#328 – Stephen Near

Stephen Near is a writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. Stephen is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Last year, he was named the inaugural Writer-In-Residence for the Cotton Factory in Hamilton. His writing has appeared in a variety of online and print publications and his plays have been produced at a variety theatres and festivals, principally by the company that he co-founded, Same Boat Theatre. He is a proud husband, father and unabashed geek who is (still) obsessed with comic books and role-playing games.

stephennear.com
Twitter: @SNear23
Instagram: @stephenisnear

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TRANSCRIPT

Phil Rickaby
Welcome to Stageworthy, I’m Phil Rickaby, the host of this podcast. This is episode 328. Stageworthy is a one person operation. So not only do I perform the interviews, I also arrange the guests, I edit the show, I promote it and I even created the music that’s playing under what I’m saying now. I also shoulder all of the financial responsibilities for keeping the show going all while giving you this show for free. If you enjoy this podcast, please consider supporting it, there’s a few ways that you can help out. If you listen on Apple podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating and if you listen on Apple podcasts, you can also leave a review those reviews and ratings helps new people to find this show. If you want to keep up with what’s going on with stage worthy and all my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe. And you can also leave a tip for the show by dropping some change in the virtual tip jar. I will put a link to that in the show notes which you can find on the website or in your podcast app. But one of the most important things that you can do even more important than rating or reviews or even financial support is to share on social media. Even retweeting this episode helps. You can find Stageworthy on Twitter and Instagram @Stageworthypod and you can find the website with the archive of all 328 episodes at stageworthypodcast.com. and if you want to find me online, you could find me on Twitter and Instagram at Phil Rickaby. And as I mentioned, my website is Phil rickaby.com. My guest this week is playwright and educator, Stephen Near. Stephen joined me to talk about his new play Whale Fall at the 2022 Hamilton fringe July 20 to 31st. Here’s our conversation

I want to I want to get talking about oh well fall at the Hamilton fringe. And I know it’s a byo V, with the Hamilton conservatory for the arts.

Stephen Near
Yeah,

Phil Rickaby
tell me, let’s start with tell me about Whale Fall first.

Stephen Near
So Whale Fall was a play that I started writing, when I was when I was associated with theatre Aquarius part of their what they called their junction, their theatre Aquarius junction, which was basically this project that this programme where they, they brought in creators who were actors who were playwrights who were whatever, like, like, who maybe had an idea and just weren’t sure where to go with it. Was it a play? Was it a performance piece? What have you. And I approached Luke Brown, who was the who was their, their director of new play development at the time and said, You know, I got this piece, and I don’t know, it doesn’t really feel like a, if it doesn’t really feel like a play right now. I don’t know what it is. But, you know, I’m my daughter, who is younger, much younger, who was younger than she then she is now at the time, you know, has this big fascination with marine mammals, and particularly Orca, and sharks and all other stuff. And I really felt compelled to write a play about it or write something about it. And I didn’t know what what to make of it. But I just really felt compelled to write about it. So. So I started working on it in this junction in the junction. And essentially, it just started out as a bunch of monologues, right, a bunch of monologues about, you know, sharks and orcas and whales and all that stuff. And over time, it kind of took on a shape where it kind of took on a shape where in the narrative was essentially like her, my daughter as a character in the play, and me as a character in the play talking to her about whales. And so I thought it’s just like a storytelling is just like a storytelling exercise, where we’re sort of, you know, my I’m telling her stories about Wales, and then she’s sort of talking a little bit about them. And I thought, but it needs more than that, right? And Luke was Luke, who was working in sort of a dramaturg air shots, Grant and dramaturg was like, Well, you know, if this is to have a narrative, like, what does it look like, narratively speaking. And I was like, yeah, it doesn’t really have much of a narrative like, I don’t know. It’s just like monologues about whales. And that kind of got me thinking about well, what does this look like from a, from a story telling perspective? What type of story am I telling? And it kind of, kind of brought me around to the notion that I was maybe telling a story about about Becca reflecting back On a time when the orcas were still around, because she’s living in a time when the orcas are extinct. And that was like, Okay, so basically, I’m projecting Rebecca, my daughter into the future, as you know, a young woman who’s been studying to be a marine biologist, being a whale biologist, but there are no whales. So what does that look like? What does a play like that look like? And then that led me to this pretty uncomfortable realisation that, in writing myself in this play, what role do I have in this play? Right, like, what is my role in this play? Well, I kind of felt like my guess my role is like, you know, then questioning, like, got to me questioning about the whole sort of overarching theme around the play, which is sort of my responsibility, my culpability, to allowing species extinction to allowing climate change, right. Which I think is the big question that is quite honestly facing so many creators nowadays. Any, it sort of dovetailed around the time like, like, around, I guess, 2020. Because when we, we sort of all locked down like 2020, the pandemic happened. And we all sort of locked down, but I kept on working on the piece, even though so the junction was sort of meeting remotely. And around that time, there had been a lot of talk about, you know, what, what, what types of projects? Essentially do do. playwrights like me, are creators, like me, you know, older, white male, middle class creators, what responsibility do we have in terms of writing? Like, what types of projects do we really have right to put a voice to, you know, because there was a lot of there’s there has been a lot of talk recently, and rightly so, about, you know, white male or white writers, co opting the stories of, of, of other cultures, right, other cultural creators. But I, when I kind of came upon climate change, I kind of thought, well, this is honestly a subject that I can talk about why because, you know, white, white colonialist culture is something that we like, like, and and that type of oppression, that type of change, that type of industrialization is something that like,

