Umbrella Talk with playwright Simon Ogden

I'm very excited about this week's Umbrella Talk as Simon has been a huge supporter of this blog. Simon is the man behind The Next Stage, Vancouver's pre-eminent theatre blog. I'm looking forward to meeting him when I'm in Vancouver for the Playwright's Guild annual conference at the end of May. In this week's interview, Simon shameless cribs from Leanna Brodie, waxes poetic about his dreams for the future of theatre, and talks about his love for Kentucky Bourbon.

A little more about Simon Ogden

Simon's immersion in the performing arts began like many 20-year-olds in Vancouver in the early '90s: by trying to get a walk-on part on The X-Files. Towards this lofty goal he started taking scene study classes at the now defunct Gastown Actors Studio, and obediently began taking the required steps towards breaking into that most hallowed of local industries. He almost immediately realized that being an actor in the TV/film industry sucks beyond all measurable comprehension, and stopped taking the required steps. Coming to terms with his 'not having what it takes' for that particular pursuit, he gradually became aware that what really floated his boat was the transcendantly good playscripts that one studies within the confines of scene study classes. Shanley, Shepard, Williams, Albee, Sherman, Stoppard...this was a whole new world to Simon, one that would pull him further and further in until he was left with little choice but to live in that world forever, never to return.

Unfortunately, that world doesn't have a whole lot of money kicking around in it, so Simon has begun to explore ways to popularize his beloved art form and expand its audience. He is doing this right now by taking on the role of marketer alongside his role as Writer-in-Residence at his young theatre company, Lyric Stage Project, which is an outcropping of Vancouver's Lyric School of Acting, an institution with a direct lineage from the aforementioned Gastown Actors Studio. He also promotes the rest of the local independent theatre scene on his popular web-based magazine The Next Stage, which features a unique Video Listings service and the successful This One Goes to Eleven interview series.

Simon has produced his own plays independently for 10 years, and has had his work produced across Canada. His work is featured in the drama curriculum of St. Andrews College in Ontario. He recently completed the companion set Dark/Light on commission from Toronto's Praxis Theatre, and had his short play A Short Recess adapted to film by filmmaker Glen McDonald, which is set to tour the festival circuit this year.

What do you drink on opening night?

Pre-show...a continuous flow of espresso-laced beverages. But that's no different than any other day, really. Given the nature of independent theatre I'm usually running around taking care of the house or calls or last-minute fire-fighting, so sharp wits are required until 8:00. Post-show...any available alcohol-laced drink will do. Given my druthers, a healthy shot of good Kentucky Bourbon with a couple of rocks. But that's no different than any other day, really.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I honestly have no idea. I don't look at my scripts as 'the play', I look at them as one-third of the play, and consciously refrain from staging them in my head (easier said than done, I'll readily grant). The direction is another third, and the work the actors bring to it is the other. (Lighting, set and sound are a huge part of it, of course, but they exist inside the triangle.) This equation explains why plays can be done over and over, and be a different work of art each time. I know how I would direct the play, but would that production be the coolest? Doubtful. Would Kim Collier find depth and meaning that I didn't know was there? There's a very, very good chance, but what speaks to her in the work might bury stuff that I'm attached to. I've had astonishingly good directors add nuances that are completely contrary to what I thought my original intent was. The question is: does the audience respond to it, even though I would have done the opposite? It's a conundrum. I pretty much think it would be cool for anybody to direct any of my plays. Literally. Like, some fifteen year old kid doing it would be awesome.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
Snakes, aging poorly, something awful happening to someone I love, getting the grade of food poisoning again that I brought back from Vegas last year, disappointing anyone, acne never going away, ending up on the street, skydiving. I can and will write about all of them. Except maybe that last one, as a bunch of smartie-pants here in Vancouver just beat me to it.

There's nothing I can't write about. Seriously. Throw me something, I'll write about it, with a direct and brutal honesty.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

See above.

And my mom, who passed away 2 years ago. The least that woman deserves is a play.

