playRites festival, for example. But there are tons of others. The Winnipeg Fringe is no longer allowed to name venues after cigarette companies. Or, more generally, the politics of who gets to be on stage, who gets to tell their stories, and the power and privilege involved in that. And how can those of us who have privilege use it responsibly? And make the invisible visible? I think I have an awareness of that, but I could certainly be doing a lot better. Because there's so much injustice! There's no shortage.
And in terms of the role of theatre in affecting offstage politics? Yeah, that's definitely a good question. Because storytelling is powerful. Clearly. But we're a very small piece of a very large puzzle. And, I mean, it almost goes without saying, but theatre is not propaganda. If you're attached to the idea of transmitting a particular message, well, you'll probably stunt your play and fail to transmit the message anyway. Theatre can be used to raise questions.
6. Your company, Moving Target Theatre, aims to produce original theatre with "a lot of heart and soul". What does that phrase mean to you, could you elaborate?
“Heart and soul?” When did I say that? Oh, right, on my website. It was probably the piano lessons as a child. But what I was probably thinking – a friend of mine once told me that after seeing my first show, Three Ring Circus, he felt “more human.” Which is sort of an odd expression, but it became one of my main goals. I think it has to do with tapping into the insecurities and vulnerabilities that we all carry. If we can expose that on stage, and part of that is being vulnerable, it can unite people in a very humanizing way.
7. You are based in Winnipeg. What is it like writing for the theatre in this city?
I love it. I love living in Winnipeg, I love the artistic community, I love the sort of humble quality that comes with living in a smaller, less glamorous city. And I feel very rooted here. There are less people creating and producing original theatre in Winnipeg than in, say Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary. In those cities I'm sure there are more opportunities for collaboration, more residencies, more resources. That said, I think Winnipeg is a great place to work. And I was just at a meeting last night of the “Winnipeg Independent Theatres” - which was lovely, meeting up and talking with colleagues.
The problem I've had is that the ceiling is pretty low. I put on these shows and then they're just over. They don't go anywhere. But I think you could have that problem in other cities too. Maybe in Winnipeg it's more pronounced because it is so isolated. In other cities, there might be more people who could pick your show up or whatever. But I think the answer to that is, as I said above – to branch out, so that your community is larger than the city you live in.
8. What do you like best about playwriting? How did you come into it, and where do you draw your inspiration from?
That I get to make the kind of theatre I want to see. And the kind of theatre I want to work on. I find words really interesting – how they function, what they imply. I did a lot of sculpture when I was in my teens, and I think writing is a lot like sculpting.
I got into theatre in university – the University of Winnipeg – I took an intro theatre course, got cast in a play and I was hooked. And there was something in one of our textbooks about a “quest for truth,” which sounded noble. So I studied acting and directing. I got into writing a few years later because I worked on a solo show with Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks and I was fascinated by the form. I had met Chris Gerrard-Pinker and I knew he'd created a lot of original work, so I asked him to create a solo show with me. And that was Three Ring Circus: Israel, the Palestinians and My Jewish Identity, which I toured on the Fringe circuit. And that was the beginning of my creative partnership with Chris. He's worked with me as dramaturg on 4 of my 5 plays.
9. What are you working on currently?
I have two new plays in the works, but they're still in the research stage and I'm scared to talk about them because I feel like that will jinx it somehow and I won't end up writing them.
And I'm working on Good People Bad Things. We're still developing it, both the script and the performance. I'm presenting it this summer in the Winnipeg Fringe and in SummerWorks in Toronto. So if people are reading this and you're going to be in either of those cities this summer, I'd love to see you at the show!
Daniel Thau-Eleff is a playwright and performer whose plays include Good People Bad Things, King's Park, Remember the Night and Three Ring Circus: Israel, the Palestinians and My Jewish Identity. Daniel is the founder and artistic producer of Moving Target Theatre Company and has worked as an actor, assistant-director or stage manager with many of Winnipeg's theatre companies.
You can visit him at MovingTargetTheatre.com