on unfortunately, men like me, have been, have have been very responsible for and I kind of thought, well, maybe this is something that I can write about, that I can try and tackle. But again, talk about, you know, what responsibility, do I have what ruts What responsibility, what what culpability? Do I have? How can I address this? How can I write about this thing, which is, is a really huge worry. And that even back in like 2019, it was it was weighing upon us. But now in 2022, it’s, you know, it’s critical, like, it’s awful, that the way that that, that so much has been happening over over these past few years, just pointing to some of the, I guess some of the distressing news about about climate change. And, and so this, this piece addresses that, but it addresses it in a very specific way it addresses it in, you know, by talking about this subject of species extinction. But one of the things I learned about when I was when I was taking my masters was it’s very difficult to write about climate change, it’s very difficult to talk about things like extinction, from an artistic standpoint, because a lot of times audiences kind of to note, tune away from it, right, or they’ll only pay attention to intuit if it’s, I don’t know, in in terms of a, I guess, in a dystopian sense, right, speculative fiction or whatever. So that so so the way that I thought I could write about this is to make it very personal and to make it down to earth and make it very intimate. And really, there’s nothing more intimate than, you know, the relationship between a father and a daughter. And the, you know, the bond and the tension and the love between it between the two of them. And so that’s kind of where this this piece emerged was, was addressing this very big issue from a very, from a very intimate, small issue. And trying to bridge that gap.

Phil Rickaby
In terms of the the writing of it is did what did the writing of it? Was that a different process than the one that then one you normally follow?

Stephen Near
Yeah, I was less interested in. I was less interested in character dynamics, and less interested in sort of character backstory, like some of the world building that I usually do and a lot of my plays. I didn’t do any of that. I did a lot of exploratory monologues. Um, and when we like this is this is sort of the first time this piece has been performed live like. We did a reading of it last year with the Hamilton Hamilton arts week online, it was a digital presentation. So, so the so when I wrote the piece for that, for that time frame, I really kind of said, Okay, how do I basically inject a narrative in this? What is a narrative? What is the story look like? And what it turned out, what it turned into was, it became a sort of a road trip, if you will. And so that the play kind of starts with this declaration, like, right off the bat, making it clear to the to the audience, okay, the whales have disappeared, the whales are extinct. And so basically, then the need the journey of Becca, as the primary character is I need to, I need to, like, leave everything I’m doing right now, to see if I can find them. And that kind of formed the backbone for the journey, if you will, of the play. But I didn’t. So in that sense, what I did is I took a lot of the monologues that I had written, and then kind of filled them in with, you know, back on these certain points along the way along this highway journeying through BC, which was interesting, because as I kind of took her on this journey through BC, there were all these other places for me to touch upon issues of environmentalism and climate change, because, you know, no surprise, BC has kind of been the epicentre for climate change disasters for the last few years, so I had a lot of material to kind of work with.

Phil Rickaby
Now the partnership with the Hamilton conservatory for the arts, is it is this the plays being performed there?

Stephen Near
Yeah. Yeah, they have a blackbox space that they’ve kind of renovated in the last few years. Because it was it was if they were using it, like before the pandemic, but because of the pandemic, they had, obviously shut down. But now they they are sort of trying to reopen it and are trying to promote, want to promote its use within the theatre community in Hamilton. But I think they’re also trying, they were all they’ve also been looking for, you know, partners that they can work with, you know, that that can sort of, they can tell stories, I think that will fit in there with their mandate a bit better and, and the Hamilton conservatory, the arts is is very much youth focused, right. So they they focus on dance, they focus on music, they focus on theatre, for for children and for young people. So, so we were approached, we’re actually approached by Stephanie hope Lawler, Stephanie had, she works at the conservatory as their theatre director. But she was also in the production of the read through last year at in at the Hamilton Arts Week for whale fall. And in fact, she when when before the pandemic she was also part of another group at the at Aquarius, the actors Forge, that actually read a lot of the pieces that had been written by the people in the junction. So she had actually was one of the first people to kind of take a look at the piece as it was emerging and read for the part of Becca. So she has she’s always she’s been attached to the project from the beginning. So when she contacted myself and Aaron was same boat and saying, you know, what are you guys doing for the fringe? Would you be interested in in doing, doing this piece? As a byo V. We were like, oh, yeah, that sounds great. We’d love to partner with with the, the HCA. That’s great. That’s really exciting. It’s an exciting way for us to kind of get back into making theatre for Hamilton, we of course, wanted to work with Stephanie. So yeah, it it’s turned into a really a really nice, nice partnership and a nice collaboration that kind of took us all by surprise.

Phil Rickaby
Now, the Hamilton fringe is, like many fringes this year, is back in person.

Stephen Near
Yeah. No, I think there is some digital stuff but, but I think they’re largely promoting it as as back in person. Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
Just as a I know, for myself, navigating going back to the theatre has been a little bit of a process, some anxiety, some like checking, like, what are the protocols, they’re still following all this sort of stuff. How do you feel as a presenter about going back into the theatre?

