The Runner, playwright Christopher Morris’s stage thriller about a moral dilemma faced by an Orthodox-Jewish man who works with a volunteer emergency response group in Israel that is often first on the scene after a terrorist attack, left me breathless when I first saw it in its world premiere in 2018.
That original adrenalin-filled, award-winning production directed by Daniel Brooks has been on tour, on and off, pretty much ever since - and it continues to tour even after that great Canadian theatre artist’s death back in May.
From Nov. 2 to 19, The Runner is back on stage at the beautiful waterfront Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., even as the Israel-Hamas war rages. I e-mailed Morris, who unflinchingly tackles international and intercultural stories with his theatre company Human Cargo, to ask about the experience of remounting this particular show amid that violence.
How has it been to re-rehearse The Runner in the wake of the militant group Hamas’s horrific surprise attack on southern Israel earlier this month, which left more than 1,400 Israelis dead?
I feel very lucky to be working with an extremely sensitive and supportive group of artists right now. Sometimes when working on plays, the script can capture similar human struggles, or descriptions of violence, to what we may be hearing in the news. This has the possibility of making artists experience a lot of different emotions, or conflicting thoughts. This is all a natural response to spending time in the world of a play on an emotional level. I feel strongly that it’s always important to give yourself the time and space to process whatever you might be feeling, or thinking, and to reach out to people to talk, if the need arises.
Sometimes there can also be pressure placed on theatre artists to be experts in the field of what their play is about. And though the team on The Runner has become familiar with the limited insight the play reveals about the life of one man in Jerusalem, we lack the experience to understand, or speak on, the extremely complicated situation happening in that region of the world. It’s important for us to remember that.
We often talk about a play being “timely” - but that would sound out of tune when the times involve a brutal war like the current one, which as I am e-mailing you I read has already seen more than 8,000 Palestinians killed. Will people be able to hear your play amid such terrible loss of life?
It’s hard to know how audiences will take any play right now, let alone one set in Israel, like ours. The power of this production, and why so many people have connected with it, is that it doesn’t “take a side”, for lack of a better expression. It’s a play about triage, that’s set in Israel. The play’s protagonist Jacob provides life-saving care to a dying person and grapples with the fallout he receives from the polarized community he lives in for doing so. Throughout the play, Jacob reveals himself as a humanist that advocates for seeing all human life as equal. It’s this belief which makes me humbled, and honoured, to continually share this production with audiences.
You also have a brand-new Human Cargo play, tremblements, premiering in French at Espace Go in Montreal this month (Nov. 14 to Dec. 2) that explores the ethics of humanitarian work in Africa. How did that come about?
A lot of credit goes to Wayne Leung, a former digital communications officer with Médecin sans Frontières. Wayne received the first email I sent to MSF in 2017 when I asked them if I could write a play about a real-life doctor or nurse who was about to go on their first mission. Little did I know when I sent it, but Wayne was also a theatre critic and the managing editor for [the recently shuttered website] Mooney on Theatre! As some of your readers, and many in our theatre community, may know, Wayne passed away unexpectedly in 2019 and I’ve thought about him a lot over the last few years while creating this play, about how generous he was to me. Quebec has such an extraordinary theatrical culture and since tremblements is inspired by a nurse from Montreal, it felt like the perfect time to fulfill my dream of collaborating with Quebecois theatre artists.
At this moment, the idea of making art across borders and between cultures - something you often do at Human Cargo - seems harder than it used to be.
There’s a lot more noise and polarization nowadays, that’s for sure, but I personally feel the urge to make this work just as strong as ever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Notable openings this week in Toronto - and across Canada
I’ve just returned to work after a four-month parental leave (hi, nice to be back!) and am still getting my bearings, but it seems Toronto theatre is in a brief lull this week ahead of a flurry of openings.
Two theatre-adjacent productions raising their curtain in Ontario’s capital this week: Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner at Crow’s Theatre (Nov. 1 to 12), an opera that The Globe reviewed in its 2016 incarnation and internationally renowned company Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Walk With Me While I Remember You at the EverGreen Brickworks (Nov. 4 and 5), a site-specific performance in which young people share their experiences of grief.
In Barrie, Ont., Theatre by the Bay is staging the world premiere of a new thriller it has commissioned from Governor-General Award-winning playwright Vern Thiessen called Icemen, about ice harvesters during the Great Depression. (It cometh Nov. 1 and goeth Nov. 12.)
In Winnipeg, Punctuate! Theatre’s First Métis Man of Odesa - in which Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova tell their true, complicated love story set amid a pandemic and a war - has now landed at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, where it plays Nov. 1 to 18. I reviewed this touring show in the spring - and the popular production recently announced that it will return to Toronto, at Soulpepper, in May, 2024.
In Vancouver, theatregoers can get the holiday season off to a super-early start with Elf: The Musical, running at the Arts Club from Nov. 2 to Dec. 31. This movie-turned-musical has a book by Canadian funny-guy Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone), who recently landed on American Theatre’s list of the Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights of the 2023-2024 Season thanks to the enduring popularity of Elf, a spate of post-Broadway production of his more recent musical The Prom in regional theatres across the States, and the impending Chicago world premiere of the brand-new Broadway-bound Boop! The Boop-Oop-A-Doosical. (Yes, it’s a Betty Boop musical.)