10 questions: Simon Ogden

1) What the fuck is going on?
Oh, left work early to ride my bike to the farmers’ market to buy organic heirloom tomatoes and an amusing pinot on the way to the beach to smoke some hydro and debate olympic spending vs. the homeless “problem”. You know, Vancouvery shit.

2) What’s the current state of independent theatre in Vancouver?
Some crews have been taking turns pounding it on the chest and it definitely has a pulse, although it’s still a long way from running a marathon. The dangling carrot of the invading American TV/film industry and their buckets of cash keep most actors from considering the importance of creating a viable theatre, or from considering theatre at all, really. A lot of theatre that pops up here is the fed-up-with-commercial-auditions vanity piece – usually a LeBute or a Mamet – that contains the scene that they totally rocked in class, man, that’s thrown up for a week, poorly marketed, and never heard from again because, damn, theatre is hard work, man. Not that that’s really a bad thing, mind you, good on ’em, but it’s more of a diversionary exercise than a resuscitation attempt. Meanwhile there are several companies in town that have been putting a lot of time, energy, and love into edge-cutting and relevant stage. The foundation has been laid, as it were, now it’s time to start construction. If I may mix my metaphors.

3) How do you navigate the tricky political waters of being a theatre artists and a theatre critic in the same city?
Yeah, that’s a tough one, and to be honest, I’m still figuring it out. I went back and forth quite a bit on the decision to start critiquing, in the end it became another way to get theatre into the public consciousness, which is a big part of my personal mandate. The readership of Beyond Robson, the city life/news blog I work for (our sister site, Blog TO, does some excellent theatre coverage for the smoke by the way), is the same 20-35 demographic that we want to get into the theatres, so it made sense to start running play crits. I go into some detail about this on my blog, but in short it is my opinion that we need to understand that, while we as theatre artists may wish that our work be considered sacrosanct by virtue of our spent time and passion, the fact that we’re charging money for it makes it a consumer product, and as such we are accountable. So critics are invaluable to our audience, like it or not, and we need to develop a thicker skin about criticism. Be able to ditch the fragile ego bit and accept what is valuable in a review and discard what is not. It’s just an opinion anyway, and hopefully it’s an informed one from someone who loves the theatre, like I do.

And so, as a navigational aid, I have set myself some strict parameters. Number 1: complete honesty. Number 2: I will not review any production that I have professional ties to. And number 3: always be constructive, never destructive. I recently went to a play with the intention of reviewing it and honestly, it was so bad on so many levels that I couldn’t bring myself to tear it down as much as I would have in order to fulfill mandate #1. Seriously, it was the kind of theatre that stops people from ever going to theatre again, but it was free to the public and as such no good could possibly have come from the vitriol I would have spilled, so I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe that’s cowardly, I don’t know, but that’s the grey area between artist and critic that I live in right now, so so be it.

4) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
What kind of stupid fucking question is that? You’re lucky you live on the other side of the country Mackenzie, or I’d punch you right in the face.

Actually, my first hit was: anger? Me? Whaddya mean, I’m not angry…am I? And of course, a look back at my body of work to date reveals that there’s levels of anger in the genesis of all of it, which, upon further consideration, is as close an approximation to my personal definition of the true nature of art as I have ever considered. The play I’m working on right now, set in a bar, is entirely about the consequences of anger, as a matter of fact. Revelatory, thank you.

5) How do you approach writing dialogue?
I actually consider dialogue the easy part of playwrighting, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of unnecessary trepidation around it for new writers. We all know how people talk, we’re immersed in natural conversation every day, those rhythms are part of our cellular structure. I just transcribe what the characters are saying to each other in my head and when I hear me talking instead of them, I stop writing. And when I’m really stuck, I simply flip to a random page of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or check my Overheard in New York feed for a refresher course in how to write dialogue. I find the hard part to be structuring surprise, which to me is what a satisfying theatre experience is all about, at all stations: writing, acting, direction, lights, soundscape, and audience interplay. Great theatre is all about little surprises.

6) What quality in other artists do you most dislike when you see it?
I’ll give you three of them: ego, ego, and oh, I going to have to go with ego here. Show me generosity of spirit and action and I’ll show you great art. I do not care how wonderfully wonderful and beautiful and talented you are, because the story you are telling doesn’t care about those things. On stage you are in the service of the other actors, who are all in the service of the story, which is in the service of the community. You wanna know how to tell if someone is a great actor or not? Watch how well they listen when they’re not regurgitating their memorized words.

7) What have you learned about your community through your experiences as a theatre blogger?
That for the theatre community here, the internet as a marketing tool is a strange, irrelevant animal. I was inspired to start a theatre blog by this post by Darren Barefoot, a prolific local blogger and marketer who wrote and staged a fringe play on a whim a few years back. And if you google “Vancouver theatre blog” right now you’ll get pretty much . . . me. The international theatre blogosphere is fantastic, however, sharp, controversial, articulate, it’s become a brand new form of theatre in its own right, actually. But seeing that the key to a healthy theatre is local communication, that really does me no good here. I’ve heard the argument that new technology is at odds with the very convention of the theatre, but that’s kind of the point, we’re going to have to evolve to survive. Blogging is not a technologist’s medium, it’s a writer’s medium, and theatrists in this town have to embrace that, as well as internetworking (I may have just coined that), just as so many other specialized interest groups have. I wrote one post on BR about skateboarding and got 14 comments, I’ve written 10 theatre posts and gotten 4 comments. Let’s talk it up out there, people! Hey batta, swing batta!