Stephen Near
Yeah, it is. It’s all mixed emotions. It’s all mixed emotions. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Like yeah, I honestly can’t, can’t say it’s, it’s I mean, I’m, I’m excited for the chance to go back I hope it doesn’t get shut down again. Like I I hope that that girl goes through. I know that the HCA will have some, some firm protocols in place. I assume that they’ll they’ll still have masking and all that. I mean, I mean, COVID is not going away. I just, I don’t know. It frustrates me that the issue of masking indoors has become such a political issue like I just don’t get why that is. Like, there’s no I don’t I mean, I wouldn’t have an issue going into a theatre, wearing a mask. I don’t know why anyone else would. I haven’t been to see live theatre yet, though in inside, like wearing a mask. I think the closest I came was in November, I went to see a movie. And it was weird. Like, there weren’t a lot of people in the theatre, so it didn’t feel too, too risky. But it was a weird feeling. It was a weird feeling. I’ll be honest,

Phil Rickaby
there’s, I’ve been noticing. There’s seems to be like some some real differences in in, at least in Ontario, when I look at Ontario and theatres, compared with, say, for example, theatres in New York, and I’m hearing a lot from people who are going to theatres in New York, and you see a lot of stuff where they are, like, adamant that masks stays on the staff, the ushers are going around, make sure people keep their masks on all of this stuff. And in Canada, we have some of our at least in Ontario, some of the smaller theatres are like, yes, we’re still masking, we’re still doing this, we still do that. And some of the larger ones are like we’re recommending, which of course means that people probably won’t. And it seems to me that that, to me, not requiring masks is disrespecting the performers, as well as your fellow audience members, but the performers are going to be there every night. And we’ve already seen how many performers and how many people on stages and behind the scenes are getting COVID every performer puts their body and their, their, their well being on the line during this pandemic. And the least you can do is wear a mask. And I just don’t understand why in a lot of places here. We’re being so cowardly about enforcing it.

Stephen Near
It’s a lack of political leadership. It’s the same reason why mask mandates were were removed in March. It’s the same reason why why capacity limitations were removed. It’s a lack of political leadership. It’s the it’s I’m going to just say it right here. It’s the it’s the Conservative government that we have that wants to close the book on COVID that wants to project an image that the pandemic is over. It’s catering to the same people who are anti vaxxers. It’s the same catering to the anti masters the same bunch of Yahoo’s that went that went and you know, park their trucks in Ottawa? Yeah, yeah, in February. I’m just going to say it, it’s it’s horrific. It’s horrendous. You know, it’s an eye on sadly, it’s not a surprise from the conservatives. It does surprise me that it’s happening from, you know, the the Chief Medical Officer. But again, this whole thing has been politicised, and it’s really distressing. It’s really upsetting. All of this is just to keep people safe. But it I guess it’s just the fact that that people are, are, are complacent enough to dismiss it. Because it’s easier to dismiss it and walk away than have to have that extra level of care, which also is distressing. Because one would think that, you know, in the in the first year of this, all we were talking about was well, you know, we’ve got each other’s backs, and we’re all in this together. Two years later, well, it appears we’re really not all in this together. It’s it’s every person for themselves. And that’s that is disrespectful. And that’s unfortunate. That said, I mean, I am seeing a lot of people who are wearing their masks in public. But the fact that it’s not a not an affirm policy with many places, just speaks to me of of political complacency, and catering to the lowest common denominator, the lowest hanging fruit, just for political gain and votes. Yeah,

Phil Rickaby
I can’t argue with any of that. I feel like our conservative government in in in, in Ontario has decided that they just want to be the ones that quote unquote, finished COVID. At least for this election.

Stephen Near
I could go, I could go on and on about Yeah, well, because that’s a separate podcast.

Phil Rickaby
That’s a completely separate podcast. But yeah, it’s, I think that I really hope that the fringes having been through so much of that like losing two years of fringe and and performers that there’s an enforcement of the masking throughout because especially for people who are touring, I can’t imagine being in another city, finding out that they are not going to enforce masking and then catching COVID When you have to either travel or decide not to

Stephen Near
Bea a, be a nightmare. Yeah, right. Yeah, I don’t get the sense. I don’t get the sense that I don’t I’m not getting a signal from from the fringe. I know the fringe here has been quite quite cautious and careful about about maintaining safety. That said they are managing to do to do Some events in person like I know, they’ve they, they, they had some workshops recently that were in person. I didn’t attend them. But I mean, I mean, we’ll see. We’ll, we’ll see how it goes. But I mean, all by and large, they’ve they’ve, they’ve seen, they’ve seemed to seem to be very aware of the fact that this is still an issue, both for audiences and performers,

Phil Rickaby
and that’s good. Now, as far as Hamilton fringe goes, you have you have a bit of a you have a history with the fringe, you’ve been, you’ve done a number of shows with the Hamilton fringe. Are you looking forward, I found my time at the Hamilton fringe, it’s a very warm fringe, there are warm fringes, there are indifferent fringes, and I found Hamilton to be a very warm fringe. Has that been your experience? And what’s what how long have you been doing stuff with the Hamilton fringe?

Stephen Near
God I’ve been doing the Hamilton Fringe since since I arrived in 2011. i 2011. i Well, no, I arrived in 2010 2010 was when I submitted, I submitted a play to the new the new Play Contest for 2011. And one so that was kind of my introduction to the Hamilton fringe was was premiering my, my my play as the winner of the new Play Contest. interesting side note about whale fall. So I had submitted whale fall to the new Play Contest for this year. But here’s here’s how COVID Kind of like, like the whole shutting down pandemic and the weird secluded life I’ve been living, you know, for however many years, I submitted it like back in December, and I completely forgot that I had submitted. So I was on my way, like, I guess it was in March, I was going off to to pick up my kids at at at school. And Aaron texts me going, Hey, you want to play contest? I’m like, What? What do you mean, I want to play contest. And, and this is at the time when we were talking about doing the BYOD. So I was thinking, oh, and I thought of course me I’m like, Oh, I won the new Play Contest. Well, I guess that’s interesting. You know, I guess you know, this play that I wrote this actual wellmade play that I wrote, oh, I guess it one, but I’m doing a B while I’m doing well falls a BYOB I guess all the best I’ll do is I’ll just get tickets. I didn’t realise I didn’t remember that I had submitted Well, as a new play contest. I thought I had submitted this other plate that I’d written. So when I got when I got back, I was like, Oh, well for one second place in the new Play Contest. Oh, I guess that’s that’s something I could use in marketing. Wow, what a great surprise. So So yeah, well, well, for the play that we’re doing at the BYOB was one of the award winners for the new Play Contest. Which is always a plus because you’re like infringer always like how how what like are all the different angles I could use to promote it. But it was just so funny that I was like on my way and thinking oh, well okay, was it was the other play that one the one that won second place big deal. Like this is how this is how turned off to doubt I am of the whole circumstance

Phil Rickaby
I think I think we can talk a bit of that up to COVID brain because we’ve all lost track of things. We’re all distracted still.

