Everybody on the Sidewalk: A Conversation with Tom Cone
Tom Cone is a Vancouver playwright, librettist, lecturer, impresario, curator and promoter of cultural hybrids, and nurturer of the avant-garde; he is a key figure behind Vancouver's experimental music and theatre scene. His many plays include Herringbone, Stargazing, Love at Last Sight, and True Mummy; his adaptations of classic plays include Moliere's The Miser and Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters that premiered at the Stratford Festival where he was a writer-in-residence; his librettos include The Architect composed by David Maclntyre for Vancouver Opera, The Gang composed by Peter Hannan for Vancouver New Music, and Game Misconduct composed by Leslie Uyeda for Festival Vancouver. Tom is co-founder of experimental arts projects such as song room—a salon for new song collaborations—and a co-producer for CABINET, Interdisciplinary Collaborations. He is finishing a new play, Donald and Lenore. Tom was The Capilano Review writer-in-residence in February/March 2007 during which he initiated the 5-minute play project, a collaboration between Creative Writing and Theatre students at Capilano College.
Andrew Klobucar and Jenny Penberthy recorded the following conversation with Tom while sitting on his front porch in June 2007.
Andrew: Let's begin with that theme of collaboration in your work. When I see your new material I'm very conscious of the development of the work through the '70s in Vancouver. When I look at the '70s from my own very dilettantish perspective it seems a really exciting period, whether because a lot of experimentation or a lot of questions being asked. What was your take on the '70s theatre in Vancouver, and how do you see that actually affecting your work aesthetically?
Tom: I think the first thing that happened in Canada that has not been written about to any extent whatsoever is the effect of LIP [Local Initiatives Program]. It was as big and as far-reaching as the WPA [Work Projects Administration] in the States. Every theatre group, every new music group, every dance group, publishers that we know... many began through LIP.
Jenny: Like Talonbooks.
Tom: Talonbooks was through LIP. Vancouver East Cultural Centre, where I had my first play produced in 1972, was built by carpenters who were paid the same amount of money as I was every week. We were all paid a hundred and forty bucks.
Andrew: Is that There you're talking about?
Tom: Yes, There and The Organiser; they were written when I was a graduate student at SFU in the Communications Department. They had in that department Murray Schafer, who ran the World Soundscape Project. Schafer's Soundscape project was huge here and in the United States. And at Simon Fraser—well, one of the heads of the department was a political philosopher who was very close to Che and to Castro. And students would go with him to Cuba from SFU to see Castro and to work. There was Hildegard Westerkamp, now, amongst other things, writing scores for Gus Van Sant and Barry Truax. That department was really influential in collaboration for me, in that I could be taking behavioural courses, I could be taking political science courses, I could be taking a course from Murray Schafer. My MA thesis was my first full-length play, and I incorporated work from B. F. Skinner. The play was called Skinner Alive. I took a Skinner box and set it on the vertical—this premiered at SFU. The work that I was educated in, communications, had to do with Skinner, and the work that I had already gone through up until that point—I had graduated from Florida State University in 1970 with a degree in English and a minor in Philosophy, and I had already done work in Art History. By the time I had finished all that and I was one amongst millions of students who were politically active, reading Marcuse and Fanon like mad, and reading all the existentialists.
But to go back even further, when my parents moved to Miami in the late '40s, they were amongst a large group of the Jewish community who were in their early 30s. Thousands of young Jewish couples from all over America were drawn there because you could start a new life there, and it was cheap and beautiful. I was caught in a world where my father's family, who I was close to, were from Nashville, Tennessee. And southern, really, very southern. And my mother was from New England. Her family assimilated very fast, was proud of their assimilation. I suppose in my father's family it took a very long time. And my grandmother never spoke English. I grew up in a combination of real South and Jewish culture. In high school and in college—I graduated in '65—Miami was a winter home to writers, for example, the director that we had in children's theatre in Miami, was very close to Tennessee Williams. He came there during that period. He was my biggest hero. Key West was a great haven for writers.
