Nicolas Billon is obsessed with Christmas – but not in the way of your favourite aunt, who loves shopping for stocking stuffers in July.
"I'm not a big fan," says the Montreal-raised, Toronto-based playwright over a club soda and a vegetarian curry in a pub near his home in Toronto. "It's almost funny to me how Grinch-ly I am about Christmas."
To wit: Butcher, Billon's theatrical thriller – which is receiving a remarkable four productions across Canada over the next few weeks – takes place in a police station on Christmas Eve. In it, a cop, a lawyer and a translator try to solve the mystery of an old man who's been dumped there with a Santa hat on his head – and a meat hook around his neck.
Likewise, The Elephant Song – Billon's first play, which premiered to acclaim at the Stratford Festival in 2004 and was recently turned into a film starring Xavier Dolan – takes place on Christmas Eve. And it's in an even less cheery setting, a mental hospital where a psychiatrist has gone missing. A forthcoming Billon play, Smuggling Buddha, will also be set on the night before Christmas – though what creatures will be stirring in that one, only he knows.
Trying to get the bottom of exactly why Billon has this insatiable urge to put an X over Xmas while the playwright, a self-proclaimed "lightweight" when it comes to alcohol, nursed a club soda, came mostly to naught. (We met at a pub in hopes of watching Billon's beloved Montreal Canadiens win a seventh game in a row – though, naturally, the Blue Jays were on instead.)
Billon's parents divorced when he was young, which first soured him on the holidays – but he doesn't seem to nurse a grudge against them all, only Dec. 25. "I'm not angry at it at all," Billon says with a shrug. "My Christmases weren't horrible. It's just not a time I associate with happiness."
If Billon didn't dislike Christmas so much, you might be tempted to say it came early for the 37-year-old this year.
Every theatre season, a play or two really takes off in Canada and you see productions at companies across the country. Usually, it's whatever was big on Broadway a year or two earlier. But this year, it's Butcher – a dark but gripping play that wrestles with questions of justice and genocide, and premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary last fall.
The four-hander is currently having its French-language premiere at Winnipeg's Le Cercle Molière, and then three productions open in English in quick succession – at Toronto's Theatre Centre, Montreal's Centaur Theatre and Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange. (Another production has already come and gone in Chicago this fall.)
Talk to directors about what hooked them on Butcher, and they immediately go to the experience of reading the twist-filled script for the first time. Ann Hodges, the in-demand Winnipeg director who is tackling the play next month, spent last year slogging her way through a pile of about 70 new and recent plays as artistic associate at Prairie Theatre Exchange. Butcher immediately stood out, even though she started reading it at 10 o'clock at night after a long day of work.
"I almost sat bolt upright," she recalls. "I couldn't put it down – it's just structured so perfectly."
"There are a lot of oh-my-gods," says director Roy Surette, whose own production opens at Centaur Nov. 3. "We've been referring a lot to Hitchcock in rehearsal – the craftsmanship of how the writing reveals itself is remarkable."
Butcher is not a play unserious in theme – it asks, rather pointedly, whether it is possible to have both justice and peace when it comes to crimes against humanity. Billon's original inspiration for the play came after reading Shake Hands with the Devil, Roméo Dallaire's book about witnessing the Rwandan genocide. And the play's published edition comes with a foreword by Louise Arbour, the former Supreme Court justice who worked as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
But as Billon worked on Butcher – which, without revealing too much, centres on a fictional conflict in a fictional country called Lavinia (for which Billon and a pair of linguists even invented a fictional language) – he also became interested in making it a genuine thriller.
As it happens, his parents were fans of Alfred Hitchcock. He grew up watching his movies, many of which – Rear Window, Lifeboat, Rope – are quite theatrical in the way they confine characters in a single space.
The unexpected twist in Billon's life is that, though his parents are both French speakers, he has always written in the language of Shakespeare. Shortly after his parents divorced, he began attending high school in English in Montreal – and then went on to study creative writing at Concordia University.
"I'm much more comfortable in English – my ear for dialogue is much more attuned," Billon says, though he also describes this decision as "a non-competition clause with my dad," a Switzerland-born novelist and screenwriter.
Billon's career to date has been charmed. The very first play he wrote – which he started at Concordia before dropping out – was The Elephant Song. It premiered at Stratford when he was just 25, the script having been passed to a collaborator of his father, Quebec filmmaker Jean Beaudin, who passed it on to his partner, the actress Domini Blythe, who then gave it to Stratford's then-artistic director Richard Monette.
After Billon moved to Toronto a couple of years later to join the Soulpepper Academy, he wrote a series of monologue-based plays – Faroe Islands, Greenland, and the particularly excellent Iceland – that won the Governor-General's Award for Drama when they were published together in 2013.
And after Elephant Song was transformed into a movie by director Charles Binamé last year, Billon won a Canadian Screen Award for best adapted screenplay.
Who knows if that lucky streak will continue now that Billon has turned his attention to the small screen. He's currently enrolled in the Canadian Film Centre's television writing program, the five-month dry-run writers' room that spawned the hit series Orphan Black.
Billon applied to the CFC last year after going for drinks with his softball team and discovering that all his teammates were talking about were TV shows – not the last contemporary plays or Greek tragedies they'd seen.
"I'm not surprised that he's now studying to write episodic TV," says Surette, who's also presented Billon's Iceland at Centaur. "He's got a great grip on having characters and situations be compelling, and making sure they have a dramatic edge to them."
Indeed, if Billon is representative of a larger current in Canadian theatre, it's that he's part a generation of playwrights who are earning praise for their craftsmanship as much as their art, and who have no qualms about shifting between storytelling media. In that group you might include Hannah Moscovitch, currently in the writers' room on CBC's X Company, and the resistant-to-classification Jordan Tannahill, whose own take on the classic dinner-party-gone-awry scenario, Late Company, is being presented at the Theatre Centre alongside Butcher this month.
That Toronto production of Butcher is, as in its Calgary premiere, being directed by Weyni Mengesha, and stars three out of four of the original cast members. As well, Billon is helping to produce it. Other local theatre companies expressed interest in the script, but he didn't want to have to wait another season to see a production in the town where he lives.
The Theatre Centre was a logical partner, since Billon is married to general manager Aislinn Rose. The pair wed two years ago – and this is where his obsession takes a last-minute Billon-esque dramatic twist – on Christmas Eve.
"I think that was Aislinn's way of trying to reconcile me to Christmas," Billon says. "And to be fair, it does make the holiday somewhat more bearable."
Butcher continues at Winnipeg's Cercle Molière (cerclemoliere.com) until Oct. 31. It opens at Toronto's Theatre Centre (theatrecentre.org) Oct. 24; at Montreal's Centaur Theatre (centaurtheatre.com) Nov. 3; and Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange (pte.mb.ca) Nov. 19.