Stephen Near
Yeah, and I guess like just to speaking to your point of fringe like I’ve Hamilton fringe, like it’s kept on chugging along, right. Like I just I and you know I know that other fringes have done this. I know Toronto was was pretty active. But I would I would say like this year, like one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about about Hamilton fringe was how, how sort of all the where all the different venues are but I know that there may be some changes this year to be quite honest. Phil like I don’t know which venues are still operating in which venues have been shut down. And that’s actually just unfortunately a sad reality to to our city in our community right now that that I know that some venues during the Phryne during during the pandemic were shut down. I don’t know if they’re going to be coming back up like a good example is the staircase right during, during during the past decade. The strict staircase was like one of the destination byo bees. I don’t know if it’s if it’s going to be there anymore. Like the staircase shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. Then it was brought back as like a restaurant movie theatre and then it shut down again. Apparently it’s come back but I don’t know whether it’s a byo V like I have, I don’t know. So what venues are open? is a bit of an open question. So what I’ll be honest what like I have no doubts about the sort of the warmth, the like the emotional warmth and the spiritual warmth of of the people in the fringe right now in Hamilton. Like, I think people, you know, there’s a lot of artists here that are that are eager to get back that are eager to connect with audiences. But what stages are going to be left for us to perform on is is different? I mean, could because we’re BYOB? I haven’t seen what all the water all the other actual official venues are. I don’t know what they are.

Phil Rickaby
I think the question of venues is one of those questions that that that has been being were there, a lot of artists have been asking throughout, like, what is going to survive in Toronto, we are fortunate that that the number of say independent spaces that are still in existence are still in existence. But we did lose a bunch. So it’s like, and, you know, again, where’s the support for for those because the independent spaces don’t have the profile of like some of the larger theatres, so they, in some cases lost out and had to close?

Stephen Near
Yeah, and I mean, we’ve again, I’ve we’ve we’ve had, I think it’s, we’ve had that happen as well. I think it’s I think it’s the question, I think it’s the question we’re coming out of, ironically enough, it was the question we were going into with, but but I think it’s the biggest question now, of you know, what, what, what sort of resources do we have at our disposal? Now? You know, what does it take to get audiences out to see live theatre?

Phil Rickaby
Man, that is,

Stephen Near
right. The idea, the idea of a packed, packed house for opening night? How does that make you feel?

Phil Rickaby
I will tell you how that makes me feel it makes me feel a bit better tell you exactly how I feel. Because I remember watching a video, I guess, in the new year, just a few months ago of like, the production of Hades town, and its first performance back on Broadway. And it was a shoulder to shoulder all packed house. And it was very celebratory. But my hands were kind of sweaty. Just like watching that. Because not I knew everybody was masked, but we’ve spent two years putting a distance between ourselves and other people. It’s difficult to simply just sort of go okay, let’s all sit close together in a theatre.

Stephen Near
Yeah. Yeah, it is tough. It’s hard. Yeah, and I don’t emotionally I mean, emotionally, I have not, I don’t know that I’ve been doing all that well. With all of this. So. So you know, how I feel about being shoulder shoulder with with all these different people. How I feel about being around people that I feel are being disrespectful, who, you know, how many, how many vaccines, how many vaccines have you had? Are you an anti mask? Or are you an anti Vaxxer? You know, how much do I trust my fellow human? Which is also sad, because I didn’t didn’t really feel like that two years ago. So I don’t know. I don’t know. I again, I don’t really have any ready answers. The The only thing I can tell you is that I’m really glad that I’m returning. I’m getting back into some live theatre work now with the team that I have. Aaron, Aaron, Joel Craig has has been my longtime collaborator, right on, I’m the playwright, he’s the director dramaturg. And that’s a, that’s a relationship that we’ve fostered and cultivated over many, many years. So there’s a really strong, strong trust there. Right. Like, like, his voice when he when he talks to me about whatever is going on within the script or otherwise is always something that I can listen to. Stephanie is a is a performer that we wanted to work with for a long, long time. She’s got a I mean, her her resume and pedigree is is phenomenal. But just as a person, she’s just really, really lovely. And just isn’t is another one of these people that I’ve actually kept in contact with over the course of the pandemic, like actually, when things first started locking down, she kind of took the initiative and said, Hey, why don’t we get together like every Wednesday night and read plays together over zoom, just so that we can connect with each other? It didn’t it didn’t last very long. But it was it was still a nice thing. It was it was a very good thing to kind of keep us all grounded and together. And then the sort of the route and who rounds out our cast the sort of core working team is a is a man named Raymond louder and Ray was was a teacher was the head of the theatre department at Redeemer College in Hamilton. Sadly, Redeemer I Oh, shut its doors shut down. It’s Theatre department, I think it must have been last year. And there was much fear about over that much hand wringing about what that meant, what that meant, what the implications of that. But again, another one of these, you know, either an ideological or a cost saving measure that happened over the, over the pandemic, to which the arts, you know, were a direct culprit. But I’ve wanted to work with Ray for a long, long time, he has a really, really deep, deep understanding and a deep love of theatre. And, and really loves the piece, and has been able to connect with it on a, on a deep level. So it’s, it’s, it’s a really fortunate and it’s a really big gift to be able to come back to theatre with this piece. Because it doesn’t feel like oh, it’s going to be a slog to get this up. Right, it feels like this is, this is a story we’re going to tell we’re going to tell it to people that at at the HCA and if they want to bring their kids if they want to bring, you know, their their young theatre goers, they can write like, it’s, it’s, it’s not, it’s not like a hard piece, like the piece that I did a few years ago about about, you know, radicalization of use, and, and, you know, terrorism overseas, which was a hard, which was a hard piece. And, you know, it was difficult maybe to, for some audiences to kind of take in. But this is, you know, I mean, this is a piece of tackles climate change, but it also tackles, but it also talks about the love between a parent and their child. And I think a lot of people can, can can relate to that.

