"Every play should pose a good question": An Interview with Vern Thiessen

Vern Thiessen in 2003 won the Governor General’s Award for Drama for his play Einstein’s Gift. The author of more than 25 plays, he is one of the most widely produced playwrights in Canada. In 2010 his play Lenin’s Embalmers was well received in New York City when it was produced by the Ensemble Studio Theater. Its first Canadian production opened October 29 in Toronto. It will be translated and produced in Warsaw and Tel Aviv. The script will be published in 2011 by Playwrights Canada Press, which has also published Thiessen’s Blowfish (1998), Apple (2002), Einstein’s Gift (2003), and Shakespeare’s Will (2005). Currently Thiessen is working on a number of commissions, including one script for the Shaw Festival. Suite 101 Canadian Theatre. Photo by Nicholas Seiflow.

Context for the Interview

Well over a decade ago I undertook to interview some thirty writers of Mennonite heritage about what it meant to “grow up Mennonite.”1Certain Mennonite writers were winning major awards and gaining national attention in Canada -- as they continue to do today, in fall 2010, with both David Bergen and Sandra Birdsell again short-listed for Canada’s two top fiction prizes. Many Canadian writers of Mennonite heritage were garnering both literary-critical and journalistic attention from commentators who knew next to nothing about Mennonites. They assumed that the “Mennonite experience” upon which Rudy Wiebe might draw in his work, for example, must be the same as what Sandra Birdsell experienced, or Miriam Toews. Where Mennonite contexts were evident in these writers’ work, generalizations abounded about how presumably al lMennonites lived and how they all might see the world.

We need only survey a relatively small sample of international reviews of Miriam Toews ’A Complicated Kindness, when it first appeared in 2004, or peruse web and blog entries in response to Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (2009) to encounter the assumptions about Mennonites – from the sentimental to the bizarre, the naive to the outrageous – that continue to circulate among members of the general public. Of course, some readers and critics like to historicize the work they read, or to glean information about the author who created it. Many of them, like me, take pleasure in hearing some contextual commentary from the writers themselves.

“So, tell me a little bit about where you grew up, what your family was like, the nature of your involvement in a church community, what sort of interest you might take in other writers of Mennonite heritage. . .”.

Such questions might begin to frame the two-to-three-hour discussions I had with writers about region or family or religion or the writing process or other similar everyday things. I published a few of the interviews in an abridged form in Manitoba’s literary journal, Prairie Fire.2 The rest were pushed onto the back burner for some ten years while I pursued other subjects of interest – from work related to a Canadian Swiss Mennonite novel written in the 1940s by Ontario Mennonite Ephraim Weber, and then lost for over half a century (now finally recovered),3 to Mennonites practicing in the visual arts, like the painter Woldemar Neufeld,4 who in 1924 moved from the Mennonite colonies of Ukraine to Waterloo, Ontario, then to Cleveland and New York City, and then to the Berkshires of Connecticut – to realize his boyhood dream of becoming an artist.

During these detours into other subjects, I simply laid aside some of the interviews I had conducted with Mennonite writers, though my fond memories of those conversations and my interest in what I had learned in the process of recording and transcribing them never diminished.

I had always been interested in how the writing of authors of Mennonite heritage might inform my own understanding of myself as a “Mennonite Mennonite,” i.e., as member of each or both religious and ethnic Mennonite communities: an adherent and an inheritor. The more I read the work of Mennonite authors the more I realized how at once different and the same were their experiences “growing up Mennonite” and my own.

Rudy Wiebe’s parents, like mine, came to Canada in 1930, as did the people described in Chapter 6 of The Blue Mountains of China. Of all the characters in Mennonite fiction, Wiebe’s are among those most intimately familiar to me. They “identify me to myself,” as Canadian literary critic Clara Thomas once said of Margaret Laurence. But Rudy grew up in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta, and I grew up (well over a decade later) in urban Manitoba. Rudy and I, both Russländer members of the Mennonite Brethren church, grew up in German- and Low German-speaking homes, although he learned to speak the latter and I learned only to understand it being spoken. In spite of substantial similarities in our personal histories, what each of us knew about being Mennonite was distinctive, particular.

David Bergen, Miriam Toews, Sandra Birdsell, Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen, Armin Wiebe, David Waltner-Toews, Julia Kasdorf, Jean Janzen, Jeff Gundy, Rhoda Janzen – all grew up in different places in different sorts of communities. They grew up in different kinds of families and were nurtured among relatively distinctive familial and social groupings, in the context of a fairly vast diversity of Mennonite conferences, communities, congregations. So, what was the texture, the quality of a certain homogeneity, an inevitable diversity among all of us, I wondered? And how could I capture it? Hence the interview project.

In early March of 2000, while I was spending a number of weeks of a sabbatical term in Edmonton, Alberta, I saw an announcement for a public reading of a play by Edmonton playwright Vern Thiessen. I had come across his name a decade before, when I read a notice for the National Arts Centre’s production of his play The Resurrection of John Frum (1990), a play described in the Winnipeg Free Press as a work “written with compassion and considerable insight about faith and the human need to believe” and in The Edmonton Sun as “that rarest of creatures: A play about religion without an obvious agenda.” I had wondered about who this person might be in 1990; now, a decade later, I had the opportunity to find out. The reading in Edmonton in 2000 was a late-stage public reading of Thiessen’s Einstein’s Gift, which would go on to win the 2003 Governor General's Award for Drama. In fact, Thiessen would go on to be generally acknowledged as one of Canada’s most widely produced playwrights. He now divides his time between Edmonton, where we met, and New York City, which, he declared that day, he was about to visit for the first time.

The play I heard read that Sunday afternoon in Edmonton was very near completion; and it was compelling. After the reading I introduced myself to the playwright and asked him whether he would consent to be interviewed. We agreed we would chat over lunch, at The Upper Crust, a popular restaurant on the edge of the University of Alberta campus. (On the second floor of the building that houses the restaurant are the offices of NeWest Press, publishers of Rudy Wiebe’s Playing Dead and Di Brandt’s So this is the world & here I am in it.) As the transcript below reveals, it took Vern Thiessen and me very little time to realize that we had grown up in the same neighborhood, though almost a generation apart. And that while tracing our experiences of “growing up Mennonite” we shared an easy understanding of our common and distinctive pasts.

Thiessen’s observations of 2000 cast considerable interesting light not only on what he had written and what of his he had seen produced by that time, but also on what he’s engaged in now. He had words to say then about fringe theatre, for example (specifically Edmonton’s Fringe, then the largest in Canada) – and not all of them positive. This past summer, interestingly enough, he performed a one-man show at the Winnipeg Fringe. Oh, how I wish I had been there to see this play, which Thiessen himself described as "a personal story about growing up Mennonite in North Kildonan." Thiessen also spoke about his emerging understanding of relationships between Mennonites and Jews (Einstein’s Gift was Winner of the 1999 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition). Thiessen’s most recent play Lenin’s Embalmers, co-incidentally, is being premiered in Canada this fall in a co-production between the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre of Toronto.

On opening night, 16 October 2010, in a rave review of Lenin’s Embalmers entitled “A delightful shot of embalming fluid for the soul,” Kevin Prokosh, The Winnipeg Free Press reviewer, called the play “one of the liveliest, most unpredictable and fun nights of theatre the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre has ever presented.” Thiessen himself observed that "The whole story of Lenin's Embalmers is deeply rooted in my upbringing in a Mennonite home.” Thiessen’s octogenarian parents were present on opening night in Winnipeg. The play, which had already had “a sold-out, critically acclaimed run in New York at Ensemble Studio Theatre,” has been optioned for translation into Polish for production in Warsaw, and into Hebrew for production in Tel Aviv. It will be published in 2011 by Playwrights Canada Press. See www.vernthiessen.com for up-to-date information on Vern Thiessen and his work.

