PGC's Q&A with Vern Thiessen

Playwrights Guild of Canada caught up with PGC member, Vern Thiessen to discuss his theatrical adaptation of the novel Of Human Bondage, what inspires his genre-crossing plays, and what originally drew him to playwriting. 

1) You are currently working on a theatrical adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage for Soul Pepper Theatre. Could you talk about how you came to this project? Why did you pick this particular book and author?

I picked up the Bette Davis movie at a yard sale about 10 years ago. Then I read the book. It's one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. No stage adaptation has been attempted and I now know why - it's a monster! After nearly two years of trying to acquire the rights - through a labyrinth of heirs and agencies, I finally got them in 2010. There are few companies in Canada who can produce such a large and epic project. I approached Albert Schultz at Soul Pepper and he was immediately enthusiastic. I've finished a first draft. We've been developing it there for the past year and it has been a very positive experience.

2) What are the unique challenges and processes of adapting a famous novel into a very different medium?

I've adapted several books for the stage, including Wuthering Heights, another monster, so I knew what I was getting myself into. You have to walk a fine line between staying true to the spirit of the book and making it "your own." You have to transform a narrative art form into a dramatic, theatrical one. You have to pick which threads to focus on, because you can't do it all. Maugham was a outstanding playwright himself, and luckily the dialogue in the book feels fresh and contemporary. 

3) You have written plays in a variety of genres, from comedies to historical dramas to musicals to theatre for young audiences.  What are the challenges in adapting your voice across genres? And is there a particular genre you find most easy or satisfying to write for?

Different genres demand different skill sets, different tools. If you do it right, the genre releases your "voice" rather than you adapting your voice to the material. "What does the material, the subject, the theme, demand of me?" That's the question.  

4) Your plays have explored subjects as diverse as the life of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, and the career of German chemist Dr. Fritz Haber. Where do you draw your inspiration for so many different ideas from?

Wait for ideas, and know when a good one falls in your lap. Occasionally I go looking, but that rarely works. Both Shakespeare's Will and Einstein's Gift (which you mentioned) were ideas other people gave me. I take no credit for the idea. But I do take credit for the plays. Ultimately, I am using these historical characters to talk about modern, contemporary issues. 

5) What originally drew you to playwriting?

I wanted to write a play for myself to act in. Then I realized how hard playwriting was. Then I fell in love with the pain. You get to tell a story in one of the oldest art forms there is. And if you're lucky, it may last a hundred years. 

6) As a playwright, what directions do you want to explore and move into in the future? 

My entire career, I have worked on commission. Someday, I would like to be forced to come up with my own idea. And then see if it amounts to anything.

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Vern Thiessen is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, dramaturg and theatre educator. Vern holds a B.A. from the University of Winnipeg and an M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of Alberta. From 1993-1996, he was Artistic Coordinator of Drama at Lakeland College in Lloydminster, Alberta. He continues to teach at various institutions, including the University of Alberta Department of Drama, where he was Honorary Research Fellow in Playwriting in 1996-97. He lives and works in Edmonton, where he is a principal partner in Irresponsible Films, Inc.