by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Sean Devine is a playwright, actor and producer, as well as a co-artistic director of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre. His first play Re:Union premiered in 2011 as a co-production by Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre and Pacific Theatre. RE:UNION was just published by Scirocco Drama, and will soon be seen in Halifax at the 2014 Magnetic North Theatre Festival. After Except in the Unlikely Event of War, Mr. Devine continues work on his newest play DAISY, in partnership with ACT Theatre. As an actor, he recently performed in Penelope for Rumble Theatre.
CHARPO: The last time we had more direct contact, you were working in the trenches of Montreal English-language theatre. Tell me about the journey to get you from here to there.
DEVINE: I've been here in Vancouver now for about 10 years, and in fact I'm moving back East (to Ontario) in 2014. What brought me out to Vancouver was simply the mutual desire of my wife (then my girlfriend) Alexa and I to go and make a life for ourselves in a place that was new and fresh. We'd each been to Vancouver previously and separately, and wanted to give it a shot. It was a romantic, fanciful concept. What kept us here for 10 years was the community that we developed. A lot of that community was developed through what we built with our theatre company Horseshoes & Hand Grenades (founded in 2004 by myself, Alexa Devine and Mindy Parfitt).
And it was definitely the opportunities that arose from having a theatre company that helped us to continue advancing and building within that community to the level that we did. I'd always wanted to be more than just a free-agent, actor-for-hire kind of artist. I wanted to have something and build something that could develop along with my own artistic interests. For numerous reasons it didn't happen for me in Montreal. And it was definitely the renewed sense of action that comes from moving to a new city that kicked me in the pants when we moved to Vancouver.
CHARPO: One more question about the two cities: I see considerably more political activism in theatre in Toronto and Vancouver; how would you explain that difference?
DEVINE: Great question. I can't say that I myself am knowledgeable about the difference in artistic-activism in Toronto / Vancouver versus Montreal, but it would certainly be an interesting phenomena. Perhaps one reason might be that there is more real and effective activism in Montreal, and thus less of a need to have artistic activism serve as a motivator for the actual thing. But that might be far fetched. I do know that Vancouver is a very politically active city, with many grassroots activist movements either being initiated here or finding their greatest momentum here. Another reason that the theatre in Vancouver, at least, might be more susceptible to activist-leaning theatre may be that Vancouver theatre is definitely more prone to experimentations in form, experiments in the relationship between audience and actor than cities whose theatre may be a bit more conservative. If this is true, then it's an easier transition for theatre artists to engage in art that is much more politicized by communicating more directly to an audience.
CHARPO: Now tell us about this play; about the confluence of the three influences - squelching of the arts and expression here, the Arctic as possible global flashpoint, Report From Iron Mountain.
DEVINE: The original source material was definitely "Report From Iron Mountain". At first, and for a long time, it was simply going to be an adaptation of that story. But the more I worked on it the more it became clear just how dry and non-theatrical the source material was. This is not to say that the material was not dramatic. The thematic content and ramifications of "Report From Iron Mountain" are most definitely dramatic. But it's far from theatrical. And so I definitely had to stretch my imagination beyond the parameters of the book to find theatrical contexts in which to play.
As that imagination got stretched, I started looking for contemporary corollaries between the "Report From Iron mountain" story, which is set in 1965, and a more modern manifestation of those themes. That's often an artistic tendency of mine: to look at history as a means of understanding the contemporary world, and to then create a theatrical concept in which those contrasting eras might co-exist. And so the first new narrative that emerged was the story set in 2015 at a radio station in the Canadian Arctic. I took one of the overriding themes of "Report From Iron Mountain", that there is a political class of self-titled elites who deliberately promote war and conflict and who deliberately keep this information form the public, and created a story set in 2015 where branches of the Conservative government stage incidents in order to control and manipulate public reaction in the months before the 2015 federal election. It was then fun to take those two narratives, the one in 1965 and the one in 2015, and situate them both in the same geography: an underground bunker in the Canadian Arctic.
The third story-line, the one set in 2013 and which is a meta-theatrical tale of the artists themselves rehearsing and producing this play in the midst of oppressive government controls, arose by chance. I'd been messing around with concepts and time signatures so much that I just asked my director / dramaturge if it might be fun to insert ourselves into the story. This worked out because over the several years of development we noticed that the immediate reality surrounding our existence as artists in Harper's Canada was just as messed up as the ones we were otherwise depicting.
CHARPO: How does political theatre keep from preaching to the converted and become stand-alone and away from the context or is political theatre stronger for being ephemeral?
DEVINE: We definitely had that concern here. And I don't necessarily have a problem with preaching to the converted, as it seems that the converts (myself included) need to be prodded multiple times before they engage in any worthwhile action. Also, there is a huge reluctance amongst even the artistic-liberal to accept the horrible truths that are out there. It takes a lot of reinforcing of important messages for people to accept challenging truths.
But, as I said, this issue did arise for us. One thing we did was to populate two of our narratives, the one set in 1965 and the one set in 2015, with characters who would identify primarily as conservatives. These characters represent the many diverse opinions and streams of thought that exist in the conservative movement, not all of which are abhorrent to left-leaning liberals. And we don't only have these characters spout nonsense. We put forth their right-wing arguments in ways that are fair and balanced, and often substantial. In doing so we're demonstrating that there is true power and reason that exists on the other side, and that we can't brush our enemies off simply as fools.
CHARPO: Finally - what do you want the takeaway to be with this piece - how do you want your audience to walk out of the theatre (ready to write angry letters, artistic riot, weeping…)?
DEVINE: If all goes well, the audience is going to walk out shocked and possibly angry at the political bombshells that we're dropping, but also quite entertained and still laughing. We've made a very strong effort at placing a huge level of lunacy and humour in this production. To an extent, when what you are depicting is madness and horror beyond contemplation, then you might as well get a good laugh out of it.