Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Sunday Read: First-Person - Paul Van Dyck on The Harvester (Atlantic Fringe)

(photo credit:
Camille McOuat)
The Growth of The Harvester
I feel that when you write, direct, and produce a play, you are showing your community a piece of your self, your soul, and your dreams. 
By Paul Van Dyck

Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. Make theatre, that is. And I often answer myself with: Because it’s the only thing I’m good at. And then I wonder if I’m actually that good at it. All I have to go on is what people tell me. Sometimes people tell me I’m good at making theatre. Sometimes they tell me I’m not. And sometimes, the worst times, they tell me I’m “mediocre”. 

Having recently mounted my latest theatrical creation, The Harvester, at the Montreal Fringe Festival, I was grateful to never hear the word “mediocre” thrown about concerning this play. However, ambivalent opinions abounded from audiences and critics alike. In fact, I discovered there was quite a debate amongst theatregoers concerning the merits of the piece. Some loved it and some hated it. Sure, they all loved the magnificent costumes by Melanie Michaud, or the magical props by Vladimir Cara, or the spooky lighting of Jody Burkholder, or the stellar performances by Eric Davis and Melissa Carter, but the story itself seemed to be the point of contention in this theatrical chain.  

I feel that when you write, direct, and produce a play, you are showing your community a piece of your self, your soul, and your dreams. And if your community responds with anything other than admiration, it’s impossible to not feel personally heart broken. I suppose I had it coming. The last few plays I had a hand in creating received a lot of praise and awards. So there were some high expectations for The Harvester, and yet its audience got this strange little sci-fi story in a dirty community centre basement with a broken air conditioner. So was it the dirty basement that turned people off? I doubt it. The broken A.C.? It didn’t help. Or was it that most people just don’t like Science Fiction? Maybe. But whatever it was that didn’t have everyone gushing over this play, I wanted to find out, fix it, and try again. So when Beyond the Mountain Productions approached me about doing The Atlantic Fringe Festival, I viewed it as my second shot.

To make this version better, the first thing I did was ask around.
“It felt like a first draft,” my fellow playwrights told me, “it needs dramaturgy.”
“I didn’t even know what planet it was taking place on,” one friend told me.
“I loved it, and anyone who didn’t is an idiot,” the sci-fi zealots reassured me.

The original Montreal cast
Melissa Carter and Eric Davis
But like most theatre practitioners, I yearned to be loved by all. So I took all the advice I could get. The play got some dramaturgy. The plot is now crystal clear. The awkward exposition has been transformed into flowing dialogue that not only propels the plot, but also enhances the characters’ relationships and struggles. There’s now a three paragraph pre-recorded prologue, giving the audience a kind of Star Wars-esque scrolling intro back-story. And I even added playwright’s notes to the program with the sole purpose of name-dropping that the play is actually an allegory for Genesis, Chapter 19, the story of Lot and his family after the destruction of Sodom. This allegory was simply used as a writing tool and would never be obvious to an audience, but when I mentioned it to a friend who promptly called the device “brilliant”, I quickly found a way to casually mention it in the program.

And then came the rehearsals. For financial reasons, it made sense for me to come to Halifax alone. The flight here was an interesting one, as I had to explain to airport security why I was traveling with a futuristic steam punk CO2 cartridge gun and a fake severed child’s hand floating in a jar of KY jelly (thank you Vladimir), but I made it through. Coming here without a cast or crew meant I needed to set up a Halifax team in advance. Having recently performed in Halifax with local darling of the stage, Margaret Legere, in Forerunner Playwrights’ Theatre’s Ms Right Now, I promptly offered her the part to play opposite me. She promptly accepted. With the immense arsenal of ideas brought about by watching Eric and Melissa bring these characters to life in Montreal, I hit the ground running in Halifax and Margaret and I had the show blocked and practically performance ready within two days of rehearsal. The last five days were spent finessing the character dynamics; most of which are credited to Margaret, whom, having no idea what the previous production was like, came at this project with a fresh and fantastic imagination.

Now we’re getting close to opening and my initial intent of creating the new and improved version of The Harvester seems to have drifted away. I find myself unable to objectively say whether this version is better than the last. All of the changes, clarifications, and prologues may have no effect what-so-ever on an audience, and I suddenly find that I no longer care. I loved this play just fine the way it was and now I love it as it is. I created it because it was a story I wanted to hear but nobody else wanted to tell. And I’m beginning to realize that maybe that’s why we make theatre. Not because I might be good at it, or I need people to love me. But because I love theatre, and if I didn’t put on this play, nobody would. 

Just like in Montreal, there will be audiences here who will love The Harvester and audiences who will hate it. And I will most definitely feel heart broken if anyone tells me that my work is mediocre. But I’m beginning to get a grip on the notion that perhaps that doesn’t really matter. And what really matters is that I love the work that I do. And I do.

Dates for The Harvester at The Atlantic Fringe Festival are:

Sunday Sep 2 • 3:30-4:10
Monday Sep 3 • 10:00-10:40
Tuesday Sep 4 • 8:00-8:40
Wednesday Sep 5 • 6:50-7:30
Thursday Sep 6 • 7:00-7:40
Friday Sep 7 • 6:50-7:30
Saturday Sep 8 • 1:50-2:30

Tickets available online at:


  1. Fantastic article Paul. Break legs, and enjoy the journey.

  2. Great article Paul.


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