My father was a well-known amateur actor, and I grew up doing lines with him. He was always learning lines. He was doing things like You Can't Take it With You or Golden Boy. I had to take Cotillion and public speaking and all those kinds of things. But I was already an actor at five. I was already on stage with Yul Brynner performing The King and I—I was one of the many children. We were all bald. I have pictures of that! And at the same time I had to take public speaking and learn how to speak and the teacher was—around here I'm fourteen—the teacher was a very close friend of Robert Frost's daughter. Robert Frost used to live near us in the winter. I didn't know him, but I had already met Carl Sandburg by then because I had also spent five summers in North Carolina. And in public speaking, I had to learn all his poems. The most important thing that happened to me then, that has affected everything that I see and do and write, was to understand the English language in terms of the texture of syllables. And from there if you jump all the way to William Carlos Williams; for me it was like a revelation. He was everything that I had learned about how to speak. He was the ultimate for me. Williams was the writer that I connected all that with, Williams and Pound, of the ABC of Reading.
So what those directors taught me as a child, and what the high school teacher taught me about how to speak, led me to Whitman and led me to Williams. That was huge for me, because I felt at that age like I understood Williams like no one else did. I knew the breakdown of his syllables, and what he was after was what everyone was trying to learn in theatre—and I'd never seen that comparison, which is to write in an American idiom, and with an American inflection. And get away from England. And it wasn't really until O'Neill that that happened.
Andrew: Williams wasn't really well read until the early '6os, right?
Tom: The early '6os. But I didn't encounter him until I was in college, or at the end of high school. The biggest book for my contemporaries was Donald Allen's book. That was the book that changed it. You could start to see that people were writing like they were talking.
And my mother had studied art with Hans Hoffman, who was one of the great abstract expressionists, and she was a student at the Art Students League. So visual art was in our home a lot. I had a very multi-talented father who—who no one could live up to. We moved to Miami because my father bought the Florida Sun Sox, which became the Miami Marlins. Several members of my family were involved in American baseball, and my father was the owner of the Florida Sun Sox, the Triple-A team, but he also was a very well-known fast sketch artist. At nineteen he was the one who would do Amelia Earhart or Tallulah Bankhead—they would bring them in and he would be sitting up in the hotel room with them for forty-five minutes and he would draw them because in the '3os there was more cachet to having a drawing of a celebrity than a photograph. The combination of his preoccupation with realism—it was almost demonic in a way—and my mother's appreciation of abstraction... that kind of tension in the house was always troubling and in the end I moved to where she was, which was more abstract.
Then my father owned a fairly well-known black nightclub in Miami when I was in high school, and so me and three friends were referred to as "white niggers" because everybody was into the Beach Boys and we were into soul music. And we would go and see these guys in the black ghettos. My father also owned a fight bar, which was one of the greatest bars you could ever be in. These were only for boxers and their entourages. You couldn't see each other because it was so dark. And it always had to be freezing, and you couldn't see each other in the bar.
Jenny: Why did it have to be cold?
Tom: Because they were all injured...
You probably know the film about the All-American Girls, the baseball team, A League of Their Own? In the United States when World War II happened all the men went off to war and all these women were brought to Chicago—and Canada and The Dominican Republic—to organize a professional baseball league called the All-American Girls. My uncle and my aunt helped created that league. And these women were amazing. But eventually they were demolished. They were asked publicly to give back their balls and bats. On the field! It was humiliating. The film was a whitewash of it.
But really, in terms of getting all the way to the '70s, what happened here was very unusual. In every Canadian city you had LIP. I can't tell you how important that is.
Jenny: I think we should explain...
Tom: Local Initiatives Program. Funded by the Federal Government. It was to put artists and artisans to work—to foster an environment of creation. This was 1972. I don't know the impetus but it was one of the great things that Trudeau did. Because every publishing house that we know of, all the poetry, came out of LIP. It just put everybody to work, and I think that what they found—it was after Expo, Montreal, the Olympics were happening, Canada Council was created—you could do anything. You could get a grant for $140 a week for eight weeks and make new forms of blow¬ing bubbles. Or you could create serious theatre. I was in a guerilla theatre here in Vancouver, wandering around Granville Street and Robson popping into restaurants and coffee shops and the library and making interventions about theatre, about topics that were going on either provincially or locally. At the same time I was working at the race track. And I was here for the first election that the NDP won. I'm in the box seat with the jacket and the bowtie and it's all the [Bill] Bennett boys who own all the horses, and when [Dave] Barrett won the entire box seats were showered in beer cans. There were spontaneous parades up Hastings. Thousands of people. It was just spontaneous when Barrett won in '72. It was unbelievable.
