Q&A with Stephen Near

Playwrights Guild of Canada catches up with Hamilton-based playwright and Southern Ontario caucus rep Stephen Near. Stephen talks about community theatres and the unique opportunities and challenges they afford, fringe festivals, and how he got into playwriting.

1. During the AGM on June 2nd in Toronto, you raised an important question about the relationship between playwrights and community theatres. Have you ever worked with a community theatre? If so, tell us about your experience.

By far, the most experience I've had with community theatres is as an actor. I started my theatre career back in 1990 with a production of Twelve Angry Jurors at the Ottawa Little Theatre (which celebrated their 100th anniversary this year). It was my first exposure to a structured, collaborative rehearsal process and a good, long three week run. It was truly magical and I still treasure the memory of working with so many passionate and talented people on that show. When I arrived in Toronto, my most notable community theatre experience came from working with the folks at Alumnae Theatre. They’re a well-established community theatre with roots at the University of Toronto and my work with them involved performing both onstage and as part of the New Ideas Festival. As a playwright, too, my work really took shape and was supported by the folks at Alumnae through New Ideas which is a really strong new play development series available to new and emerging playwrights. Now that I'm in Hamilton, I've gotten to know a fair number of community theatre artists from places like Dundas Little Theatre, Village Theatre Waterdown and the Players Guild of Hamilton. I haven't worked extensively with any of them but am looking to do so in the coming years.

2. As a rep for the Ontario South caucus, what sorts of concerns have the caucus members brought to you about working with community and amateur theatres? What do you think are the specific challenges and opportunities?

The playwrights in my caucus want to see more opportunities for their plays to be developed and produced by community and amateur theatres. In southern Ontario, and likely in similar regions across the country, community and amateur houses outnumber the professional theatres by a wide margin. Something like 4-5 to 1-2 ratio, in some cases. But what’s more, community theatres often have a built-in and loyal audience base with strong roots to the community. This is something I think a lot of regional playwrights would like to be a part of. Many theatre artists get their first taste of the craft in community theatre and, if they're writers, they want to see their work on those same stages. As well, not all playwrights live in communities that support a vibrant Fringe or festival scene or have professional theatres with new play development programs.

So the question then becomes how do to get your plays performed? I think part of the answer lies with community theatre. The specific challenges, ironically, are the same for community houses as they are for professional companies. New play development requires time and investment of resources as well as a dedicated artistic team to develop and bring it to fruition. Many community theatres don't have anywhere near the personnel capacity to dedicate to this type of work. More often than not, they want finished scripts with some sort of production history. Very few community theatres I know have any sort of new play development program. Alumnae Theatre is perhaps the most prominent and their New Ideas Festival is the model by which other community theatres in Canada should operate.

3. The Guild did a survey in November 2012 to gauge the interest by community theatres in producing more Canadian plays, and the results were disconcerting. What do you think needs to be done to remedy this situation?

The results really pointed to a reticence on the part of community houses to develop and produce new Canadian plays. Indeed, many of the surveyed community theatres expressed disinterest in programming anything that was Canadian unless it was written by a select few prominent and popular playwrights. And this is disheartening because it suggests that a playwright must first have had their work produced by a professional company in order for the community theatres to even consider it.

The more disheartening response from the survey, as well, was an underlying doubt on the part of some community theatres that Canadian plays were worth programming or were of interest to their audiences. Too many, it seems, were interested in programming older American or English plays and musicals.

So what's to be done? To be honest, I think playwrights and the Guild need to make more of an aggressive effort to reach out to community theatres and expose them to Canadian scripts. Canadian playwrights can also help get their work read and considered for community stages by working with said theatre companies in other capacities. Joining the board or getting involved as a director can put you in a position to be on a new play selection committee or spearhead new play development initiatives by the theatre down the road. In short, I really think the power to change the perception of Canadian plays in the minds of the people running community theatres lies in the playwrights themselves. You need to advocate for yourself and the worthiness of your work.

4. As Co-Artistic Director of Reaching Symmetry Theatre, you’ve been on the other side of the fence. When taking on work to produce, what sorts of factors have been of greatest consideration to you and your theatre company?

Reaching Symmetry has a mandate to produce new Canadian plays but, as a new company, we've thus far only produced my own work as a playwright. But we are looking forward into the next year or so to produce scripts by other playwrights and bring them to different stages in Hamilton where we're based. The scripts that we’re interested in is work that is either rarely seen or is the type of story that we think might challenge and engage audiences in Hamilton. We're excited by this mandate because Hamilton is seeing a bit of a renaissance at the moment in many creative disciplines, especially theatre. I think that Hamilton audiences are hungry for new stories and new ways of telling them onstage. And there is an awful lot of room for innovation and risk-taking when it comes to theatre in this city. So it's an exciting time.