Phil Rickaby
I wanted to ask you a little bit about, about writing, but also about being a geek. As somebody who has, you know, you and I have both had experience playing role role playing games and been in comics for you. Were you writing before you were role playing? Or did role playing lead to writing which which came first?

Stephen Near
Role playing leave? No question.

Phil Rickaby
No. What was your What was your starting game of choice? Was it d&d Or something else?

Stephen Near
Oh, it was d&d. Of course. It’s always d&d. I always want to say oh, is this other game but it wasn’t it was d&d, the basic starter set was keep it the Borderlands. You know, it was it was the most basic basic thing. I think my my first character was a was a thief. I can’t remember his name. elven thief, I believe, but yeah, yeah, it was it was DND. But you know, I quickly graduated, you know, I went on to other games I went on to, to, you know, all sorts of stuff. But it’s funny, like the pandemic has kind of brought me back, although it like stopped me from role playing, you know, LARPing, right, like live action role playing. It’s actually brought me back to tabletop, as in the virtual tabletop. So I play in I play in a couple of games over the virtual table over this server discord, right. And I’m back to playing like my first one of my first loves in role playing, which is Star Trek, I’m playing a Star Trek role playing game and it’s so much fun. It’s so much fun.

Phil Rickaby
I funnily enough, I did not start role playing with d&d, and my first experience with d&d was terrible. And so it didn’t roleplay until I started LARPing many years later.

Stephen Near
I know it’s so what did you start with? What did you start with?

Phil Rickaby
I started with Vampire the Masquerade was my first real playing game

Stephen Near
Are you serious? you started role playing with vampire

Phil Rickaby
live action roleplay my the first time I did tabletop when I was in high school, this is like way back had terrible okay. Yeah, yeah. Okay. And I played one game. And I hated it. Because it was he was just like, very much like, your role this you go this many steps. Now we’re going to fight a monster. And that was the entire thing. There was no right. And I thought, if this is the game, I don’t know what people are crazy about. I’m not playing this. So it was only many years later, that I found my way to live action playing and then other games as well.

Stephen Near
Oh, I see. Okay. All right. Well, that’s interesting. Well, that’s an interesting journey.

Phil Rickaby
it’s interesting also, just to lead like the the way that that creating a story on the fly both like as a as a Game Master or storyteller to to have the plan. But the freedom and the the need to be able to deviate from the plan. Yeah. And like there’s a real improvisational, like storytelling on the fly, can be very hard, but it’s very rewarding. So it’s a fascinating thing to think about taking that and taking that into into playwriting and other writing.

Stephen Near
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I didn’t actually come to play writing until many, many years later. I actually never thought of myself as a playwright until, like, after I was well done University. I, I think I was always creative, creative writing, but I never thought, Oh, I’ll be a novelist or I’ll be a short story writer. And I think maybe that part of that came from role playing games because it was acting out. So I took a lot of drama, and I thought I wanted to be an actor. And then when I went to university at York, I, I went into the acting programme and then promptly decided I don’t want to just train to be an actor. So then I trained as a director dramaturg. Then when I got out of that, when I graduated that I was like, Yeah, I like I liked the scene, the scene analysis and the scene construction, and like to play construction, deconstruct, and that goes into being a director like IE a dramaturg. But I hated the, the, the, the authority, I thought I had to wield as a director, I got very uncomfortable with the status that I felt I needed as a director. And in fact, like, for the next few years after that, when I was involved in directing projects, I never felt I did all that well, as a as a director. In fact, I remember I directed you in a in a show, I don’t know somewhere in the 90s. And it was just for me, it was not a project I felt good about. Because I felt I’ve just fallen flat on my ass. It’s not. And it was only after that experience that I went, Well, what am I what am I actually in this for? What am I actually in theatre for? Like, I go to see a play I go to see, I go to go to see theatre. And around that time I was going to see plays by you know, John myton, Jason Sherman, Judith Thompson. Michael Healy, like all of these creators were getting their start. And I was like, what, what is the magic for me and going to see a theatre? We’re going to see theatre? Do I envision myself being up there as an actor? Not really, do I envision myself, you know, being the director who is crafted and creative that created that? I don’t know that I am that either. But I am really excited to to know, like how that thing was put together and to put those stories together and put some of the weird stories in my head altogether. And that’s when I wrote my first play. Not Not surprisingly, my first play was like, inspired by a role playing game that I played, and that kind of dovetailed into a whole lot of plays that I’ve done that have sort of these geeky themes around them.