Somehow Vern Thiessen and I, just over a decade ago, over lunch in Edmonton, managed to conduct and record a conversation between what began as strangers. It has been a treat for me to return to that conversation, which seems as relevant now as it was that day. We have had no communication since then. Except last week, when I emailed him to insure his permission for the publication of this interview. He was most gracious in urging me to “see to my deadline,” and added: “I am in Winnipeg at present, where I am hosting Menno Night tomorrow at the theatre. A discussion with me, Armin Wiebe and (i hope) a Mennonite studies or history person. Of course, none of them returns my emails. I guess I am a heathen.”

The Vern Tiessen Interview5

Edmonton, Alberta, March 2000

Hildi: Can you say a little bit about in what sense you’re a Mennonite? Where did you grow up? And in what community?

Vern: I grew up in Winnipeg, in North Kildonan, a Mennonite enclave. On Edison Avenue. My parents still live there and I have some family there. I also have some family in Regina. But I grew up in a very very big Mennonite community, because a lot of the kids I went to school with were Mennonite and I was very active in our church when I was younger. I no longer am really a practicing Mennonite. I went to the First Mennonite Church downtown, which is a General Conference church. It’s a very liberal sect of Mennonite. Within the church, our family was very liberal, and within our family, I’m very liberal. So, I’m getting further and further removed from any firm kind of orthodoxy.

My background as a Mennonite, I think, is extremely positive compared to other artists I know who talk about their Mennonite backgrounds as abusive and negative. Mine was not that at all. For the most part. I mean there are always some guilt issues around being Mennonite, but for the most part. We went to church, but it was a social event as well as a religious event. And it was an intellectual event. We went, we listened to some excellent Predichts [sermons] by various ministers and then we would come home and we would have a Sunday lunch and we would argue about the sermon. This was what I remember as a child. Certainly with my dad and mom. We would talk about the finer points of the thing. We would almost critique it in a way and talk about how what was said was relevant perhaps to our lives. So, it was a very intellectual process. It wasn’t a kind of blind belief.

There was a lot of community activity. And I was very involved in the youth group. I still have friends from my youth group, from when I was up to about 22 or 23 years old, with whom I keep in quite good contact and whom I consider dear, dear friends, although what binds us now is not the church, really. It’s just more a shared history of that time. But there were sixty people in our youth choir when I was in it -- sixty people in our youth choir. It was a huge group and, this is probably heresy, but we would go to choir practice and have a great time. We would sing the Lord’s praises, and then we would go out to the bar afterwards and have a lot to drink.

H: That’s what we Winnipeg MBs [Mennonite Brethren] expected was happening at First!

V: Exactly! So, it was a very secular thing.

H: That’s really interesting. I grew up in the North Kildonan MB church. . .

V: Ah, yes!

H: The other end of the spectrum. You mention Predichts. First has always been very German in a cultural sense, right? I don’t know whether First had German sermons or not?

V: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

H: Throughout? You’re a lot younger than I am. And you still experienced that?

V: Oh, yeah, very much so. And you know there was always the debate, every Sunday morning, as to whether we would be going to the German or the English service. And you know I was always in favor of going to the one which was later, so I could grab some more sleep. But I have great memories of going to the German service. In fact, sometimes I wanted to go to the German service because there was a certain kind of feeling to it. Learning to read that Gothic German type in the hymnals – I have great memories of that. Of the exact pew where my parents and I sat, and my sisters as well. My youth group would have to sing at the German service sometimes, and at the English service. So, yeah, there was a big German influence there. My parents spoke German, and Low German as well. That was interesting because my parents were very against me learning Low German and I only learned it because I made a concerted effort to. At one point I thought that culturally it was important for me to know that language a little bit. But my parents considered it a very lowbrow language and encouraged me to speak High German or English. And now I just speak English, and sometimes Low German with my parents.

H : I have the same experience. My parents were determined that I would learn German because that was the language of our church. They would speak Low German to each other but never saw any reason to teach us Low German. As a result I can understand it perfectly, but I can’t speak it because it takes a particular roll of the tongue.

V: Exactly. That’s exactly how I felt. I suppose my parents didn’t speak Low German to me unless they were angry at me. They just spoke it to each other. But I totally understood that to speak it took an effort. Now, I mean, I can’t tell you the rolls of laughter from my parents when I try to speak Low German to them a little bit. I think they just get a big kick out of it.

H: Now, you mentioned sisters. Tell me a little bit about your family.

V: I have three sisters. Twin sisters who are eight years older than I am and an older sister who is eleven years older than I am. So, I’m the baby of the family and the only boy. I was thoroughly spoiled as a child and still am by both my parents and my sisters. I take advantage of that.

H: Well, I’m the baby, too. That’s interesting. What about your parents? When did they arrive in Winnipeg? How was it that you landed in that particular church when you were in the middle of this enclave where most people would have been going to one of the North Kildonan churches?

V: That’s a good question. I don’t actually know the answer to that. I haven’t ever really asked my parents how they managed to land at First Mennonite. Maybe because when they got married they were living downtown. In fact, I think they were living quite close to the church. Maybe because that’s the church they got married in, as far as I remember, and why that is, I’m not quite sure. They came over in the late forties. I think my mother in ‘48 and my dad in ‘46. They both worked – because they were sponsored – on farms in rural Manitoba, and they gravitated to the city. I used to know all the whys and wherefores, but I can’t remember why they went to Winnipeg. Probably because my mother’s sisters had jobs in Winnipeg. I think that was basically it. They met at the German club. Where else? There’s a big, very big German club in Winnipeg.

H : Not Mennonite, but German?

V: Yeah, the German Club. I think there were a lot of Mennonites who went there. Especially Mennonites who had emigrated after the Second World War, which as you know are a very different breed from those who emigrated before the war. Much more, not cynical, but, you know . . . . Drinking is not an issue with my parents. Living life to the fullest is not an issue, ‘cause they basically almost died in that war. So, they got married. They met, and three months later, they married.

H: So, where did they come from?

V: My dad’s from the Molotschna and my mom’s from the Old Colony. They spent some time in Germany in the war and emigrated after the war was done. So, I think they left Russia in ‘43, both of them in ‘43. And then landed in Germany and spent ‘43 to ‘46 in Germany. I know this because the first play I ever wrote, which is called The Courier, is about my father’s experiences as a courier in the German army. He was also a translator – a Dolmetscher– for the both the Russians and the Germans. Both my grandparents were verschlept, as they say, to the Gulag. My mother’s father never came back. My dad’s father did after ten years in the far north.

H: Your grandparents.

V: Then, my grandfather came back after ten years and never spoke about it or very rarely spoke about those ten years of hard labor. He died in 1970. So I never knew my grandfathers. My one grandmother – my father’s mother – stayed in Russia. My mother’s mother was in Winnipeg. So I knew that grandmother very well. I have one grandparent. So that’s the big picture in the background.

H: My mother came from Crimea. My dad’s from the Old Colony. They came in ‘29. They were among the people who just barely got out of there.

V: Before the purges, yes.

H: Yeah. Those were bad times. But your parents would have gone through bad times, too. They would have very interesting stories to tell. How old were they in the early ‘40s?

V: They were in their teens I guess. My dad was born in ‘26 and my mother in ‘28. So I think my dad, when he was in the army, the German army, was like 19 or something. Young.