And every one of those plays that I witness every day as I move through my city. Theatre is everywhere, most of it is free.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
Hrm. I guess it would be a pretty middle-of-the-road, middle-class search-for-the-meaning-in-life dramatic realism piece with a smattering of low-brow comedy, a couple of brief forays into science-fiction and spiritualism in the second act, just a couple of scenes of tragedy which buoy the work thematically, and mercifully only a few brief glimpses of horror, mostly off-stage.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

With an unquenchable curiosity, equally weighted. I crave feedback and discussion on my work, and on any work that I witness, for that matter. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to be able to hear the value in both without my ego flaring up and getting in the way of all the good stuff, and even more to be able to either incorporate it into the work or discard it. But I'm glad I did, because it's helped my work tremendously. These are, after all, the opinions of the people we're writing for, and damn rights I want to hear them. Just like I always really want to spout my own opinions. If theatre isn't a dialogue between artist and witness, then what is it? It's supposed to spur discourse, it's supposed to stir emotion, and if you can't hear the other side of the conversation, well, that's just a shame. A real shame.

What I have a very hard time dealing with is indifference. It makes me furious enough to throw things at other things.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Starting right in my own backyard and moving outward in concentric rings to the rest of the universe. I believe very deeply that theatre by its very nature is about our communities, by and for the people that are in the room with the art as it's being expressed. And its buttressing and growth needs to begin in our own immediate neighbourhood. I have a dream about Black Box theatres dotting our communities like convenience stores (convenience theatres?), each of them telling their own stories. As theatre grows again into a common language we should begin to discuss the mechanisms and politics of our larger communities, our cities, our provinces, our countries, the world. But as of now I write for and about the people that come to my shows, in their city, at their time in history. I want my audience leaving saying 'holy shit, I get that. More please'.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I write everywhere, but I do my best writing in the shower for some reason. Anyone else like that? I'm always leaving a soggy trail to my desk to get an idea or a line of dialogue down before it disappears back into the ether. As for pen or keyboard; a whole lotta both. A small, well-constructed notebook is on my person at all times, along with a medium-tipped fountain pen, which I tell people I carry because it's easier on my wrist when I'm writing a lot, but in truth it's because I like cool gear and a beautiful pen makes me want to use it. The notebook is for ideas in the moment, the laptop is for putting it all together.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
At this point I am going to establish a first for Umbrella Talk, and shamelessly crib my answer for this question from a previous interviewee; the delightful playwright Leeana Brodie. I do this for three reasons: 1. because all good writers are thieves, 2. because her answer was perfect and I can think of nothing else that could possibly fit in this space, and 3. if you're into the twitter thing you will know this as a 're-tweet', and you will understand that it is the highest compliment you can pay someone in your own sphere. And so...

"In writing with humour and insight of a varied and distinctive panoply of characters, [Ogden] showed an infectious compassion for all, without pity or sentiment for any. That is why audiences still love to see [his] plays, and actors still love to play them.

They also single-handedly created world peace, which most people see as a plus."

Thanks Leeana. Literally could not have said it better myself.

What inspires you?
This desperate need to see theatre restored to its rightful place in our culture, attendant as that entertainment option which challenges and pierces through our thick skin and goes directly to the heart, which keeps it as the only record of its ever having existed.

Good manners and direct honesty, married.

Lovely design. God is truly in the details.

The science and language of music, without which I see no point in continuing to live.

A well-crafted Kentucky Bourbon, with a couple of rocks.


Ian Mackenzie said…
Great interview! And by the way, I once had the double pleasure of meeting Simon in person and sampling his epic mixology skillz. You haven't had a cocktail until you've mixed with The Blogtender. No jokes.

My recommendation is to study his response to question 1 and then go buy yourself a good bottle of Kentucky Bourbon and re-read the rest.
Thank you, Dr. Mackenzie. You're right, it probably does read better after a few stiff shots of Knob Creek.
Unknown said…
Yeah, what is it about the shower? Epiphanies, great ideas, inspirations for dinner... all from the shower.
Plus the added bonus of being clean. Which makes people like you more.
Ian Mackenzie said…
Show up clean with a good idea? A sure-fire recipe for success.