Phil Rickaby
Now, that said, I think that that, I do think that the genre is something that we don’t explore much in theatre. No, and there’s a few companies that do and a few playwrights that do and I’m always very impressed. Because, again, we there was a time when that was like what you know, you would see horror, you would see quote, unquote, sci fi on the stage, because that was where those stories were told. But we don’t do that very much now, but I think it’s like, there’s a lot of possibilities in that. So anytime I see that sort of thing happening, I’m always very, very impressed and happy.

Stephen Near
Yeah, and I think I think, you know, obviously theatre can do things that I think can do things much better than, than other mediums can that said, like, I don’t know, there’s so many avenues of of storytelling nowadays that weren’t really around, you know, however, many decades ago, you know, podcasting for one like listening to podcasts basically are now audio dramas. And I know a lot of don’t know, there’s there seems to be a lot of adaptations that are coming from podcasts and, and also like, regular, like, standard plays, which over the pandemic were then turned into radio drama podcasts, I listened to those pretty religiously and, and got as much out of them. So I don’t know, it’s, it’s, again, this goes into my question of what, I just have a lot of questions about what theatre is going to look like. Now coming out of this, and a really, are we out of it? Like, I don’t know if we’re out of it, but what is it going to look like now coming out of the lockdown mode of this? Like, what types of things is theatre going to talk about? What types of things are theatre creators going to talk about? You know, what things have we not talked about? What are what do audiences want to hear? Right, like? It’s a very big question. It’s a very big question. And yeah, yeah, I don’t have an answer.

Phil Rickaby
No. And I, you know, I don’t think that we will have an answer for a couple of years. To be honest, I think that that there will be that exploration to see you know, what, what does happen, and I’m sure that at fringes across North America, there’s going to be at least one solo. This is how I spent my time pandemic,

Stephen Near
oh, oh, I’m not looking forward to that I’m or

Phil Rickaby
to be honest, I’m not either, but I’m sure they’re going to they’re going to happen. But I think that that is part of the process of figuring out how we tell these stories, right? And how we how we talk about this and where we are at. I think we’re gonna stumble a lot as we get through it, we’re gonna stumble, and then we’ll figure it out.

Stephen Near
Yeah, I guess we can’t really avoid it.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah, as much as we might want to.

Stephen Near
Yeah, otherwise, we’re just as guilty as everyone who’s not not paying attention to the issue.

Phil Rickaby
Over that’s the thing. I think, I think we will figure out how we, how we talk about it and how, you know, do I think that people, like I don’t think that people want to see the the play that is like, this is what the pandemic was like. But I think that, that, you know, people will work through it as we allude to it in different ways. Or maybe in a few years, we’ll we will, we will, people will be able to sit through, sit down and enjoy a play, or so watch a play that is specifically about the pandemic. But I think that that, that we will dance around it for a while before we figure out what it looks like.

Stephen Near
Right? That makes sense. Yeah. Dancing around, it makes a lot of sense. Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. It’s the the, you said something that I found, I found, like, I think is an important and enlightening question. The question about about where were you what you want to be in theatre, what you wanted to do, because I think, you know, a lot of people when they when they start that road where you didn’t, I’m going to theatre school, and I’m going to be an actor. And then trying to figure out where you go from there. And, you know, I remember being directed by you and you weren’t you were a good director, I want you to know that you were a good to

Stephen Near
hear you. And I think a lot actually, you gotta be gotta be honest, I didn’t feel I did very well.

Phil Rickaby
I mean, this is the thing is especially. Right. This is the thing is we don’t know what those stumbling blocks are we especially early on, like, I think that the I think that you were a good director, your instincts were good. And I think you put on a you put out a good product. But I think that the question that you were then asking, is one that, that people don’t often ask because I think there’s a fear of, of really investigating that because, you know, we spend time in the theatre. I know, when I was in theatre school, way back in the ancient times, when I was in theatre school, they were telling us a lot, like, you know, you only do the one thing, just be an actor, don’t don’t do anything else. Because if you do something else do that. And there were there was the idea of being a multi hyphenate, which we so many people are now was not an option.

Stephen Near
Mm hmm. Yeah. And it’s true. And, you know, and I, I also feel like when I was in theatre school, there was this sort of unspoken rule, or unspoken expectation that, you know, you had to pursue career above all else. Not that, that fuel the, the, the sort of the, the one trick pony. Argument, you know, the siloing of it, you know, you’re in this discipline, you’re in that discipline, which, of course, I think was also the same because, you know, that’s a university programmes are if you went to, you know, post secondary for art for an arts programme. That’s how you were sort of conditioned, whereas, you know, I, and, you know, some artists who didn’t go through that have a different mindset. But I also feel like, it’s kind of the same thing, like, there was an expectation that because your career comes first, everything else has got to come second. And this is also something that I’m finding, you know, with my life right now, you know, I had I had kids relatively late in my career. But there was always this sense of, oh, you know, if you have kids, and you’re not putting your career first, right, or if you’re working a regular job, then you’re not putting your career first. Right. It’s just a hobby. And that’s, that’s been something that’s been a real difficulty with me and something I’ve taken very great issue with, because this play wouldn’t exist without, without my daughter without my family. Like it just wouldn’t. And in fact, the last the last play that I wrote about radicalization, that wouldn’t happen without without the birth of my son without without, though the awareness that they’re, you know, that I’ve, I’ve, I’ve had a family that I’m creating a family and that there’s tensions that are around that there are anxieties around that as well as joy. And, and I guess it just for me, it just speaks to the way that it’s funny. You kind of talked about, you know, I directed and I put out a good product. I know it’s a turn of phrase, but I but for me, it kind of speaks to the way that I think we’ve commoditized or commoditized commoditized commodified Is that right, made into a commodity? Theatre, seen it as a commodity, right, like Oh, Well, you know, are you are you? Are you creating a good experience or a good evening for audiences? Are they getting a good return on their investment? Right, like, so much of this? You know, because I guess, a lot of grants and, and, and, and, and so much money in funding is comes from this sort of, you know, what do you what are you providing that will justify, you know, this model of funding to be applied to and, and I, you know, I’m not saying that we’re necessarily wrong as artists to think this, I just think that we’ve been conditioned to think this way that this is, you know, this is how it looks to be a professional. Right. And it’s not. And I think, if anything, maybe the maybe the last few years, I’m seeing an awareness on a lot of artists part saying, you know, what, I don’t have to define success as this model that, you know, perhaps, this, the this actor that I that I, you know, that I really, idolised lead their life, right, like, or, or, you know, I don’t, I knew a lot of I read a lot about theatre artists who left the profession. And in fact, I am still kind of on the fence. In many ways, I’m really not sure if this is pre really where I want to be. Right, I started writing writing a book over the pandemic, I’m, I’ve written a couple of short stories, I’ve had a few of them published, like, I don’t know, that now having with having had the pandemic and so many questions about, you know, what is it going to feel like in a shared space in the shared theatre space? Is this what I want to do? Right. And also, I mean, theatre, the way theatre worked as a as a, as a business model wasn’t working all that well beforehand. So, yeah, I guess it just is his had me sort of questioning like, Is this the place for me? Is this where I want to be? Because it may be maybe it isn’t. You know, I that I that I can’t, I can’t answer. But I do know that there are certain things in my life that I don’t really want to give up, as, or sacrifice as much as I was readily willing to do beforehand, which, which was, I don’t know that I want to sacrifice four days a week to going to rehearsal. I just don’t know that. I really care to do that.