H: Tell me about Edison Avenue. Sarah Klassen6 has written a poem called “A Brief History of Edison Avenue.”

V: Really? I would love to get a copy of that. . . . What street did you grow up on?

H: I grew up on Kimberly.

V: Oh! There you go. That’s where my aunts live. Just off Kimberly. Kimberly where? Near Henderson?

H: Really close to Henderson. Half a block from the Red River.

V: Really? That is so interesting ‘cause my aunts and my grandmother – I have two spinster aunts, and my grandmother – they lived in an old house right across from Bronx Park, which is about two blocks from Kimberly, on Chelsea.

H: Oh, where were they on Chelsea?

V: Right near the river, just half a block from the river. That is the house where my aunt died and my grandmother died and my other aunt. Finally, when they sold that house, it was just heartbreaking for me because I had spent so much time there as a child. My parents sold their house? I could care less. The house that I grew up in. Butthathouse was a special house for some reason. It was beautiful and right across from the park.

H: What was their name?

V: Thiessen. My mother’s maiden name was also Thiessen. So, it was my Aunt Katie, my Aunt Mary and my mother’s mother. My grandmother’s name was Marie. They lived with her because they never married. But they went to Germany every year. They were very prim and they did everything possible to be Germans. Not to be Mennonites. To be Germans. They made that distinction very very very clear.

H: Did you ever go skating in Bronx Park?

V: I sure did. Every Christmas Day.

H: Well, I spent a lot of time skating in Bronx Park. Very familiar. In fact, my parents’ house just a laneway over from the park was the only Winnipeg home I ever knew.

V: I think the other kind aspect of my growing up – and I don’t mean to harp on this – is that both of my parents were in the working class. They were not educated like many of the Mennonites. Like when I went to Youth Group, a lot of my friends had parents who were engineers and things like that, right? My dad was a steel worker and my mother worked in a candy factory and did other things as well. My aunt worked in the candy factory. So there’s this thing about working in the candy factory in my family. My sisters all worked in the candy factory.

H: Which candy factory?

V: Paulin-Chambers, downtown. It’s gone now. But it used to be called Paulin’s and it was right behind Prairie Theatre Exchange. I think it’s on Ross Avenue. It was a six-floor factory that was eventually taken over by McCormick’s Candy. My aunt made saltine crackers for thirty years. I worked there for one summer, which was enough. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life. But my mother worked there for a long time. The whole Mennonite work ethic was instilled into me. It become a big part of my life through my mother. My dad hated his job. If there was one thing I learned from my father, it’s find a job that you like to do and do it. Because you don’t want to end up like this guy: he hates his job.

H: Where did he work?

V: Sullivan, Strong, Scott. He never took me to work, I never knew what he did. It was one of those situations. He was a great father. That is, he’s a great father now; but at the time, he was not a particularly great dad. My mother also worked as a cleaning woman. She used to take me with her. We would clean these factories. I really learned how to enjoy hard work from my mom. We would go to work twice a week and on Saturday mornings. That’s how I paid my way through university.

H: So, did she work full-time in the candy factory and then Saturdays as well?

V: No, when I was a kid she worked in the candy factory. And then she gave that up ‘cause it was shift work and too hard on her. Then she picked up the job as a cleaning woman, just to bring in some extra cash. She didn’t really need it.

H: Wow! That’s fascinating! It’s especially interesting in light of what you said earlier, about the intellectual discussions after church and so forth, when you came home. But it’s not an unusual immigrant story, is it? . . . Yeah, those people knew how to work.

V: It amazes me that my parents have enough money to live. I don’t know how they live but I never felt like we were being cheap at home. We were frugal but there was always money to do stuff.

H: My parents were in the same situation. They were very careful about where every nickel went. . . . They bought good quality things that lasted. But they wouldn’t spend money on themselves.

V: My aunt used to say “If you buy cheap, you buy twice.” Quality always meant something German. So it had to be a Braun shaver. Even though they’re the worst shavers in the world, I would get a Braun shaver. It always had to be German quality.

H: So, where did you go to school?

V: I went to high school at River East Collegiate. Then I went to University of Winnipeg, got my undergraduate degree in theatre and drama there.

H: Did you ever study with Sarah Klassen at River East? Wouldn’t she have been a high school teacher then?

V: Sarah Klassen. That name suddenly rings a bell.

H. She’s a poet. A fine poet. She’s the one who wrote the poem I mentioned about Edison Avenue.

V: Well, I had a Ms. Klassen. I’m sorry, but this is how you view people when you’re in high school, in grade ten. (That was ‘68.) I recall that teacher being quite a lot older, even then.

H: She would be close to 70 now.

V: Then it might have been her. I had no idea that she was a poet. I remember the first time I ever studied a Shakespeare play, I think it was with her. I wrote a short story in her class. One of the first times I ever wrote anything.

H: Her first collection of stories is coming out this fall. She just brought out her fourth or fifth volume of poetry.

V: I’ll look for that. Wow! That’s just a lasting memory. Things that you remember. I haven’t thought about that in sixteen years. . . .

H: Then University of Winnipeg. Reg Skene.

V: Yeah, good ol’ Reg. But mainly Per Brask.

H: I don’t know him but he’s a very close friend of Pat Friesen’s.

V: Yes. Yes, Per was my major influence there and I would not have gone into . . . Well, I have many major influences there in Winnipeg but Per was one of them. Alan Williams, who taught there briefly, was another one.

H: Alan Williams?

V: He’s an actor from Britain who is quite a well-known stage actor in London now, but he taught there for a year or two. I guess the other person in Winnipeg is Rory Runnells who runs the Manitoba Association of Playwrights. He was really instrumental in kicking off my writing career. I was mainly an actor at the time, didn’t think of myself as a writer. I did my undergraduate work there, then moved to Toronto for two years. Then, came to the U of A [University of Alberta] in 1990 to do my MFA degree, when they still had a writing program here.

H: They don’t anymore?

V: No, they canned it in 1992. I’ve been a big advocate with David Barnet, and now with the new chair, to get that program going again and I’ve argued it to everybody in that department and they all agree with me. They all say. “Yes, we’re going to get it going.” I just find it appalling that they’re not training writers here. I’ve also taught sessionally here, once I graduated. And then, after I got my MFA I went out to Lloydminster and taught there for three years. And came back for three or four years. So that’s the sequence of events, from the U of A through to now.

H: So, let’s move back to where you started. I mean, you were an actor as an undergrad. Did you do a lot of acting?

V: Yeah. I worked professionally in Winnipeg for a couple of years and then my common law wife and I moved to Toronto and I tried to get some acting work there. I did ok. You know, I was temping a lot and took a lot of jobs to survive. I mean, I hated Toronto and I hated living there. I hated that city.

H: Why?

V: Oh, because I found it cold and uncaring and unloving. . . . It’s funny, because I’m going back. Haven’t been there for three or four years. I have friends there now, and I don’t have to live there. I don’t have to deal with those outrageous rents and the cold, and the stuck-up theater community and that town.

H: What do you mean the cold? Oh, they’re cold! Emotionally. Sorry.

V: Full of itself. So, I moved out there. That’s when I really started to write. I mean, I started to write before then. I started to write my first play in Winnipeg because the Manitoba Association of Playwrights would hire students to read plays out loud every Sunday. It was called the open door or something. So, we would be working on new plays all the time. Eventually, I thought, “Well I can do this. I can write a play. This is easy.” Little did I know. So, I wrote a one-man play. A one-man show for myself that I toured quite extensively.

H: What was that called?