So that was the atmosphere. And I started really writing and getting produced around '73 and '74. But we were the first generation in Canada. All these playwrights from Vancouver to Halifax, we were the first generation of playwrights in the country.
Andrew: Just to go back—$140 a week in 1972—that sounds quite fair!
Tom: We were living like kings. It was fantastic. And everybody was getting the same amount whether you were a visual artist or you were making pottery or you were an actor or a playwright.
Jenny: So artists and writers simply had to apply?
Tom: It seemed like everybody got it. It was beautiful because—well it was always satirized because there would always be some weird project, someone doing something that was stupid and getting $140 a week. But it released, I can tell you right off the top of my head, maybe eight to ten choreographers who all have companies in Canada now, and it all came from LIP. All the theatre companies were on LIP. It was unbelievable. So many companies today from various disciplines can be traced to LIP. And one other component was radio. In Vancouver there were two producers who did experimental radio—one specifically, Don Mowatt. So you had experimental radio drama, and you were getting $140 a week from LIP grants, and you could write experimental drama whether it was fifteen minutes or fifty-five minutes for the CBC and get really decent money. After four or five years that began to dry up, but the environment...
That's what started the first DuMaurier Festival of New Plays and the New Play Centre—now called the Playwrights' Theatre Centre, which is the oldest centre for developing plays in Canada. But Pamela Hawthorn, who was the artistic director, her first festival in '73—it was fantastic. But so many writers—all the writers that are being studied across the country now—all came out during that period, from Michel Tremblay to Tom Walmsley to.... And here was an unusual group of people that didn't write like each other at all. There was no school of thought. It was just that there were playwrights like Margaret Hollingsworth who had recently come from England, or you had Tom Walmsley who really had something to say outside of his poetry done by the Osborne brothers over at Arsenal—they were called Pulp Press then. Or Sheldon Rosen, Dennis Foon or John Lazarus—everybody was really different from each other. It was an unusual atmosphere—we weren't competitive with each other. There were clusters of playwrights in Toronto and Vancouver and later in the smaller cities. We were the first generation of writers working together. LIP helped like crazy and radio—you could do experimental radio. From an aesthetic point of view, there was no commercial theatre, no film, no TV—voice predominated.
By 1978 everybody started leaving. Careers were made like mad within five years. I had television specials, I had national tours, I represented British Columbia at the Olympics in Montreal, and I'm not speaking like I—but many of us had this great success. And then people wanted more, so a lot of people migrated to Toronto in '78 and I left for San Francisco, which was a mistake. And then I became Playwright-in-Residence at the Stratford Festival from '78 to '80, where I premiered my play Stargazing. That's also where I met my agent Joyce Ketay, whom I've been with for 30 years. And a play that I did there, an adaptation of Goldoni, literally has been continuously produced since June of '80.
Jenny: It's the adaptation.
Tom: The Servant of Two Masters, yes, the Goldoni.
But in the '70s the weirdest thing was that you were the first. It was bizarre. There was no one before you. It was like a discipline that had no history in the country. It was totally frontier land. It gave everybody this great—"Oh, I want to write in my imagination," or "I want to write about drug addiction" or "I want to write about...."
Andrew: But rather than forming a permanent community, or theatre community groups, here in Vancouver, it actually instigated a kind of mass dispersal. People actually left Vancouver.
Tom: You could only go so far here. It was pre-film and pre-television. Every writer and actor and director wanted to go to that next level, and that had to be Toronto be¬cause there was much more work being produced and much more opportunity. It was the centre for television and radio. A lot of people who were my contemporaries were racing for television by '78 and '80.
But in Vancouver during that period the relationship between poets and visual art was the relationship. There was no relationship with theatre or dance. It was like it is now. It was very segregated. But there was more of a relationship between writing and visual art. And really I would say the most important person in terms of collaboration in this city, in its history of collaboration, is Tony Emery, a former director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, when it was on Georgia Street. And it was in there that you saw everybody. I saw Yvonne Rainer. I saw every great writer in the country. I saw everything. It was in the lobby. I saw all the Murray Schafer quartets. It was outrageous. Emery reached out in the best way.
Andrew: This was a reconfiguration of the VAG as more than an art gallery. It had become a community centre.