But, but I guess we’ll see. Right, like that’s how I’m feeling right now. But again, I know a lawful lot of people who, who said goodbye to this industry.

Phil Rickaby
Well, I think I think people’s relationships have with theatre had to change when, if your relationship with theatre and being being an actor, being an artist and theatre was that you wake up in the morning and you go from thing to thing to thing, and you were filling the day, to make a little to make enough money to get going and you’re always going to this that you’re doing this, you’re doing so many things, you never take a break and you never rest and then when the theatre shuts down, yep. What do you have? What do you have? And like I years ago, when I first took a day job, and I went through a period of mourning, my theatre career or whatever, and deciding, thinking, Well, I’m no, I’m taking a day job, I guess I’m not a theatre professional anymore. I guess I’m not a theatre maker. And then a few years later, trying to, like balance, like saying the wait, why do I? Why does it have to be one of the other? Why can I not balance, making theatre when I want to, with keeping a roof over my head without struggling? And I think that, that I hope that we can change after this. When people are thinking about what they want to do is the the idea that you must sacrifice every moment of every day, sacrifice your body, your soul, your mind, on the altar of theatre. And never take a break, never take a rest. Never take a vacation until you can’t do it anymore. And you throw up your hands and you say, Fuck it, I’m out. Or do you find a balance and actually, you know, make theatre on your terms and make the decision about how you want to see it done?

Stephen Near
Well, it’s interesting that you go you you refer to the altar of theatre and of course, we both know, you know, what, one of the, the popular beginning of theatre was was, you know, a religious or religious experience or religious gathering, right? At least in the Greeks, if you look at it in the Greek terms. The I don’t know it’s, it’s an it’s an interesting, it’s just was an interesting image, sacrificing on the altar, the altar, giving up giving up, you know, in exchange for I don’t know. Yeah, I, I, I would like to think there’s a balance. But at the same time, I mean, I mean, I’m not sure if it’s balanced, or if it’s or if it’s saying, you know, theatre theatre as a part in my life as as, you know, but, but it has a part in my life that that, that, that is no no greater in no greater than, you know, wanting to raise my kids into, you know, into worthwhile and lovely adults that will go on and make the world a better place? Or is it any better than, you know, wanting to, you know, have a have a strong relationship with my spouse or allowing them to pursue, you know, part of their career dreams, right, like, so I don’t I don’t know, I guess maybe, for me, what, what, what I realised is that, that that, you know, all those years of working, working, working, running, running running was, I don’t know, in pursuit of in pursuit of something that maybe you know, again, wasn’t really wasn’t real was a religious construct, in my own mind about, you know, what does success mean? And I guess maybe that’s how you, how do you what is the definition of success? What does success look like? And I think maybe that’s a constantly shifting, constantly changing image in our mind, well, maybe it should be. It probably should. And I think

Phil Rickaby
that there’s, I feel like we’re at this point now, where there’s a rush to get back to exactly where we were in 2019. Yeah, let’s fill those houses, let’s get those things on their feet. Let’s do this. But if I don’t think we’ve, we’ve really taken a look at the fact that for a lot of people, their relationship to the industry has changed over these two years. And then maybe the way that we operate and the way that what we expect from our artists and our producers, and everybody else also needs to change, and then it can’t be exactly what it was. We need to find out where how do we balance? How do we find work life balance in the theatre? And can we do it?

Stephen Near
Right? Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.

Phil Rickaby
Maybe I’m naive to think it can happen. I don’t know.

Stephen Near
Well, I don’t know. I think we’re going to I don’t you know, I thought there was going to be a reckoning when, you know, all of this shutdown. Yeah. I don’t know that. I see it coming yet. So yeah, I guess we’ll see. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll all bounce back. Who knows?

Phil Rickaby
I just I think I was sort of expecting the same reckoning. And I think that, you know, there were there were promises made in 2020. That yes, think are quickly being there were

Stephen Near
a lot of promises made and 2020 here, right. And some of them were, some of them were fulfilled. Some none of them. I’m still waiting. Yeah, that’s the some of them I think a lot of other people are still waiting for.

