Don Hannah, whose work regularly premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in the 1980s and 1990s, is one of the best-known stage writers to come out of New Brunswick. And yet it is only now, at age 71, that he’s having a play of his put on by Theatre New Brunswick itself.
Resident Aliens, in part, tells the remarkable true story of Vivian Larsen, a New Brunswicker who rode by horse and buggy to Hollywood in 1959 with a secret to tell Walt Disney. Director Natasha MacLellan’s production runs in Fredericton from March 22 to 26 before hitching up its own buggy and touring the province.
Hannah, a long-time Torontonian who these days lives in Nova Scotia, answered some questions over e-mail about his delayed TNB debut.
Why do you think this took so long?
This is really a question for the theatre’s artistic directors. But if you take a look at the plays produced by TNB over the last three or four decades, how many of them have been about New Brunswick? And to push this, if you look at English Canadian plays produced since the days of, say, David French’s Leaving Home, how many of them are about NB or NBers? The late, great theatre artist Jenny Munday once told me not to set a play I was writing in NB: “It’s the kiss of death.”
Why would that be?
This province I come from is not like Newfoundland or Quebec; it’s not a place that has captured the imagination of the rest of the country. It continues to compel me because it’s so confounding and conflicted. Despite the fact that it’s a place of great natural beauty, it’s known as the province people drive through to get to Green Gables or Cape Breton. It’s the only bilingual province yet, at this moment, it has a Premier who whines about how mean people are to him because he speaks no French. And, it’s an oligarchy in a way that no other province is. It’s so damned fascinating, how can people not be interested in it? But the late Urjo Kareda at Tarragon was one of the few artistic directors who thought the place was stage worthy.
What about the story of Vivian Larsen – who, like you, is from Shediac – captivated you as a boy?
Disney movies back then were mostly adventures (Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson, Kidnapped) and I loved them. Weekly we watched Disney on TV in his show that was essentially a commercial for his empire. I didn’t know anyone who could afford to even think about going to Disneyland, and the fact that Vivian Larsen, who was related to my neighbours, not only believed it was possible to travel there as an adventure, but also meet Disney himself – well, how could that not appeal to a movie-struck kid?
Resident Aliens is partly inspired by your own experience growing up gay in New Brunswick in the 1950s and 1960s. How does that connect with Larsen’s journey?
The connection between the two stories is in the title; it’s a play about people who don’t feel like they belong in the place they come from. For any gay kid growing up just about everywhere in the ’50s and ’60s, I think that “resident alien” would be an all too familiar feeling.
You moved to Toronto in the 1970s and lived here for a long time. A 1994 interview with you in the Globe described “the theme of the Maritimer’s displacement,” linking shows of yours as different as the dark drama Rubber Dolly, the lighter musical Siren Song and your play about L Maud Montgomery, The Wooden Hill. In that same interview with The Globe, you said: “Everyone I know from the East would like to be able to live there but we can’t.” Have things changed?
I came to Toronto to go to grad school and ended up staying there and working first as a daycare worker (a job I loved) and then as a playwright (which I loved even more). In all those years, apart from the times I had writers residencies away from the city, there was one year where I made decent money. I was really fortunate to end up living in not-for-profit housing or I’d have been sunk. Who in the arts, apart from a very lucky few, can possibly afford to live there now? It’s not my city any more.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Women and Iran on stage this week
Anahita’s Republic, a new thriller set in Iran about “a woman who refuses to wear the hijab and rules her own republic where she can be free to live, dress, and speak as she pleases,” is on at Factory Theatre in Toronto through April 2. This Bustle and Beast production is credited as being by Hengameh E. Rice, however that is not one playwright, but a team of two: one born in Iran, the other in Alberta.
English, Sanaz Toossi’s play about four women learning English in Iran that was recently named best new play at the Obie Awards in New York, is at the Segal Centre in Montreal until April 2. This is the same production directed by Anahita Dehbonehie and Guillermo Verdecchia that was just at Soulpepper in Toronto, and that the Globe and Mail reviewed then.
Ukraine on stage across Canada
Last month, playwright Andrew Kushnir wrote a thought-provoking essay in Intermission magazine asking why Canadian theatres were producing so many Russian plays this season – noting, at the same time, “the near-absence of Ukrainian stories on our stages.”
Is that tide turning?
In addition to the First Métis Man of Odesa, currently on a tour stop in Kamloops (its country-crossing trek was mentioned in last week’s newsletter), Neptune Theatre in Halifax this week opens Ballad of the Motherland (March 21 to April 2). Set in 2014, this play written and directed by Annie Valentina is about a woman named Kate (Hannah Wayne-Philips) who is detained under suspicion of being a “Western operative” by an armed militia while on a “mission to connect to her father’s Russian-Ukrainian roots in the Donbas region.”
The Sound Of Ukraine: An Immersive Concert, meanwhile, has just been announced in Toronto for April 15. lt will feature the music of Ukrainian composer Tymur Poliansky, who will be making his first trip to North America since the beginning of the invasion for this live performance.
And this newsletter has learned that auditions are taking place this month for a new still-untitled play about the war in Ukraine by Kushnir himself. It is set to be part of the next Crow’s Theatre season in November.
Shaw Festival aftershocks – in Calgary and Vancouver
Gaslight, the Patrick Hamilton play that gave us the term “gaslighting,” is now on stage at Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre (through April 16) in the new version by Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson that premiered at the Shaw Festival last summer. I interviewed the adapters about the twists they added into this classic thriller last spring.
Hedda Gabler, the Henrik Ibsen drama, opens in Vancouver this week courtesy of the United Players of Vancouver (at Jericho Arts Centre, from March 24 to April 16). Though United Players is usually described as a community theatre, this production caught my eye as it is directed by Moya O’Connell, who herself was a very fine Hedda at the Shaw festival in 2012 under the direction of the late great Martha Henry.
What The Globe and Mail is reviewing this week
Theatrical adaptations of ancient epics are all the rage at the moment, and the next one to hit the stage in Toronto is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The production, by the venerable physical theatre company Theatre Smith-Gilmour, runs at Crow’s Theatre to April 9. It opens to critics on Friday, so look our review next week.