Growing up in Edmonton in the baby-boom age, Kenneth Brown was surrounded by Second World War veterans. As an adult - and playwright - it's not their stories he remembers, but their silence. The way they went about their quiet postwar lives running grocery stores or drinking themselves forgetful. How his grandfather - with whom he was very close - never spoke of his horrific First World War experiences, beyond talk of a pretty French girl who once sold him some bread; and how he still, at 80, would pick the odd piece of shrapnel from his face.
It wasn't until he was 101 that grandpa told Brown that his entire platoon had been killed shortly after the Battle of Vimy Ridge - and that he, the platoon's sergeant, felt responsible.
Brown's trilogy Spiral Dive, presented by Workshop West Theatre in Edmonton for the first time back-to-back in a marathon performance on Sunday, grew out of Brown's childhood memories. With this epic about a young Canadian fighter pilot and his terrifying, heartbreaking - and sometimes exciting, to be sure - war experiences, Brown is telling the stories he never actually heard as a child, but which helped shape him nonetheless.
"I only understood this having actually finished and seen the third episode, that what I was really addressing was the old guys I grew up with, the guys who'd been through it," Brown, 56, said in Edmonton Thursday before the run kicked off with Episode 1. (The three episodes are being presented individually over the next two weeks, but twice through the run as a complete trilogy.)
"The generation of men I grew up with, it seems to me, were all terrifically wounded, carrying around this kick in the guts. And I think I always knew it instinctively when I was a little kid."
Some of the inspiration is fairly direct. The main character's best friend, for instance, joins the navy because vision problems prevent him from flying - just like Brown's own father.
Brown, a prolific playwright, director and actor probably best known for his 1980s work Life After Hockey, actually began to write Spiral Dive as a novel in the early 1990s. He engaged in some intense research, even signing himself up for flying lessons (which he thoroughly enjoyed). But the novel died when the boat he'd been vacationing on with his family sank - taking Brown's computer with it. "I lost a whole lot of writing," he says. "It just knocked the will to write Spiral Dive right out of me."
More than a decade later, he was finally able to revisit the story, but chose to resurrect it for the theatre - not a book. Conceived from the beginning as a trilogy, Brown began writing Episode 1 in 2007, taking it to the Fringe festival circuit the following year (he also directs). Each year a new episode hit the Fringe, wrapping up with Episode 3 last summer.
But this Sunday marks the first time the three shows will be performed for an audience together. The event comes a week after the first - and only - rehearsal of the trilogy as a whole.
"It was like running a marathon," says Blake William Turner, the Vancouver actor who plays pilot Jack Harding, the trilogy's central character whose determination and dimpled good looks help him score in the cockpit - and with the lovely, but severely scarred Eva (Cayley Suliak). "It's the biggest thing I've ever done. There's 45,000 words and four actors."
With the exception of Turner (who at 25 is a fair bit older than the young pilot he portrays), each actor plays multiple roles, nimbly moving from one nationality, accent, even gender to another on a stark stage with few props and minimal sets. Turner figures there are about 50 characters across the trilogy. Brown has never counted.
There is interest in Spiral Dive from across the country. Fans who've seen the shows at Fringe festivals are coming to see the complete trilogy from as far away as Winnipeg and Ottawa. And Brown (who is now writing a romantic comedy set in a Tim Hortons) says the show will tour next year to a number of cities, including Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Whitehorse and Yellowknife.
Each episode works as a fully contained story, but Michael Clark, Workshop West's artistic director, says the trilogy is much greater than the sum of its parts.
"The piece has a completely different scope and scale when you see all three episodes in a row," Clark explains. "When you're in one of the plays, they're very powerful, emotional experiences, like all good theatre is. But the cumulative effect of five hours of being with the characters for so long transcends the normal Canadian theatrical experience. ... The trilogy is magical theatre."
Adding, no doubt, to the power of Sunday's complete trilogy world premiere will be a talkback session, between Episode 1 and Episode 2, with a group of veterans - former Spitfire pilots, now as old as 92.
Emotions run high even when simply talking about this play, the third episode in particular. Brown can't watch it without crying, he says. Clark, describing the final scene, chokes up. Turner's mother is coming to see the show on Sunday, but it might be tough on her. Says the actor: "She can't even look at me in the uniform."
The Complete Spiral Dive Trilogy is at La Cité Francophone in Edmonton until Jan. 23 ( workshopwest.org).