V:The Courier. Which I wrote about my father. I did it for the Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre. In Winnipeg. And I went to Toronto with the show, and I did it in Edmonton and it’s been done a couple of times afterwards by other people. I did it for radio. And then got hired by Prairie Theatre Exchange. Got a commission to write a new play for them, which was astounding, to think of it, at the time. There I was, like 24, being given a large commission from a theatre company to write a play. I was a completely unproven writer and I wrote a play which eventually went to the National Arts Centre. When I was in Toronto, I sent it to the National Arts Centre with a friend. He said, “Well, it’s a pretty good play. I’m going to take this to the National Arts Centre because I know the director there. And she called me and said “We’re going to produce this play.”

H: Which one was that?

V: It as called The Resurrection of John Frum. It’s gone by many titles but that’s the title I’ve picked now for it. The Resurrection of John Frum. And it’s about a young Christian who meets a derelict in a park. The derelict believes in a cargo cult and they try to convert each other. It’s a millennial cult. There are a large number of cults in the South Seas, on the islands of the South Seas. People there were cut off from civilization, and then during the Second World War all these American GIs showed up with all this stuff. And then five years later, they all took off. And so a lot of cults have developed among native people in those areas, especially if they are very isolated. [Some believe] that one day John Frum, who’s an American soldier, will return, and bring all of this good stuff with him. So, there are beliefs that this is the key to salvation: to believe in John Frum. It’s about faith. Anyway, so it got produced at the National Arts Centre in 1990.

H: Were you pleased with that?

V: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was kind of blown away because at the same time I got accepted into the MFA program here. And not only that, but I had taken a risk by saying I’m not going to come out to Alberta unless you pay me. And in retrospect, it seems incredibly arrogant, but I’m glad I did it, because I got a very good scholarship. In fact, I got an enormous scholarship to come here. So I was really pleased about that. At the same time, my relationship of seven years was ending. So there was a big change in my life. I was just happy to get out of Toronto. I was just thrilled to leave that place! And I was thrilled to go up to Ottawa. It was an excellent production, that garnered me a lot of praise.

H: Who directed it?

V: Gil Osborne. She used to run the English section of the NAC. She doesn’t anymore. She’s moved to Texas. Maybe she’s working in theatre there. But she was a big supporter and very very helpful. And Frank Moher. I don’t know if you know him as a playwright. He’s a well-known playwright here in Western Canada, but also in the United States. He lives on Gabriola Island. He became a mentor to me and dramaturged the play. So, it was a great situation because I was really nurtured there. And it was a great situation. Then I came here, got to write a couple plays here, all of which were terrible.

H: So now you’re here, with “Einstein’s Gift.” Tell me a little about the process you’re engaged in with this play.

V: . . . Early on I hired John Murrell, who’s a playwright in Calgary, to dramaturge the play – to act as an editor or sounding board. To think it through, to talk about what the possibilities of a play were. And as we move through different stages of the reading that you saw the other day, Ben Henderson, who directed the reading but who has really been the dramaturge for the last year on the play, is really questioning and saying, “What does this mean? And what does that mean? And don’t you think you want to push the point of the play further, to this area? Is that what you’re trying to say? Or what is it that you’re trying to say?” Then eventually, as the playwright, you hire a dramaturge to really do a fine edit of the script, especially if you’re getting it ready for publication. It’s then that you want somebody to come in and go: “These characters contradict each other. This character contradicts himself. Is that what you want?” But especially for a young playwright, an inexperienced playwright, having a role model or teacher or a dramaturge is really, really important.

H: Oh, it sounds like a really significant role But unlike the editor for a novel, for example, your discipline gives someone credit for this work, right?

V: Yeah, I suppose so. Because in literature the dramaturge (in that case the editor) is associated mainly with a publishing house. And so he or she is on call for a publishing house. But theatre dramaturges are freelance. They’re not associated with particular theatres. Because in theatre publication doesn’t really matter. It’s production that counts. Professional production that counts. Publications are really nice things that are gravy but . . . the way you make your money is not off of a book sale; it’s off of getting people in to see the play.

H: I’m going to return to The Resurrection of John Frum for a moment – the play that was taken to Ottawa. Was it part of the NAC’s regular series that year? And what year was that?

V: Yes, it was 1990.

H: That’s a long time ago.

V: It was produced the next year in Winnipeg with the Manitoba Theatre Projects. In 1991. It was produced again just last year. By some young people. I guess I’ll call them Christian folk because I don’t really know what their leanings are but I assume that they’re Christian actors, from Lethbridge. They did a across-Canada tour with it. They toured all the fringes from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Six months. They played it to some rural communities in Alberta as well. Did very well. Got great reviews here in Edmonton. Made me some money. So I was quite pleased with that. . . .

H: Let’s step back again. I’d like to talk about your interest in things theatrical and the birth of that interest. Can you trace it back to anything in particular?

V:Yeah, my sisters were really active in the theatre in high school. We had a very very good teacher in high school. A great drama program for a number of years and through various instructors who were there. So, I would see a lot of the plays with my sisters. They took me to see a lot of plays. They took me to the Theater Centre a lot. They ushered there. They bought me season’s tickets when I was a teenager. So I was seeing a lot of theatre. I remember seeing Kathleen Turner in The Seagull when I was like 14. I saw a lot of stuff. My parents went to the Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre. I remember the first time I saw The Glass Menagerie was in German. I remember my sister took me to see the National Arts Centre which was touring a very good production of Hamlet– which I didn’t even know – when I was maybe 12 or 13. So, I was seeing a lot of theatre because my sisters were getting interested in it.

I just had a natural inclination to do that while I was in high school. I never took a drama class when I was in high school, but I joined the drama club and acted in a lot of shows. But I didn’t take it seriously until university and that’s when Per Brask took me aside. I remember when he said, “I think you have some talent in this area and you should pursue this.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know.” He phoned my parents. He set up a meeting with my parents and really, really encouraged them and told them about the real pros and cons of working in the theatre. Not that I needed my parents’ blessing but that was important to me, I guess – to calm their fears.

H: Would they have had any reservations about theatre?

V: They still do, to some extent. I mean my Dad loves it. My mother doesn’t like the theatre very much; she’s not a theatre person. My dad’s a big story teller. Wrote some articles for the Mennonite Mirror and things like that. My dad writes. He’s always been interested in the theatre and story telling. My dad likes to write plays, too. He writes little German plays. Gets me to critique them. But my mother certainly would have had great reservations. So that’s how I got interested in theater.

H: Now, what about the Mennonite theatre in Winnipeg? Would you have, would that have simply been one of your various theatre experiences? Or would you have seen it as something set apart from the other theatre venues you were coming to know?

V: Well, as I got my training I think I saw it in a different light, because more and more they frustrated me. Because I was writing plays about Mennonite experience that were very different than the things they were putting on. Eventually they did produce The Courier after I beat them over the head with it, but it was really tough. I guess maybe I had, and still have, a hard time with Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre because I don’t think they’re doing anything really to talk about a real Mennonite experience. I think they love doing Die Zauberflöte or doing these little Plautdietsch skits, stuff like that, which I think are important to preserve the culture, but they would never ever address any issues dealing with being a Mennonite.

I took a class in Mennonite history at the University of Winnipeg, which I nearly failed – not from Harry Loewen, who actually helped me with my first play. I knew more about Mennonite history than anybody else in that class, ‘cause I had written a play about it. But I wanted to write my essays dealing with anti-Semitism in the Mennonite colonies, right? Just before the war. Those were the issues that I was interested in. I was interested in “Can we please stop talking about this ‘Golden Era’ of Mennonite history during the 1870s and talk a little bit about some of the darker secrets? And talk about what really was going on?” The guy who taught the course would have none of that. He was not very interested in me writing any essays about that.

