An interview with RE:UNION playwright Sean Devine.
PT: What made you want to write this play?
SD: I’d been doing research into 1960s era U.S. politics for a couple of other plays I’m writing, and came across this great biography of Robert McNamara. The book just so happened to draw upon the life and actions of Norman Morrison as an allegory for the Vietnam War. Although McNamara still proves to be mythically complex and contradictory personality of epic proportions, the singular and private gesture that culminated Norman Morrison’s quiet life of conscientious activism proved impossible to ignore; both as a writer and as human being.
Although I’m drawn to creating stories that explore the corrupt, cruel and arrogant elements of humanity and our institutions, I’m an optimist at the end of the day, with tremendous faith in the individual. And so as much as I despise the deceit and treachery depicted in the eras I’ve dramatized, I’m inspired by the self-less acts of others. It’s a David & Goliath story in the end.
But by no means do I consider myself to be David. In fact, I associate myself more with the sense of uselessness and futility in the face of hated corruption. It’s one thing to write a play about noble sacrifice, but it’s another thing entirely to act and sacrifice one’s self nobly. Through writing this play, however, and through the activities that will surround its production, I’ve come to know some people who’s lives are indeed committed to nobly sacrificing for the sake of their fellow human beings. It’s inspiring.
Another aspect that draws me in is that I love doing the research, which is always exciting but can slow down the actual creating. I think it’s at least 4 years ago that I picked up that McNamara book, and I’m sure that not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought about the characters to some extent.
For me, the most rewarding part of research is how close it can sometimes bring me to the actual events or people themselves. Through this process, I’ve stood near the site where Norman Morrison died, I’ve seen the house that he drove away from on that day, I’ve walked across the centre of The Pentagon, and most importantly, I’ve had very emotional conversations with Norman Morrison’s best friend, daughter and wife.
PT: What relevance do you hope this has for an audience in 2011?
SD: That was definitely a concern I had as I started writing this play. Vietnam? 9/11, even? Who’ll care?
I reassured myself in the knowledge that this story from an incident back 1965 wouldn’t have me so pre-occupied if it didn’t have strong currency today. And not only currency in making sense of the current world, but currency in understanding my place in the greater scheme of things. Which is something we all ask.
I remember reading a comment by another writer that people are often fascinated by the socio-political era that immediately preceded their birth, since it often provides context in which to understand their adult environment. I definitely sense some truth in there.
If I can the questions of the play down to bare bones, and create a bridge for its relevance today: are we just as violent a society today as we were in 1965? Has our generation learned to be more peaceful? Have people, as a whole, learned to take more collective and individual responsibility for the actions and policies of our leaders? What is the most effective recourse for action when the change that’s needed is so great?
If this story can be seen as an example of raising one’s voice against authoritative belligerence and tyranny, you can’t help but make a parallel to the world-changing revolutions happening across the Arab world. And it just so happens that last year’s citizen-revolt in Tunisia, which ignited this entire global shift, started with one Tunisian man setting himself on fire to protest the corruption of his own government.
PT: What has your development process with U.S director John Langs been like?
SD: It’s been very good. John came on board back when this project was initially a partnership between Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre and a great company out of Seattle called New Century Theatre Company. I really liked John as an artist, and his experience with new script development was immediately apparent. What was most useful for me was how much he insisted that the “story” needed to be in place before we could hang a structure around it.
Heidi Taylor and Playwrights Theatre Centre were also of tremendous support, and over a long period, which was very generous of PTC. Heidi probably knows as much (if not more) about the script and the subject matter than I do.
But the greatest part of this two-year development process as a whole was the scope of involvement we were able to receive from all the creative team: director, dramaturg, designers, performers, production manager, producers, everyone. We were very fortunate with our development funding and this was exactly what we wanted to do with it. Support a process where all the artists could shape the work in a manner that would best integrate their visions and talents.
PT: You are primarily known as an actor and producer in town, why the shift to playwriting?
SD: It’s not really a shift. It’s just that the writer in me has been dormant for so long. I graduated theatre school as a playwright, then wrote a couple things, and then just stopped for a long time. A long time. But this has always been what I wanted to return to.
I love acting, but I really love the ability to shape and build something complex over time. Maybe I’m not a good enough actor to see my roles as complex enough, or maybe I just need better roles!!!
PT: What's next for you and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre?
SD: Well, this is definitely going to be a busy and risky couple of years for Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, because we’ve dedicated the next several seasons the creation, development and production of new works. That’s not a big deal for a lot of companies, but Re:Union is our first new work, so it’s a big deal for us. And we’re keenly aware of the substantial time and money required to bring a new work from genesis to production, and these aren’t the best of times.
My partners Alexa Devine and Mindy Parfitt are in the midst of developing a piece of devised theatre called The Forgiveness Project. And I’m currently the playwright-in-residence at Pi Theatre, developing a new work (that will hopefully involve Horseshoes in a co-pro) called Except in the Unlikely Event of War. That play’s due to have a public reading in December 2011, so I need to get moving!