Ready to Launch

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A Conversation with Vern Thiessen, Artistic Director 2014-present

By Jonah Dunch

In 2014, Vern Thiessen was hunting for jobs that would take him out of New York City, where he had been writing and teaching theatre for seven years. Little did he expect, however, to find his way back to Edmonton, the city he had left behind.

“Ultimately it felt like a good fit, because I’d had a real history with the company,” Thiessen says. “I knew what was going on.”

He had started at the company as an intern in 1992, his first job out of university. He also worked for a year as resident dramaturge and three years as playwright-in-residence in the early 2000s. When Ron Jenkins was artistic director, he and Thiessen started up the Playwrights’ Garage, a training program for emerging playwrights. He also had two premieres, Cressida and Apple. Though he hadn’t planned to return to Edmonton, Thiessen had a smooth landing. Yet he found himself returning to a city very different from the one he had left.

“As soon as I got back, I realized that the city had changed a lot in seven years,” Thiessen says. “The ideas for the company that I thought I was going to bring were completely different from what was going to be demanded of me.”

He realized he had reentered onto a theatre scene where new companies, artists, and way of making theatre were on the rise.

“The challenge was to make sure the theatre cut out its identity in the tsunami of theatre that is this town,” Thiessen says. “You have to have a really specific vision in this town if you want your theatre company to survive and thrive.”

More significant, though, was how Thiessen saw Edmonton’s demographic landscape with fresh eyes. Coming back, he realized how diverse the city had become — or, perhaps, how diverse it had always been. Before he left, Thiessen says, he was “Mr. White Guy with a bunch of white guys.” But his time in New York politicized him: Thiessen taught in Harlem and the Bronx, making a commitment to serving underserved and undervalued youth.

“Having worked in those places, I perhaps came back with a different mindset,” Thiessen says. “What I did notice was that, at that time, there was a lack of diversity in the theatre community here and on our stages. And that really drove the programming that Marian and I have created.”

With his mind on the lay of the land — both in the theatre scene and in the city — Thiessen chose to focus the company on serving playwrights and the diverse communities of Edmonton.

“The question Marian and I asked every year was, ‘Who’s not coming to our theatre? And why?’,” Thiessen says. “What are the barriers that they feel? Are they barriers that we can break down?”

In answer to these questions, Workshop West co-founded the Chinook Series, a two-week performance festival in February combining the efforts of Workshop West, Azimuth Theatre, and Fringe Theatre. With Chinook, Workshop West kickstarted two new festivals for diverse voices: the Deaf arts showcase Sound Off, curated by Deaf theatre artist Chris Dodd, and the Black arts showcase Black Arts Matter, curated by Nasra Adem.

“We looked at communities and made sure that everything that we were programming already had a built-in community,” Thiessen says. “We tried to use the playwright as a bridge between the theatre and the wider community.”

Many of these playwrights have been at the early stage of their creative practice: Thiessen developed an educational program called Writes of Passage, which puts playwrights in Edmonton high schools. The program started with 20 students in one school, and it’s now up to 1000 students in 16 schools. (In fact, I first met Thiessen and got hooked on playwriting thanks to an early version of this program.) Writes of Passage is now offered in English, French, and Arabic.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve developed a lot of playwrights — and a lot of diverse playwrights,” Thiessen says.

And Workshop West’s reach has expanded beyond Edmonton: largely thanks to its touring production of Kenneth T. Williams’s Café Daughter (now close to its fifth year running), the company now has an international profile, exporting work to Europe.

But with the rise of auteur theatre and collective creation, Thiessen worries that the power of the written script is under attack in the theatre cultures of the world. While these newer forms of theatre are valuable and necessary, playwrights’ theatre still has an important role to play in the art form — a role Workshop West strives to help fill.

“This little place is a little bit of an oasis for playwrights,” Thiessen says. “Every script that you write is a possibility for immortality, in a way collective work isn’t.”

With close to five years as artistic director, Thiessen feels like he’s done everything he set out to accomplish at Workshop West. He’s ready to pass down the mantle to another artist, perhaps one who can bring lived experience and expertise to the company’s mandate of being a megaphone for unheard voices.

“The vision of this company that I have had is that it should be focused entirely on the playwright, that they have the prerogative to choose their director, their designers, casting — that they have a certain kind of power,” Thiessen says. “I didn’t want the theatre company to be identified with my directing style. I wanted it to be identified by a culture of writers.”

Thiessen will be leaving the position of artistic director this fall. He’ll still be involved in the company and will stay on to transition in his successor — but after half a decade at the helm, he’s ready to get back to his first love: playwriting. Since Workshop West has a history of short-term artistic directors and is focused on the playwright, Thiessen is confident the company will be able to stand on its own two feet without him.

“This job, I’ve discovered, is more about listening and giving the power away,” Thiessen says. “And when you give the power away, and you invest it in other people, it makes your job a lot easier.”

It’s that democratic spirit that’s kept Workshop West going for 40 years. For the company, Thiessen says, is a launchpad for new ideas.

“Like any rocket launch, sometimes they blow up in midair,” he admits. “But some of them go into the stratosphere. They go into the heavens and light up the sky.”

And, with support from its board, volunteers, donors, artists, and audience, this particular launchpad will continue to thrive.

“This is a scrappy little bulldog of a company,” Thiessen says. “The company has been able to transform, and move, and weave and bob, and zig and zag, over the course of 40 years, and yet still retain its identity as being a theatre where new voices are heard.”