H: Suicide, incest, rape -- all those things were going on, too.

V: Absolutely. Absolutely. I suppose the one for me – the big one – was anti-Semitism because I was starting to have Jewish friends. I was deeply embarrassed by my father’s involvement in the German army. I had come slowly to realize that my parents were mildly anti-Semitic. It was something that I had been indoctrinated with when I was a child, but didn’t realize until later on. So, that was of interest to me.

H: So, I have two questions that follow from that. You clearly have a certain interest in Jewish experience, as evidenced in “Einstein’s Gift” and in what you just said. You might comment on that, and also on the degree to which you find as palatable or interesting or outrageous a Mennonite propensity to speak of Mennonites as if they had some kind of an experience parallel to the Jews’. I’m not referring to any kind of Holocaust or anything, but to “peoplehood” kinds of things. What is it that appeals to you about the Jews?

V: I remember somebody in our church once saying that Mennonites were the “white Jews.” Yes, I feel a very strong connection to the European Jewish experience, funny enough. Low German and Yiddish are sister languages and certainly the experience of not being able to find a homeland is very, I think, really something that I’m very interested in. And I guess it’s just because I have Jewish friends now and that I dated a Jewish girl for a while. . . . My parents thought it was a tragedy. They would never say that, of course, but I think they were very concerned about that. This question is something that I am trying to reconcile myself with. I think that’s just my problem. It’s probably no one else’s. I feel that I have to atone for it somehow. I’m not quite sure. There’s this wave of anti-Semitism in Mennonite experience that I struggle with.

H: Have you addressed that in your work?

V: Not the anti-semitism. Oh, in The Courier, yes. There’s a section in The Courier that deals with that a little bit. But no, I haven’t talked about that much since the first play. And that’s why it means a lot to me to win a Jewish play-writing competition. You know? You sit there and think, well, jeez. I don’t think I’m going to tell them my Dad was in the German army. That wouldn’t be a good idea. It’s not like he was a Nazi or anything like that; he didn’t do anything horrible. But it’s, you know, these things are not black and white. . . .

H: You said, a minute ago, that you had written a number of plays here, at U of A, that were terrible. What happened in the writing program here? Here you were – this kid who had won a big scholarship and you’d already had something performed and produced at the National Arts Center. That must be like having a smashing first novel and then struggling to write the second one because it has to be that good.

V: I suppose so. The theatre is funny that way, because you don’t get wide distribution, necessarily, of your plays. Maybe I thought that I was doing very well. But nobody else here really cared about that NAC production. I wanted to let them know I was a professional playwright, that I belonged to the union, that I had some stature, and that I now had two professional productions under my belt.

The program here was a great experience. It was an opportunity to connect to a theatre community which is extremely active and I really found a home here in Edmonton. I think often of leaving and maybe I will leave Alberta again, but I really do feel like I belong in this city. The program gave me an opportunity to try certain things. I wrote three plays while I was here and the first one, actually, was not bad. It’s a one-act called “I Fell in Love with an Eel.” It actually got four productions the following year, so I was quite happy with that. One in Toronto, one in Winnipeg, one in Edmonton-- no, two in Edmonton. And then I wrote a big play that is actually a precursor to Einstein’s Gift called “Chaos,” which was a play about a scientist who was undergoing a personal crisis. And it was a really big play with a really big cast and really big ideas, kind of based on Stephen Hawking. It was an attempt to write a kind of play that I’m writing now, but I just did not have the chops to write it back then. I was just too inexperienced. But it was a great thing to be able to do that and to have it performed at the department. It was a failure but I didn’t look at it that way. I just thought, well this is a play that won’t go any further.

Then I wrote my thesis play very quickly because I just wanted to get out of here. I was tired of being in school. It was called “The Beach.” It was a play about the Beaches community in Toronto, on the water, an area of the city of Toronto that I do like, and that I had been trying to write about while I was in Toronto. I was trying to write a community-based play. It expressed a philosophy that I’d had about the theatre – that the theatre needs to address issues or the needs of the community: every choice that you make in terms of writing or acting or the scheduling of a play has to address the needs of the community that you are performing it for. So, I was trying to write a community-based play that could be performed in Toronto. But again, it wasn’t a very good play. It was just one of those things. I thought, well it’s just one of those plays that just will never get performed. That’s fine. You occasionally write plays like that. It’ll land on your desk, or, in this case, go into a library as a thesis document that I hope not many people will read.

H: Well, two things strike me. First of all, why the interest in scientists? And secondly, to what degree do you work with found work or found stories or found people? Related to that: after your reading on Sunday, right at the end of the conversation after the reading, someone said, “You know, if you’re going to deal with Einstein then this and this and this is true about Einstein.” Your response was, “This is MY Einstein and I‘m going to do with him what I like.” Talk a little about where your ideas come from and where you borrow things and what kinds of liberties you feel you can take. I had a sense that some of the lines in the play came directly out of aphorisms that Einstein in fact is quoted as having said. So, those kinds of process questions.

V: Ok. The first thing is, what’s the interest in science? I have no idea. I’ve no idea. I’ve always been fascinated by science, scientists. Maybe, as a kid, you want to be a paleontologist. Every boy wants to be an archeologist or a paleontologist. Wants to be an astronaut or something like that. I’ve always found science very interesting. Maybe because I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s that I’ve got friends who are scientists and I find that their processes are so akin to the creative process, that the way that they are working is very – it’s about imagination and creativity. I don’t know. I just have a natural interest in that. I have no idea where it comes from, to be honest. I have to think about that one. In terms of process, well that just depends on the play. And I have a new play that’s getting a reading at Workshop West.

H: “Apple.”

V: Yeah, that’s right. So, that play, for instance, is much, much, much more personal. It’s a play that is, I don’t want to say it’s based on any personal experience, but it’s called “personal.” It’s much more personal. There are plays that I write, like I Fell in Love with an Eel, which was really about the breakup of my first wife and me. Or even Blowfish, which is, I think, a much more personal, poetic play than some of the other plays which are gleaned from research. But, you know, people pitch me ideas all the time. Everyone comes to a playwright and says they have a great idea for a play. “Great, you go home and write it.” But they come up to you and occasionally things twig. You go, “Wow! That’s a great story!” So, when my friend, who’s a doctor in chemistry – I was having a beer with him and he said, “You know, I was reading this book review on this guy named Haber in Germany. You heard about this guy? Well, this is what happened to him.” I’m like, “Wow! That’s a great story! Can you get me that book review?” So, you get the book review, and you go, “Wow! This would be a great story!” You start to do research and you start to think about it. But ultimately, the only way it will work is if I can make a personal connection.

What fascinates me about Haber and Einstein is the faith crisis. It’s the crisis of faith. It’s the conversion. This is perhaps something that I am dealing with a lot in my work: It is: What is faith? Where do you find your faith? What happens when somebody takes it away? Or you give it up? Or you let it go? Because we all find faith in different points in our lives, in different things. We all believe different things in different points in our life. I’m interested to know what happens when you’re in a marriage and one person has an affair or something like that. You’ve had your faith in this union, so what happens when that’s thrown into question? So, it can be something like that. . . . So, depending on the play, there’s usually a personal question that I need to ask that I’m struggling with myself. That I embody in the characters. So, when I arrogantly say “This Einstein is my Einstein”. . . . It’s funny. I’ve had many e-mail exchanges with that guy since then. I eventually cornered him in the e-mail to say “Ya, but what did you think of the play? Did it move you or did it bore you?” Finally after a couple of days he wrote back, and said that what moved him were the excellent emotional notes. But I guess what I’m saying is that Haber’s son, for example, would probably kill me if he ever read that play. But nobody knows about him, so it doesn’t matter. Right? You have to make the characters your own. You have to embody the characters, you have to give yourself over to the characters and then put something of yourself into each one of those people.