Tom: It was a community centre. We'd say "Shit! At five o'clock so and so is on at the VAG!" and we'd run over there for forty minutes and sit on the floor with 200 others and listen. I saw so many people there. Emory reached out in the best way, and out of that came—what's his name—Goldberg, Michael Goldberg. He started Intermedia. It was a collaborative centre. It became, not a model, but maybe an early impetus for Western Front.
Jenny: That's interesting about the VAG—and it was such a modest building compared with the kind of monumental structure now.
Tom: This was the courts when I was here, the building they're in now. But next door to the VAG was the NFB! So the three of us would go watch so-and-so and then we'd go catch a Godard film next door at 9 o'clock. So it kept everybody on the sidewalk.
Always, early on, I was very much involved with—I just loved the visual arts and music. And I started collecting here in 1975.
Jenny: Can I ask you fill in a gap? You got your undergraduate degree in Florida— then what brought you to Vancouver?
Tom: Initially I was a draft dodger. I had number 147, which was the cut off number in the first lottery. I assumed I was lucky, and then I received the notice for a physical, which I had to go and take because I still lived in the States, but I was already a member of SDS then. Students for a Democratic Society. And I was already on my way to Boston for a big conference at Harvard Stadium for all SDSers—everybody was coming to Cambridge, this summer of 1970. And then my parents said well, you've got your physical notice, you've taken your physical... and then I decided I would leave. I would not wait. The great singer who was part of the extended family of The Band—his name was Jesse Winchester—he's a wonderful singer—and he was in Toronto early on. A lot of The Band were. He was our point person. So if you were running from the States you would go to Montreal and you would see him, and then he would get you a place to sleep. Then he shipped all of us—hundreds—to Morin Heights, about fifty miles north of Montreal, that summer. And then you realized you could go back to the States, or you couldn't. We must remember that Trudeau literally said "Fuck you!" to Nixon and 100,000 Americans came across the border and many were absorbed into the existing cultural climate and in turn became part of the LIP project.
But Vancouver was the lure for me because I had already read the Georgia Straight Supplement, I knew that Creeley and Duncan were here, I knew that Basil Bunting was coming. The first day I arrived here I ran to UBC. It was still closed; it was Labour Day and I got into the building and I was looking for Basil Bunting. I didn't know what he looked like, I just knew I had to meet him. A guy named Seymour Levitan—he was a most wonderful teacher at UBC—he was the teacher of the year and he was having poetry readings on Friday nights and he introduced me to Bunting, and then I met Warren Tallman. And Stan Persky was my sponsor. He was editor of the Georgia Straight Supplement and he'd hired me as an assistant. I had to go back to the States and formally apply to return, so I went to Portland and met my friend, filled out all the forms and drove back up. When I got to the border they refused me entry and asked if I knew who Stan Persky was. They said, "He's a homosexual rebel!" They allowed me forty-eight hours to retain a lawyer in Vancouver. My lawyer beat the hell out of them.
So when I came here in '70 the biggest person for me was Williams. I was twenty-two. I was coming here and I was shocked, completely shocked, speechless, when I met Duncan and Creeley. I didn't think that they were really human! I was meeting everybody that I had been reading about. And Blaser was already here. I remember going to Blaser's place out in West Van and showing him all these poems and saying "I want to write like Josef Albers paints"—I found that Albers was really tied in certain ways to Williams in my imagination. Blaser was really fantastic. He was very encouraging. And then I got pulled back into theatre when I was at SFU.
Jenny: How would you explain the influence of Williams on your plays?
Tom: Well, I'm not an over-writer. I found more was less, from the structural point of view. From the intonation and the meaning of words ... and Williams, for a lot of people, I think playwrights as well as poets, is a great example of how to deal with exposition. And cut it out. He taught me a lot that way. And then Creeley, you know, the same. Whereas Duncan and Blaser, I wasn't drawn to that type of work so much, although I respected it like crazy, I love it, but in terms of the style—and you're copying styles at that age—I wanted to be Pinter and I wanted to be Creeley. I remember telling Creeley that my last year in high school I wore an eye patch because I wanted to be him!
Jenny: I'm curious about your background in music...
