Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Playwrights in Profile: Sean Dixon

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Sean Dixon

Toronto playwright and fiction writer Sean Dixon's latest dramatic offering is A God in Need of Help (Coach House Books), in which four 17th century Catholic men are charged with transporting a holy painting across the alps. The men are attacked by Protestant zealots, and what happens next is thought to be a miracle. Set during a time of religious upheaval and violence, A God in Need of Help explores questions of faith and art, tolerance and hatred, and builds on Sean's acclaimed career as one of Toronto's favourite playwrights.

Today Sean speaks with Open Book as part of our Playwrights in Profile series, and tells us about the productive power of crushes, chasing shoplifters and working through writing blocks.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a playwright?

Sean Dixon:

When I was in Gr. 6, I played Tom Sawyer in a production by my whole elementary school. I had a huge crush on Chrissy Merwald, the girl who played Becky, who was a year older than me. Art competed with theatre as the serious discipline of my childhood, but theatre was always bound to win because it meant deep intense collaborations and friendships.

Then, when I was training as an actor, we worked with a teacher (later the co-founder, with me and a bunch of my classmates, of Primus Theatre in Winnipeg) who tasked me with creating what can be best described as a kind of raw performance material, which he then combined into a pastiche with that of my fellow actors to create a performance. From this I got my first inking of the difference between the workings and the work.

OB:

What is the first play you remember being affected by?

SD:

Grade 9: my father brought me to Toronto to see a production of Ain’t Lookin at the old Toronto Workshop Productions (now the site of Buddies In Bad Times), directed by George Luscombe. It was about a white player who played on a black baseball team during a time of segregated leagues in the US. It was a working class musical. A large cast in a small theatre. I didn’t know theatre could be so intimate. I’m not necessarily a fan of the musical as a form, but I love the way the insertion of a song will heighten the experience of a performance in a theatre.

OB:

What one play, from any time period, do you wish you had written?

SD:

Oedipus Rex. Antigone. Iphigenia in Aulis. Dr. Faustus (a later draft than the one we’ve got), As You Like It. The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Escape From Happiness. I’m honestly not as interested so much in being a rule breaker (Kaspar, Attempts on her Life) as someone who wants to present genuine narrative surprise and bust of out of confines of the theatre in a celebratory way.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

SD:

When I was nineteen years old, I chased a shoplifter. It’s a story I’ve told many times, most recently in the last third of my Raconteurs talk. The experience of telling this story over and over again, to friends — watching them get fully engaged and curious about what would happen next — made me interested in the craft and rules of narrative. (The real events unfolded so perfectly, with an almost predestined sense of inevitability, that I was once accused by an audience-member of making it all up, a charge that shocked and stung.)

By the time, a few years later, when I had a strange encounter with a crasher at the general auditions for the National Theatre School (I was auditioning myself), I had developed my confidence enough that I told this new-minted story to the people presiding over the auditions. Since they had encountered this eccentric crasher as well, my story had the effect of levelling the playing field between them and me. That’s empowering. I’m convinced to this day it’s why they accepted me into the acting program, since my monologue acting was mediocre at best.

OB:

What do you do with a play in progress or a scene that just isn't working?

SD:

For the former, I get actors to read it if I can, so the characters have a chance to live and so I have a chance to remember what I wrote and observe it from a different part of my brain. For the latter, if it’s just a scene in not the whole play, then that’s very lucky, isn’t it?

OB:

What was the last play that you saw that really knocked your socks off?

SD:

I’m still moved by the achievement of Ride the Cyclone by Jacob Richmond, which I saw at the Summerworks Festival a few years ago: a bunch of kids who die in a carnival ride are given one last chance to live their lives (in song) before leaving the earth. He conceived it as a song cycle, a satire of Glee club conventions. I think (or perhaps he said this) he had no idea the performance would have a cumulative, narrative effect that would be so moving. Comic, macabre, touching, fleeting, beautiful. Work hard and allow serendipity to rule.
What is the best thing about being a playwright, and what is the worst?

OB:

What is the best thing about being a playwright, and what is the worst?

SD:

I’ll never forget once many years ago I was the Paddock for a Brick Magazine launch. Michael Ondaatje picked up the tab before he left, so there were a whole bunch of us that suddenly had money left over for more drinks — all poets, as it turned out, plus me. We were sitting around a big table. When the poets learned I was a playwright, they all leaned in. I’ve always attributed this to the idea that, on the self-abasement ladder of literature, the poets feel themselves to occupy the lowest rung, with pride of place, until they contemplate the experience of the playwright, whose work remains only a fragment of the whole even when it’s finished.

Sean Dixon is a playwright, novelist and actor. He co-founded the influential Winnipeg theatre collective primus, providing the narratives for their performances Dog Day, Alkoremmi and The Night Room. Three of his plays were collected in AWOL: Three Plays for Theatre SKAM (2002). Sean’s first novel, The Girls Who Saw Everything, was named one of the Best Books of 2007 by Quill & Quire. With his second novel, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (2011), he has been called ‘the true inheritor of [Gwendolyn] MacEwen’s mythopoeic legacy.’ He is also the author of two books for young readers, The Feathered Cloak and The Winter Drey. He lives in Toronto with his wife, documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek.

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