Phil Rickaby
That’s exactly the thing. And I think that at some point, we need to go back and look at those promises that were made, and start asking questions about when those promises are going to be fulfilled,

Stephen Near
which I guess, you know, is kind of a nice dovetail to, to the subject of this place. Because actually, part of what this play is, is is kind of a recognition on the part of, of, of main character, backups, my daughter, that promises made about, about the world about the type of world that she wanted to grow up in, and the kind of world that she was expecting did not happen. And I think for me, that actually was a big part of why I wrote the play is I mean, you know, what kind of what kind of world are we leaving, for, you know, for our kids, right? Like that this sort of this disposable world, that we can just kind of say, well, we’ll leave, I’m not even thinking about, about going, I might even thinking about my own death, right, I’ll just live forever. And I’ll use up all the resources, as much as I like, and I’ll leave them to worry about well, this play actually deals spot on with that. Like my I, as I as a playwright, had to confront the issue of my own mortality in writing this because I was writing in myself as a character in this play. Right? I’m writing my daughter, as a young woman in this play. I’m writing about, you know, what happens as we get older, what happens as the two of us argue what happens as you know, I mean, it’s speculative, right? But it was a painful thing. Having to having to write well, what would an argument between myself and my daughter when I’m older and she’s older, what would that sound like? What would we argue about? Right? And all of a sudden, the typical domestic the typical argument between a young person and an adult that I was writing in plays, you know, when I was is when I was first ready to start writing plays like 25 years ago, I’m writing it about me, my family, that’s kind of screwed up. But a lot of it again, is, is a lot of it’s actually it’s a really good point promet that the idea of promises made and promises broken. Right? What things? Did I not? You know, what things that I what what things that I withhold from my daughter about what was happening in the world, right, there’s a there’s a theme about that there’s one of the character Becca says, you know, where you’re not telling this to kind of shelter me from the truth? Right, I could have handled it. Right, I could have handled it, we could have talked about it together. And I think that’s a big theme is, is, you know, the the danger of withholding truth for fear that it’s going to be too painful. has been a big issue, right? Like, in the pandemic has kind of hammered that home for me, right? Like you wanted to, you want to, you want to keep your children safe, you don’t want to have them not deal with the issues. But you know, like it, you know, I’ll go back to mass the issue of mass, so many, so many people that I’ve seen argue against masks, masks in school masks on children are like, Oh, it’s just so terrible for children to wear masks, you know, they hate them. And it destroys them. And I’m like, well, actually, it doesn’t my kids learned we taught them the importance of it. And they don’t have an issue with it, because they know how important it is. So it’s just another piece of clothing. Right? And and, you know, it’s because we had that dialogue with them. Right? It’s because we didn’t withhold the oh, you know, there’s something going on. But we’re not going to talk about what’s going on? Well, we can’t really not tell you what’s going on. Because all the schools are closed, all the businesses are closed, all the world is shut down. Right.

And it’s interesting, one of the things that kind of came out of the pandemic shutting down because my daughter and I would like would watch nature shows. And that was a big, informing part of the play as well, right? This this thing of the two of us watching nature shows, but because of the world kind of locked down, a lot of animal populations bounced back, particularly whales and sharks. But then the whole question is, well, now that we’re getting going and moving again, what’s going to happen to all those, those those lives that kind of bounced back how they’re going to be affected again, right, like the issue of shipping traffic for instance, was a big thing right off the coast and BC right ship shipping was kind of halted so so Orca, migrating in the in the Salish Sea, in the in the Georgia Strait, you know, there was a lot more of them, right, because with no boats, the seas require so they could talk to each other, they could hear each other much better. But now, you know, the boats are out, people are out again, I’m moving and make a noise. And you know, now that one of the recent reports I’ve read is that they don’t know where the Orca have gone like and, you know, they’ve they’re not, they’re not in the Georgia strait right now. So where have they gone? And so I really frighteningly Phil, that’s kind of prescient, like that’s something I directly talk about in the script. So So yeah, I I don’t want to say that this play is is forecasting the future but it’s more of a it’s more of a cautionary tale. I like to call it a a climate change. Fable. Right. Yeah. Because that’s what it is. It’s a it’s a it’s a fairy tale. It’s a fable. And I think the best fables are cautionary fables, ones that kind of give us pause to think about what’s actually happening.

Phil Rickaby
And that’s a good is a good place to end right there. Thank you so much, Stephen, for this conversation.

Stephen Near
Oh, thank you. It’s my my genuine pleasure.

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StageworthyPod

- 12 hours ago

@partonandpearl @Toronto_Fringe @partonandpearl would you be interested in a live stream talk about the shows you review sometime in week 2?
h J R
StageworthyPod

- 16 hours ago

@philrickaby: Tomorrow is the start of theatre Christmas, also known as @Toronto_Fringe. Sadly, I'm in rehearsal mode for my own fringe show, so I won't be able to see as much as I want, but I'm seeing as much as I can. follow my coverage on the @stageworthypod insta and tiktok.
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StageworthyPod

- 20 hours ago

This week on Stageworthy, host @philrickaby talks to storyteller and serial entrepreneur, @VikkiVelenosi about her #FringeTO show: 2 Robs, 1 Cup: : What Happens When You’re Done Eating Shit? #TheaTO Listen now at https://t.co/Vx85xxavyd https://t.co/TeMg6wqn8S
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StageworthyPod

- 1 day ago

@itskyliethomps1 I'm doing my best to see as many shows as possible, but between day job and my own rehearsals I'm pretty limited. You're on my radar!
h J R