Tom: I took piano as a kid and was always around some kind of music, but it really wasn't until I came here that my tastes became more sophisticated and more in¬formed. I was learning like mad. One of the best things I ever did was to subscribe to Friends of Chamber Music. I found that chamber music related to Williams much more than symphonic work. I listened like mad. I set goals for myself—I was reading three plays a day. I knew that I would read more than one thousand plays over a year. I really wanted to get educated in that way. It was that period around Stein and Satie and Ravel that I first got really excited because of the social communities and all the collaboration that was happening. I found it kind of overwhelming, the idea that Diaghilev and Stravinsky and Cocteau were doing Parade. That was my dream, to be able to bring those kinds of forces together. There's always music in my plays, some¬how—in my plays Cubistique, Herringbone, Beautiful Tigers. And then the idea that you could write lyrics, you know. A lot of the music of the day that my parents liked, like Sinatra—you learn a lot from Sinatra too. And Ella—about language. About intention...
Jenny: And about line breaks...
Tom: Yes! I was always listening to new works. The Purcell String Quartet was huge here. They were the locals. They educated a phenomenal lot of people, and they commissioned new work and I just couldn't get enough of it. I really loved it. But I saw something that I wanted that articulated a dream I never could have imagined. And what happened for me was that more new music writers, composers, were starting to say more about the world than many playwrights were doing.
Jenny: You did a lot of writing through the '70s and then between 1980 and 1990 there's less...
Tom: I decided to try to change my direction. I moved to New York in '81, and I really wanted to do more experimentation. At the same time I was living in a world that was very involved—New York was—in a heavily commercial theatre scene. And the experimental groups were becoming less and less. I spent a long time working on a feature film for an independent film producer that I walked away from. Then I turned that into a musical, and then I walked away from it. I wrote Mecca By The Balls, which was produced here and somewhere else and was translated into French and I think done in Paris, and then I put it away; I didn't think it was very good. Then I went on this binge where I wrote three operas. The first called The Architect, with composer David Maclntyre, done by Vancouver Opera, sold more tickets than any new Canadian opera—it sold five thousand tickets, in 1994. It was a huge hit. And then I did The Gang with Peter Hannan in '97/'98 (Vancouver New Music and Autumn Leaf Productions in Toronto), and then Game Misconduct with Lesley Uyeda for Festival Vancouver. And then I'd had my fill. True Mummy was in the midst of that.
Andrew: What had it been about opera that inspired you to move in that direction?
Tom: I became more and more attached to music and opera; it opened every direction you wanted to go. There weren't any preconceived notions about opera except musically, if you wanted to go with a more traditional form. It was very complicated to work in—very difficult. I think it's the most difficult art form in terms of collaboration. It's much harder than film.
Andrew: It is collaboration—the beginning of the total work.
Tom: But for a playwright who had already had plays produced and this and that, the idea that you had to be second banana was crazy. I was always fighting with people just for equal billing and I got caught up in that crazy world of fighting for your credibility. But the form, I thought, was fantastic.
And then I wrote another opera, which took me to 2000, and then I started working on a new play and that took me three years and I put it away. And three years ago I started working on another play which I'm just finishing now. So it took me longer and longer to complete work, and I became more and more unhappy with the type of work I was writing.
Andrew: Is that because you were setting different objectives for yourself?
Tom: Well, first of all, I really hated my critical eye being ahead of my ability. I didn't like being able to say, you know, "You need a deeper character in your play"—when I probably needed that too. It's fair to make that exchange, but I felt I wasn't writing up to the standard that I should have. So True Mummy was sort of the end of that experimental phase where I was writing more around ideas.
Andrew: Just going back to that dilemma with established theatre... Could you say a few words about what kind of established theatre there was in Vancouver? What were you up against?
Tom: That's a really good question. It has big national significance, that question. What you have to imagine is most of the regional theatres were run by English directors. Remember the CBC had that kind of English wave?
Andrew: It was modeled in some ways after the BBC.