So, I don’t know if that answers your question about process, but I guess research and everything comes from all kinds of different sources. I don’t limit myself to anything. It could be a personal experience, it could be a discussion with a friend. It could be a piece of historical research that I just nab onto and run with. Who knows? It just depends from play to play. I’m writing a play now for West Theatre in Calgary. It’s a kids’ play for theatre for young audiences. I’ve written two of them for West. I’m writing a new play that deals with homelessness because I’m concerned about kids and how they view homeless people. It’s just something that occurred to me, and Calgary is filled with so many homeless people that it’s a real presence. I think this is something that needs to be discussed in the schools.

H: So, what is “Apple” about?

V: It’s a terribly depressing play. But it’s a domestic drama about a husband and a wife and a young woman who’s working in a hospital. She’s an oncology student. What is it about? It’s about sex, secrets, and salvation. How’s that?

Change the name to “Sex, Secrets, and Salvation.”

V: Might get more people in the audience. But it’s about a husband and he’s lost his job and his wife is terribly mean to him. She’s a real estate agent. Their marriage is in trouble. So, he decides to--well, he doesn’t decide. He meets a young woman in a park who seduces him. They end up having an affair. There’s quite a big age difference between the two. Then at the end of Act 1 there’s a big turnaround because we find that the wife is terminally ill and, suddenly, she needs him. Suddenly, he’s torn in between them. Do I go with this partner whom I’ve made a commitment to but don’t like very much, or do I go with this woman whom I don’t know at all but who I have a blissful sexual relationship with? It’s a complicated matter. In Act Two it turns out that the young woman ends up treating the wife because she’s working in oncology. Things get complicated. Eventually it’s about second chances. Finding second chances. So, that’s what I’m working on now.

H: Tell me something about the process. Each play is different?

V: The process is similar with two exceptions. One is that this play is a commissioned play by that theatre company. They own the rights to this play. I’m writing it for them. They then will determine whether or not they want to do the play. The other difference is that it’s in a very early stage of work. In fact I’m very hesitant to bring it to the public at this time; I think it’s too early. But Ron Jenkins, the artistic director, said, “No, I think it could use a public read.” The style of the play is very almost picturesque. It’s the complete opposite of Einstein’s Gift, where almost everything that is meant is said. In this play nothing that is meant is ever said. It’s all about what people don’t say to each other. As much as what they do say to each other.

H: It must be hard to write.

V: It is. It almost becomes very technical because it really depends on the performance of the actors and whether they can find that hidden stuff. That’s what makes me nervous about it. It’s that I kind of know the way it should be played but I’m not convinced I have written it down clearly enough for the actors to pick up. It’s in the very very early stages of development. That play will not be ready probably for at least another year or two, at the very earliest. But the process of work-shopping is the same. Three actors for each show, the director, dramaturge, myself, three days. Just trying to make it the best it can be and get it in front of an audience and get some feedback afterwards.

H: It’s a wonderful sort of collaborative exercise, this business of work-shopping, don’t you think? Certainly as an audience member, I really enjoyed the notion that I was seeing something in process. I was really impressed with the play. It felt really “together.”

V: Well, and it’s just about done. I mean, it’s probably a draft away from being ready for production.

H: And I really enjoyed the language in it.

V: I love to hear that. The play-writing process is very different than writing a novel. Writing a play is a very private process for a long period of time. Then suddenly, it becomes a very collaborative process. Then, to go even further, you are not involved in the process. It becomes somebody else’s work altogether. It’s a challenge to learn the skills of how to navigate through that. I’ve been writing for fifteen years, plays for fifteen years, but even now I don’t deal with some of that stuff very well. It takes a long time to learn the skills of letting the play go.

H: Letting go. Yes. Now there’s a perfect theme to explore in a play. I’ve always been interested in process. And I’m particularly fond of drama. When I came here to U of A, I was going to do some work on Tom Stoppard before I drifted into working with prose. I don’t do creative writing, but I’ve always imagined that if I did, drama would be my medium.

V: Well, Stoppard. Amongst many, he’s a hero, that’s for sure. Because he’s not afraid to talk about ideas, and I guess that’s something I’m interested in. I like to talk about ideas. Most people think that thinking is not such a big deal, but it is a big deal.

H: No argument from me on that. Speaking of ideas, you are clearly working with a lot of ideas one could loosely term “theological.” I mean, some of the words that you’ve been using – “salvation” for example. You know, those sorts of words. They really resonate with somebody who’s grown up in a Mennonite church. You said you were no longer a practicing Mennonite. So, can you say a little about how that residue or about why that sort of residual language continues to inform you? Or is it that you are taking the language of salvation or whatever it is and translating into another world? Patrick Friesen would speak that way, I think. He’d say, “I tried to write using a language that had nothing to do with the language that surrounded me when I was growing up.” Later he discovered that he didn’t have to abandon that language he knew as a child; he could re-appropriate it for himself. And is that, in a sense, what you’re doing? So that the material has itsrootsin a Mennonite experience but it’s not “Mennonite” material?

V: Yeah, I would say that I would agree with Pat on that. He’s a hero, I think. He’s probably one of the greatest poets that this country has ever seen. And that play, The Shunning. A version of that at Prairie Theatre Exchange was a watershed for me.7 I had the great pleasure of going on a reading tour with Patrick Friesen once, which was a lot of fun. But I’d say I’m recovering it, absolutely, transforming it. Using it in the work. I grew up in a family where faith was very important and Christianity was important. I’d like to define those terms a little bit, because those are pretty big things. Faith, for me, has nothing to do with religion. It doesn’t have anything to do with going to church every week. I’m not a practicing Mennonite, I would say (I tried to convince my dad of this, he doesn’t buy it), but I believe much more now in God or in the spiritual world than I ever did when I was actively involved in the youth group and all I cared about was, you know, losing my virginity or something like that, as every young boy does when he’s 16 or 17. I grew up in a family where faith and belief . . . . My parents’ idea about Christianity is a human one; it’s a humanistic view of the world. It’s about charity, and it’s about looking at a bigger picture and it’s about being generous and helping other people. It’s not about holding something inside you or saying “I’m better than you.” The philosophical part of Christianity was also big in our family: the thinking of it.

I guess for me thinking is prayer, in a way. I’m struggling with this --bear with me– that the pondering of the idea is in itself an act of faith or an act of prayer. So that every play that you write becomes a prayer, in a way. That will never go away because I was just brought up with that. I was brought up to think that way. And to view things, as all writers have to do, from the outside. So it never surprises me much that writers of Christian background don’t practice very often because you almost have to step outside of it a little bit to view it, and to become objective about it, to show it the way it really is.

Becoming an artist is like giving a good sermon because good sermons don’t give answers, right? They just pose good questions. And every play should pose a good question. Every play has to be a bit of a dream of what the world is. Every good sermon I ever heard was about making me think. It made me ask questions of myself. I guess, that’s how I tie my faith background to the work I’m doing now. Practicing as an artist is a practice in faith, to some extent, although it may not be religious. I don’t have a good answer for that yet; maybe I won’t ever. . . .