8) How do we attract more non-artists (such as accountants, producers, lawyers and marketers) to our industry?
Well, we could – I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out – ask them? Before our first production we called up Paul Armstrong, a local indie film and music video producer, and asked him if he would consider coming down to meet the crew and hearing a pitch, and he is now not only our producer, but he shows up for every script reading and workshop session we have. He hasn’t made a dime off us yet, poor chap, but he has faith.

I think theatre is an art form that non-artists love to be identified with. Its image is one of social consciousness and commentary without radicalism (I’m speaking here of its perception, not necessarily its reality), and as such it’s perfect for organizations looking to “give back” to the community. They’re also looking for the write-offs too, don’t forget. We need to exploit theatre’s art-cool image to our fullest advantage, and professionally approach these offices in town that have expertise in necessary production areas that we, as artists, simply don’t (or shouldn’t, for that matter). If we can get stage managers, fundraising venues, and poster designers to donate their time and assets, why can’t we get an accountant to do so as well?

9) What does feminism mean to you?
As with any movement whose goal is human parity, be it gender, ethnicity, class, or sexuality based, I’m saddened that it’s still so necessary. I fancied myself a feminist playwright at one point, based on the work I was turning out, until I realized that just writing stories sympathetic to women doesn’t make one a feminist, and to wear that badge without a commitment to full advocacy is merely paying lip-service to what I in truth consider to be a self-evident truism, not a battle I chose to fight. I feel very fortunate to have been raised and educated in so tolerant a household and community that I can be a true individualist, to be able to judge each book by its story, as it were.

10) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were five years ago.
Malleability. Here’s the best advice I can offer to aspiring playwrights: find yourself a small group of actors whom you trust and consider brilliant and workshop your script with them. During this part of the process let them be loose with your lines a little and allow them to bring their honest reactions to what’s coming towards them. Give them scenarios to improv, ask them to act out stories from their own experience that relate to the work, trust them with your baby. You’ll be astonished at the universal truths that will emerge, and you have but to record them (and take all the credit in the bargain).

Confession time: I have transcribed whole monologues verbatim from actor’s improvs, magnificent material that I am nowhere near talented enough to come up with on my own. We as theatre artists are a mirror to the world around us, not within us, and as playwrights let’s face it, we’re merely keeping minutes.

5 thoughts on “10 questions: Simon Ogden

  1. “A lot of theatre that pops up here is the fed-up-with-commercial-auditions vanity piece – usually a LeBute or a Mamet – that contains the scene that they totally rocked in class, man, that’s thrown up for a week, poorly marketed, and never heard from again because, damn, theatre is hard work, man.”

    Oh snap.

    Dude, this shit happens everywhere – not just Vancouver-, but way to call bullshit on it regardless.

    I’m also glad that this whole, how do we get non-theatre people to get into theatre question keeps coming back. I’m starting to think a true theatrical success is when you come to your show and you don’t know anyone in line.

    Oh, Simon, it’s “The Big Smoke” in the T Dot. “The Smoke” is just what we use in conjunction with mirrors to hide the fact that we don’t have any money.

  2. Oh, we know that it’s the “big smoke” Mike, we’re just too lazy out here to use it, which is probably one of the reasons we don’t have any money. And I couldn’t agree more with your definition of theatrical success, I love the crew that makes up the choir we preach to at our shows, but I would be thrilled if I knew no one in the stalls.

    Ian – thanks for the opportunity to sound off here, and for the clinic in interviewing. It was both a lot of fun and edifying to be on the other side of the soap box. Much respect.

  3. Shit Simon. This piece of writing of yours is so packed with insight I almost don’t know what to do with it all; Bookmark it and refer to it often, I guess.

    Thank you kindly!

  4. By the way. This idea that dialogue is relatively easy because it’s all around us is probably true if you’re a good listener. Many of us, though, aren’t that good at listening. We hear fine – just not so good at the listening part. (The distinction being somewhere in the processing, I guess.)

    Joshua James recently wrote on the relationship between talent and listening (or that talent *is* the ability to listen) . . . an argument I find rather persuasive:


    And never is the talent-listening relationship more clear to me than in the hands of a strong dialogue writer.

  5. I don’t know, I think natural speech rhythms are accessible to every aspiring writer with more practice and less self-editing. Some people just don’t trust the simplicity of it, and their dialogue ends up overwrought or overwritten, which is a common trap. A good question to ask yourself after a first draft is: okay, how is this not a radio play? Does the dialogue motivate action or render it unnecessary? The greatest playwrights realize that they are only one component in the production, and the words are merely a springboard from which the director and actors start making the decisions that will become the play. That’s why great plays can (and should) be done over and over, they are open to interpretation and can always be a brand new play.

    Alex’ point is well made, thanks for that link, BTW. He’s speaking about killing your ego and realizing that objective opinions and criticism are not an attack but a true gift if you are secure enough in yourself to realize which are valid and which are not. School, as well as theatre, is everywhere if you watch (and yes, listen) for it.

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