Tom: Right. So none of us could get work in the regional theatres. Wow, to be at the Playhouse or the Citadel or all these big regional houses—every province has regional theatres, like Calgary and Edmonton or Ottawa and Toronto. So there were no new plays. But we were active and political, and we formed the guild. We couldn't form a union but we formed an artist-run guild of playwrights. We created the standard contracts for playwrights that still exist today. We forced—via the Canada Council— every regional theatre in the country to adopt these contracts so that they couldn't get money unless they developed and produced Canadian work. We formed a publishing house called Playwrights Canada, which still exists, and we lobbied the Canada Council. This was a great achievement. And I still have to speak on that achievement when I speak at music conferences—which was that playwrights got together and forced the Canada Council, by utilizing the council's own mandate, to agree that they couldn't fund any more regional theatres unless they had money there for developing and producing new work. And that finally happened. That's when Second Stages occurred. What I have been trying to do for the past ten years or more, maybe twelve years, is to get that to happen to opera. So that they can't produce opera here unless they're workshopping and producing new work every year.
A good example would be the Arts Club in the mid-1970s (when it was on Seymour Street) so you were seeing—yes, you were seeing Noel Coward and so and so, but you were seeing Canadian plays, you were seeing Beckett—it was fantastic.
Andrew: Is it Herringbone you've just seen in Boston?
Tom: Yes, it's running at the Williamstown Theatre Festival starring B.D. Wong. The play was originally written as a one-act play with occasional songs in it. It had an abrupt and outrageous kind of success. It premiered at the New Play Centre's DuMaurier Festival of New Plays, at the VECC, which was the place that we all had our plays done. And then Herringbone represented British Columbia at the Olympics and did a national tour. There was a TV special. And then I decided that I had always wanted to make it a full-length work. So I had a try-out—it went to a couple of cities. And then I decided that what I really needed was for it to be through-composed, rather than a play that just had anecdotal music. That it needed to make the jump. Really, that was the first time I ever had to give up control. I retained the large portion of it. But probably one of America's greatest actresses in the history of American theatre is Colleen Dewhurst, who is Canadian, in fact, and she did some of the great productions that are unbelievably memorable. Many of O'Neill's and Albee. And she decided that she wanted to produce this play while at the same time directing Sheldon Rosen's Ned and Jack for Broadway—Ned and Jack had been premiered by the New Play Centre. I was in the midst of a separation and she said, "I'm going to bring you to New York and you're going to meet a composer and a lyricist and a director and we're going to pay you to live in New York"—that would be the summer of '81. And I said, "My separation is so horrible that if you really want to do my play you have to fly me out of here in three days." And there was a ticket at the airport in three days and I never came back until nine or ten years later.
Jenny: This transformation from the play to the musical—what did that involve?
Tom: That was very hard, because you're turning dynamic scenes into a combination of book—the play—you're turning them into actives. My whole litmus test was that every song had to move the narrative forward; we couldn't just take time out to sing a song. So that was the challenge. And it was very hard. I must say I've worked with a lot of composers, but I don't think there's a more difficult artist to collaborate with than a composer. They live in a more abstract world than yours. And they articulate drama differently than you do. For them to come up with the language is very hard, in terms of word versus note. For me it should create a third entity. Of all best possible worlds. The note and the syllable. It shouldn't just support it. So that means that both writers need to give up something that's hopefully magic that they have created, but they're equal partners. It's not one or the other. It was so painful working with a composer to transform Herringbone that once the composer said to me in his living room after endless workshops—endless meetings and making the transformation— he was screaming at the top of his lungs that I was going to send him out the window, that I was going to be responsible for his death. This is very typical of composers. And I said to him, "You're gonna pay. I'm going to immortalize your narcissism. I'm going to open and close my play with your death. And I'm going to have you jump out the window at the end."
It's really hard to be in the theatre in New York, even though it's off-Broadway, it's very commercially bound. And when you're in New York your magazine is The New Yorker. Your paper is the Times. And those launch careers. Just a mention of being in the papers helps get a job or a recognition. I never liked being in the commercial public world. It was a time when I was working with a music theatre company on the beginnings of transforming Williams' Paterson into a musical theatre piece and I thought, "Wow, I could leave now," I could move to a more experimental, contained world like poetry. Lose that desire to be Harold Pinter. I didn't. And in the interim I didn't produce the play that I hung in for. Up to now I continue hoping that I will. I have certain parameters that I know I want to hit.
It's hard to talk about playwriting in this context without looking at the kind of world that we live in with theatre and what theatre means to people in this day and age. Why people go. It's different with people here or in other cities. Most of the people that I associate with in Vancouver do not go to the theatre. A lot of the people don't even know my work.