H: I’m intrigued by what you’ve described as the context in which you grew up, relative to home. These conversations after dinner and so on. I have a feeling that your parents were very religious. Were they pious? What I mean is that, when you talk, you talk about a very coherent sort of religiosity within the home. How was that expressed besides the after-the-sermon conversations? Can you say more about how their faith was made manifest? If you were to talk about things that were more explicitly religious or even pedagogical within the home, where did they happen?

V: Well, I have a hard time with this because my parents were not pious. If there’s one thing that they weren’t, they were not pious. My dad is pious now. In fact, he’s become a bit of a Christian bastard, I think, in some ways. I don’t mean that badly. I’m being calm. I have a very blue streak in the way I talk. I’m trying to hold back. As he’s become older, he’s fearing death and therefore is turning, and is praying that the other side is not going to be as bad as he thinks it’s going to be. I know this, I can see it in his eyes. Therefore, every conversation ends with something religious – which never happened when I was a child. Right? So the way that it manifested itself was that there were kinds of things that we did that were religious. We prayed before every meal, whether we were in public or not. My dad still does that and I find it moving in a way. If we’re at McDonald’s he’ll stop to pray. But it’s very quiet and it’s not to show. It’s not showy. You know, we would occasionally do some Bible readings at home but that was really, really rare. You know? There was talk of God at home but not much. It came out much more in things like you come home from school, when you’re a kid, and you say to your mother, “Those kids were trying to beat me up.” And she says to you, “Don’t ever fight back. Don’t ever fight back. You’re a pacifist, you don’t fight. You’re a Mennonite. You don’t fight. You rise above it. You learn to be friends with them.”

H: My mother said: “Der Klügste gibt nach [the one who is most clever gives in].”

V: Ya, exactly. That’s a beautiful phrase, a beautiful phrase. So, it was stuff like that, you know. “Well, I swore to my buddy that I would do this,” and then my mother would say, “You don’t take oaths. You’re a Mennonite so you don’t take oaths. Your word is good enough. You just stick to your word.” It was that kind of thing, that dealt with real issues between people and not this kind of ideology of religion that we must adhere to. It was “How does this practically work in my life so that . . . ?” It was just a very practical form of religion. So, I don’t even think about it anymore. My wife always says to me (she doesn’t come from this background at all): “You know I can’t believe how generous you are with your money when we don’t have any.” She gets mad at me and I say, well, it’s something that I get from my parents because they were always generous with everybody. It was part of their religion to be generous. There was always room for one more at the table. We took in people whenever we could. It was a feeling of generosity that they developed. They got help from other people during the war. They nearly died and they came to see that there are so many things that are more important than whether this deacon should be in power, or whatever. The politics of church were not the issue. I don’t know if that helps.

H: It does, and it essentially provides a gloss on what you were saying earlier when you defined faith in terms of relationships, for example. That really does illuminate a lot.

V: It gives you hope. I guess that’s the thing for my folks, too. When things looked hopeless for them in the war, it was what gave them hope. I’m always interested in what makes people tick and what gives them hope. What’s the thing that makes you get up in the morning, simply to continue on with your day? How can people live with themselves? Those sorts of questions about humanity are what got me into the arts. It is interesting to imagine creating a sermon for a secular audience. A good sermon that is not a preachy thing, but a raising of questions. Boy, we had some pretty good sermons in our church. John Neufeld was our minister and my mother actually, for my birthday, got me a book of his sermons. He was a wise man. And I knew that. Even as a kid I thought this guy is a wise man. He would deliver really thought-provoking sermons. Even as a teenager, I would go and think about them. But he didn’t provide any answers, or at least I never thought that he did. . . .

H: I’m going to begin to wind things up here, so I might ask a few little pieces of questions. You mentioned that you’ve toured with Pat Friesen.

V: Oh, yeah. It was just that one reading tour.

H: Even though you’re both Mennonite, you certainly don’t come from the same kind of background.

V: Oh, no. I get the feeling that he comes from a much more oppressive “I had a terrible childhood” Mennonite background.

H: There really is a substantial community of people who were nurtured in one Mennonite community or another writing in Canada today. And some of these writers are more than aware of each other, take an interest in each other’s work – this distinct little tradition of literary types, mostly poets and novelists and short story writers. Do you take any particular interest in them? Or do you feel somewhat separate? The only one of those who would have a background similar to yours would be Andreas Schroeder.

V: Yeah, isn’t that interesting. The job that I have now, he used to work at that job.

H: Here in Alberta?

V: A lot of the stuff that I’m pulling off the shelf has his mark on it. He did probably the last and greatest report on what the state of writers is in the province. But I don’t know him; I’ve never spoken to him. How are you linking Andreas Schroeder up with me?

H: Well, his people are also post-World War 2 people, whereas virtually all the other Mennonite people writing in Canada would be Russländer or Kanadier, from the 1920s or 1870s. Theirs is a different kind of baggage. Things simply developed differently in those communities. That’s what I meant.

V: Do I take any particular interest in their work? Well, yes and no. Often I don’t know about it, I have to say, and I don’t deliberately go to seek it out. Now I might, but I would tend to think rather in a broader sense of Mennonite artists. So that Laura Schroeder, for example, a friend of mine in Winnipeg, is a writer – and a playwright as well, mainly of children’s plays. And a theatre director. We have a connection of sorts through – her mother taught me Sunday School. You know. Things like that. Sometimes I think there is a bit of a hesitation to go there. I think sometimes there’s a certain kind of fear, I don’t know why. It’s not what Pat Friesen might say. I’ll read anything of his. But other Mennonite artists. There’s a fear of going there because you feel like you might get sucked into a kind of cult or something. I’m not quite sure of what it is. But I am much more generally interested in plays and art that explore the themes that I think are common to all of these writers. They don’t necessarily have to be of Mennonite origin for me to be interested in them, but if they’re asking questions, intellectual or emotional questions that deal with faith and belief, then I’m always interested. Whether it’s Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter or John Murrell or Patrick Friesen. Finally, it’s very interesting to look at Pat Friesen and remember that as a young writer I thought that, wow, if he can write about this, maybe I can write about this. So, certainly there is a certain kind of relationship there.

I’m a first generation Canadian. I’m very interested to see what’s happening behind me, in a way, with younger writers of Mennonite background who are second and third generation Canadian now. I am curious as to what their experiences are.

H: So what are your connections, if any, with the Mennonite community, other than your parents, for example?

V: My parents and my sisters, who are all practicing, and my old friends who I grew up within church, and not much more. Occasionally I’ll go to a Mennonite church just to kind of check in, just to see what’s going on. The last time I went, I had a terrible moment and I thought maybe I should never go back. I went on Christmas Eve, two or three years ago. I went to a Mennonite church on Christmas Eve. I was single at the time. I guess it was more than a couple years ago. The choirmaster had a heart attack on Christmas Eve and they shut the whole thing down. And I kind of felt like I was the only stranger there because the minister came up to me and said, “Are you new here?” I said, yeah, I’m a Mennonite, but from Winnipeg. And after that, I kind of felt like maybe I was the sinful woman in the crowd; maybe I should get out of here.

H: You’re the Jonah.

V: Exactly. It was a terrible, terrible night. Oh, God, I felt so badly for him. I’ve no idea what happened to him. I hope he lived. So, I do go to church occasionally. You know there’s a Lutheran church right around the corner from me now, so I go there. I get the new Mennonite magazine.

H: Rhubarb?!

V: No, what’s that? Rhubarb?

H: Oh, which new one do you mean?

V: What is it called? It’s just been sent to my house. It’s not a very good magazine. I hope I’m not insulting anybody. I don’t know.