5. You’ve had a lot of work produced at fringe festivals, such as the Toronto Fringe, the Hamilton Fringe, the New Ideas Festival, and Summerworks. What was the festival experience like for you as a playwright? Did you enjoy the atmosphere and unique opportunities of festivals?

I love producing work for the Fringe circuit and, when I was living in Toronto, for Summerworks and New Ideas. There is a sense of freedom that comes with producing work in the Fringe and you can have a lot of fun trying out things out and collaborating with artists you’ve never worked with before. But there’s something that’s even more key to playwriting. Participating in theatre festivals often exposes playwrights to the producing aspect of theatre creation and this is a vital facet of being a playwright in Canada right now. If playwrights are to see their plays on-stage and promote their work for artistic professionals in established theatres, they must know the ins and outs of self-producing. Most festivals, even those run under the auspice of a theatre company, require that the playwright participate in some way as a producer even if it’s just in a promotional capacity (which really is huge!). Wearing the hat of producer can be a big jump for playwrights who are used to working alone but I find that every festival has a great support system of staff and volunteers who are only too eager to help your show get off the ground. And the network of fellow artists that one meets along the way can make for exciting future collaborations down the road. I also believe that Fringe and other similar festivals are becoming the go-to access point for bringing in new audiences to the theatre. This year we've had a lot of news about established, large-scale theatre companies in major urban centres having to deal with low attendance and poor box office sales for their seasons. I haven't really heard the same about Fringe and other such festivals. If anything it seems that small theatre festivals are growing faster then ever before and that's why, I think, they make for a tremendously exciting venue for playwrights all across the country.

6. How did you get into playwriting?

In the 2000, the Toronto Fringe Festival held their 24-hour Playwriting Contest. Up until that point, I'd written a few small scripts here and there but had mainly concentrated on acting and directing gigs in Toronto. But there was something about the openness, and the challenge, of the 24-hour contest that really drew me in. So, on the first day of the Festival, myself and a slew of playwrights gathered at the Fringe Tent and were given four components that had to be included in the final script. I can't remember all of the components that had to be in the finished piece but I think one of them was the line "Is he still breathing?" I wrote what I consider my first real one-act play which was a script called Quintessence about a physicist grieving the death of his wife. A few months later, I staged a reading at a bar along College St and a director friend of mine was in attendance. She liked it enough to suggest that we collaborate on producing it. We toured it to the Ottawa Fringe and the Summerworks Festival the following year and it was from that collaboration that we formed a company together. After that experience, I really started to define myself a bit more as a theatre artist and, specifically, as a playwright. I started writing more plays, took a number of workshops, joined the Guild (which was called PUC back then) and started branching out by working with other directors who liked my writing and were interested in seeing it onstage.

7. What are you working on currently/next?

Currently, I have a new play premiering at the Hamilton Fringe Festival called Test. It's a two-person play about a pair of Live Action Role-Play gamers (or LARPers) who stage a retelling of their relationship with one another in front of the audience. Myself and fellow playwright Sara Weber are performing it together and the show opens on the first day of the Festival on July 18th. It's not the first time I've written about LARP and geek/gamer culture for the stage. In the 2005 Toronto Fringe, I wrote a play called Shadow Court about a group of gamers dealing with the death of a friend both in real life and the world of the game. After Test, I'm continuing on a new play I've been developing through the Theatre Aquarius Playwrights Circle called And to Remember about the War of 1812. As well, I just finished a production of a play about H.P. Lovecraft called Monstrous Invisible. I’m very proud of the piece and am hoping for another production elsewhere in the future.

8. Many authors have a favorite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. What fuels your creativity? Please also share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Robert Bresson: "Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen." It really reminds me of something a lot of writers have told me over the years: this notion that what we write doesn't really belong to us. It comes from elsewhere and we're just sort've shaping it as the words come out on the page. I'm not a sculptor but I think writing and rewriting is very akin to the process of sculpting, in some respects.

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Stephen Near is a playwright, performer and educator living in Hamilton. Stephen studied theatre at York University and Drama/English at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE). He is Co-Artistic Director of Reaching Symmetry Theatre and has worked with a number of theatre companies in Toronto as a playwright or dramaturge.  As a playwright, he has had productions of his work performed across Canada in a variety of festivals including the Toronto Fringe, the Hamilton Fringe, the New Ideas Festival, the Summerworks Festival, and the Mainstage Festival of Theatre in B.C. Stephen is an alumnus of the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Saskatchewan and the Banff Centre in Alberta and has studied playwriting with Sheldon Rosen, Floyd Favel, Linda Griffiths, David Copelin and Daniel MacIvor. Stephen has a B. Ed from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and is a member of both the Council of Ontario Drama & Dance Educators (CODE) and the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT). Stephen is currently the Operations Officer for the Hamilton Arts Council, a member of the Theatre Aquarius Playwrights Unit and sits on the PGC's National Forum as the representative for the Ontario South caucus.