Jenny: When you say you never liked being in the commercial public world, does that account for your return to Vancouver? That's a choice you made. You talked about a lot of people going to Toronto, and yet...
Tom: The years in New York—or the first part of New York—were terrific for me. I had a number of productions going on, in different cities, everybody seemed to be doing Servant of Two Masters, Stargazing, Herringbone (music Skip Kennon, lyrics Ellen Fitzhugh) was getting on, I had a play called Cubistique that was always being produced somewhere. And I was welcomed by certain theatre companies. And then—I don't know what happened. I wanted to change and I didn't know how and I was trying and it wasn't successful, so I ended up turning this disaster of a film project into a musical about the All-American Girls. And I was on that for about two years and then it went down. I had this huge hole. And then I started writing another experimental play that I felt more happy about, and then I had that episode in New York which allowed me to come here to recuperate and I went into immediate therapy to overcome the shock of a near murder. And it was a good place to recuperate.
Andrew: It's tempting to see your exodus from New York as part of what New York did to art in the '8os. That's a story in itself. When I hear you talk about New York I also think about that incredible period, historically, where the art markets in America really took off in a way that was unparalleled since the 1950s, and there are quite a few Vancouverites that are now back in Vancouver having been in New York for some time. What inspired you to return? You could have gone anywhere...
Tom: I think that what really influenced me was re-integrating with new music and the visual art world. I'd always collected work, in a very modest way, but there were all these living artists and I was very much interested in their music. I'd been involved, as an audience member, in New York. When I came here I started going to a lot of new music concerts, and really the aesthetics were different, the sources were different from the '70s to the '80s. From the '70s, I was guided by all the principles 1 had learned from poetry, so they were embedded in me. In the '80s the influence moved more to music and visual art. I really connected with the discourse on conceptual art, and what was happening in new music started to say more to me about the world I was living in. So I was caught between two worlds, and I wanted both. I loved it that plays could go everywhere...
But I think some of my criticism is where sometimes the plays are chasing a theory or a concept. Some people have found that in True Mummy. There are things I like about that play and things I don't like about it, but it has always caused some kind of controversy whenever it's performed. It's going to be performed in Portland this year and I'm curious about what it will be like. There's always audiences that are going to react quite terribly whenever it's produced. I'm not sure why. When the guy throws his father's ashes in his mouth, you know. There's a lot of desecration.
This play that I'm working on now is a very different play. I'm really trying to hang onto, as I said earlier, hang onto my critical eye, and that's why it's taken so long. Habits die hard. So to try to make a change at sixty years old and your process and the archaeology of allowing characters to surface... I don't write with any pre-notions of what—I don't know what I'm going to write about. It makes me claustrophobic. I wish I did. I love those playwrights who know what they're going to do. They know the roadmap to begin with and how they're going to fill it in. But for me the process is allowing things to come, and sometimes it takes longer. You know...
Jenny: It sounds like Michael Ondaatje, talking about his method...
Tom: And I envy him! I know that about him because one of my directors works with him, and I often desire to be able to indulge in that process and write fiction. For a playwright, the idea of having a narrator, no matter what person, first- or third-, is luxurious, you know—that you just run it off there, off the one voice, rather than being in the present, dynamically in the present because you're on stage and it better be moving along.
What the stage holds for me is still more magic than any other discipline because the possibilities are endless and there's nothing like live theatre when it's working. I mean, it's as unique as any other art form, but where I feel my strongest is as an audience member. Certain performances really transformed me. I often couldn't believe what I was watching.
Jenny: You distinguish between theatre that tackles the condition and theatre that tackles the topic...
Tom: I was talking about the work that I enjoy working on. A lot of people are writing about topics. But that's fantastic—there's a lot of them. Canada once had a reputation—probably for about ten years—it seemed that every Canadian play had some sort of child abuse in it. And there were really great playwrights, like Judith Thompson and others, who were involved in making that a popular topic. But I think there are other things to write about. I think it's hard to figure out—that's what I meant about a focus on "condition" sounding pretentious, but I don't know how else to describe what interests me about how we live. To deal with social, moral, political issues of the day, whatever they might be, in ways that can be very moving to an audience and elicit real discussion. A really good example would be the Mamet play about the professor and the student—what was it called?