H: Oh, is it a news magazine?

V: It’s probably about fifteen pages on newsprint. There’s a little arts and culture section in it. Canadian Mennonite! Isn’t it called the Canadian Mennonite? I guess I just don’t like the arts and culture section. I kind of think, “Oh, come on! Why isn’t there an article on me or somebody else?” I just kind of read it and it’s all about the latest craft sale, or the latest choir tour. I just think, “Oh, I don’t need all this. . . .”

H: I think we’ve covered pretty much everything I wanted to cover, for sure, except a little more about the Edmonton theatre scene. It’s clearly a kind of vibrant place. I’ve had the pleasure of coming to the Fringe a number of years ago. It’s always fun. And a number of the productions that David Belkey’s been involved in.

V: I’ve directed two of David’s plays.

H: Which ones?

V: I’ve directed The Reluctant Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes– in Lloydminster. And the Maltese Bodkin. Those are the two. He’s a very very strong writer. There’s a certain kind of Edmonton playwright that a friend of mine refers to as The Edmonton playwright. It is the “Belkey-Lemoines School.”

H: What’s the second name ?

V: Lemoine, Stewart Lemoine, whose play was being read after mine on Sunday evening. Belkey and Lemoine are very well known here because they write very funny plays. They usually churn out at least one play a year, if not more. They’re very fast writers and they’re very plot- or style-driven writers. Not that they don’t ask serious questions, ‘cause they often do. But I’m certainly not of that ilk. I really admire them for the way they can write so quickly and they’re often self-producing. I used to self-produce my stuff but I don’t self-produce anymore. Very rarely. I in fact rarely write a play on spec anymore. I’m usually commissioned by a theatre company.

The Edmonton theatre scene is very vibrant, but for me as a playwright it’s often a bit difficult. I find it very hard sometimes to get my plays taken seriously here because it’s a very conservative theatre community and a lot of the plays are fairly light. If you do anything that’s a bit darker or challenging, it’s difficult. Blowfish is a prime example. It didn’t do very well here in Edmonton at all, but sold out in Ottawa. Got stunning reviews in Ottawa, but we had a hard time getting a crowd out here. So, it often makes me wonder whether I need to actually travel, if I need to live somewhere else in order to get work done at the caliber that I want it to get done. Well, we’ll see. But yes, it is a very vibrant theatre community here and it has been for a very long time, largely because the university program here is so strong. The Fringe is great. It is both a curse and a blessing.

H: The Fringe fits into the Alberta philosophy, you say. How do you mean that?

V: Well, it’s just a populist theatre. It’s like something even the reformers can’t argue against because it’s like the West Edmonton Mall of theatres. It’s all about shopping. How many good plays can I see for $100? That’s a great thing because it gets people out to see plays who have never seen them before. And I tell you there are more cabbies in this town who know theatre than in any other city in North America. Every cabbie knows a theatre in town because there are so many. But it’s also a curse because it perpetuates a zany kind of theatre that is only an hour long, with limited production values and that is put up very very quickly and that is meant only to appeal to sometimes baser instincts. I would love to see in this town an international theatre festival, a Harbourfront of some caliber, where we could get some really great theatre companies in from other parts of Canada. You know, you never see anything from Quebec out here, for example. It’s really really rare. The Fringe kind of co-opts that, so we get an enormous amount of theatre but sometimes not all of great quality, in my opinion. The Fringe is good because it lets you test out new ideas, but it’s also bad because often it prevents the development of those ideas. That’s my personal opinion. Maybe it’s just me being cynical after being here for two years. I’m a little sick of the Fringe. I’m going to New York in June for the first time in my life and I’m looking forward to seeing both some good and bad theatre on Broadway.

H: And you will, I’m sure. Well, anything else you want to say?

V: No, I guess that the only other things I might add are just little notes. I write for children as well. I am working on my third play for young people, and I find that the real hopefulness of anything I have to say that might come from my Christian background comes up in these young people’s plays, and the older plays are meant to deal with things that are maybe darker. And that because of my parents, the Mennonite experience, for me, is tied up with the immigrant experience. . . . The immigrant experience for me is completely related to the experience of my father, of my parents. For me the Mennonite experience, and their idea of faith and belief and religion and work – all that is tied up not only in their sense of Mennonitism but in their sense of being immigrants. Those two things, I think, for my parents, were inseparable. My dad has often said that he didn’t really know what a Mennonite was until he came to Canada, because although he grew up with that, back home on the farm and on the collective, they practiced whatever they could under Stalinism. The idea of Mennonite he didn’t really understand. All those faith issues of being a pacifist, that stuff goes out the window when there’s a war on, right? You don’t give a crap about that. He said it was only when he came to Canada that he found a community and, after going through a really difficult time, began to understand what those things meant to him. I guess that’s what he’s been saying. When he said he was a Mennonite during the war and somebody else who wasn’t a Mennonite said what does that mean, he said he couldn’t really tell them. He didn’t really know. He knew it in here but he didn’t know here, in his head. That’s all I have to say.

H: Okay. Thank you very much.

1I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for supporting this interview project.

2See “‘Where I Come From’: An Interview with David Bergen,” Prairie Fire 17.4 (Winter 1997), 23-33 and “‘A Place You Can’t Go Home To’: A Conversation with Miriam Toews,” Prairie Fire 21.3 (Autumn 2000), 54-61.

3See After Green Gables: LM Montgomery’s Letters to Ephraim Weber, 1916-1941, edited with Paul Tiessen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006 and “A Mennonite Novelist’s Journey (from) Home: Ephraim Weber’s Encounters with S.F. Coffman and Lucy Maud Montgomery,”Conrad Grebel Review24.2 (Spring 2006): 84-108 and “The Story of a Novel: How We Found Ephraim Weber’s ‘Aunt Rachel’s Nieces,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 26 (2008), 159-178.

4See Hildi Froese Tiessen and Paul Gerard Tiessen. Woldemar Neufeld’s Canada: A Mennonite Artist in the Canadian Landscape 1925-1995. Layout/Images edited by Laurence Neufeld and Monika McKillen. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010.

5The transcription that follows is pretty much a complete record of my conversation with Vern Thiessen. A few non-sequiturs and redundancies have been deleted; most ellipses simply indicate false starts.

6Author of Mennonite heritage who has published several volumes of poetry and short fiction. She, like Vern Thiessen, spent years of her childhood living on Edison Avenue.

7Patrick Friesen’s play The Shunning, based on his 1980 long poem by the same name, will be reprised in Winnipeg theatre in spring 2011, in a run at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

About the Author

Hildi Froese Tiessen

Hildi Froese Tiessen taught English and Peace and Conflict Studies (1987-2012) at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, where she also served as academic dean from 1989-99. She has taught, edited and published extensively literature by and about Canadian Mennonite writers. One of her most popular volumes is Liars and Rascals (1989), an anthology of short fiction by Mennonite authors. Her most recent essays on Mennonite/s writing appear in After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (2015) and MQR (Jan. 2016). Before her retirement she was literary editor of the Conrad Grebel Review and on the editorial board of Rhubarb magazine. She serves on the CMW advisory board and on the editorial board of GAMEO. She organized the first Mennonite/s Writing conference at Conrad Grebel in 1990 and has helped plan subsequent conferences at Goshen College, Bluffton College, the University of Winnipeg, Eastern Mennonite University and Fresno Pacific University. Hildi, who grew up in the Mennonite Brethren community in Winnipeg, is a member of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener. She earned a BA at the University of Winnipeg and an MA and PhD at the University of Alberta.