Tom: Thank you. Oleanna. So a lot of discussion about that topic when that came out. It was a popular one, professors were getting taken to task for it, et cetera. And Mamet was smart to make it so ambiguous as to cause a lot of discussion. It was good. But there's a different form of discussion when you take it off the topic. I don't know how else to articulate it, but I think you can find that things are more abstract. Theatre can achieve that and be very exciting. There's plenty of history for it. Certainly with Beckett. Now what's really popular—Frank Langella won best actor the other night for the Frost/Nixon play, a re-creation of those wonderful interviews that Frost did with Nixon. It's a kind of documentary theatre.
But wanting to be in a more abstract form led me to music and the visual arts. I needed it; I felt freer. That's what led Karen Matthews and I, without realizing it, to decide on these philanthropic initiatives that would be for anyone to participate in. The first one was The Acoustic Panel that we did for the new music ensemble Standing Wave. And it was the first time since Handel that the audience directly commissioned the composer without King or Pope or Canada Council or City of Vancouver.
Jenny: How was the audience able to do that?
Tom: We organized an initiative called The Acoustic Panel where we went to fifty or sixty people and said, "We're going to eliminate the middle man"—for composers have too long a line up—"and we're going to give the money to Standing Wave and they can choose their own composer." Bradshaw Pack was their first composer. It was shocking to those people who did it because for a hundred bucks they owned that piece. They're all credited.
The idea of the audience buying into a living work was huge. We made it so that anyone could participate with that hundred dollars. Only one would get the receipt, but three people could go in and they all got credited.
Jenny: It's a brilliant idea. How did you come up with this?
Tom: I said I think we should get everybody together and create a new form of philanthropy for anybody. For people who normally can't afford it. The thing that made it work was not just that people loved the music, but that musicians and composers were contributing to each other's work. And then we did this for visual art—it's called Location. A roving collective for the acquisition of visual art for permanent collections. We got fifty cheques together, many artists going threes on one cheque—thirty-three bucks apiece—and we bought Antonia Hirsch's video installation "String Theory" for the VAG, the one that goes in the floor. It was a huge hit. We're onto our third now.
Andrew: So that type of revisionary aspect to your work, this philanthropic element, reminds me of how I imagine radical arts in the '70s here in Vancouver, even with the artist-run centres. These attempts to cut out the market sentiment or to narrow its influence in order preserve a more populist, community oriented approach to the arts in Canada.
Tom: Right. And this led to CABINET. For years I'd wanted to do interdisciplin¬ary work. Things evolved into this foursome, Marie Lopes, Karen Love, David Pay and me—and we began by putting together visual art and music, and we produced Projections in the 07 PuSh Festival. And then we were involved in the video commission of Stan Douglas's adaptation of Lulu. Another opera.
But serious song literature or experimental song literature—it wasn't happening in the country. It was happening for composers, but it wasn't happening for writers. The form was in a fallow period; there was almost none of it in town. So Karen Matthews, David Pay, and I decided to create song room. When we bought this house—how tempting to allow the house to become a venue, take this whole business of collaboration and living within it and take it into another world. Originally song room was going to be like a song festival, but actually we invited writers first. We wanted to introduce writers to composers, but it had to be a living writer, it had to be a true collaboration, and it had to be new. That was very exciting for us. By January 2008 we will have produced seven song room concerts and we'll have over a hundred and forty musicians and writers and composers on top of that.
Andrew: One of the things I found really surprising about the project was that you stipulated from the very beginning that you didn't want it to be promoted. You didn't want it to take off—to have any sort of commercial prospects.
Tom: No. To protect the work.
Andrew: That I find—from my experience, that was one of the first times I saw that attitude being taken. Even the most avant-garde or experimental writers usually have some eye on promotion—How is this actually going to improve my name, my career? There's a sense of professionalism. But that's what I found completely shocking about your project.
Jenny: You said you wanted "to protect the work"?
Tom: Yes. So it would not be judged—there would be no reviews. It'd just be people who were here and saw it. And out of those collaborations now have actually formed professional relationships, like Maclntyre and Blaser for instance, and other people have met each other and it's worked out. And it did what I wanted it to do. It lifted the value of language in composers' ears, and that was really important.
Andrew: Have the experiments taught you anything specifically new about writing and music? This is obviously a lifetime quest as far as your work is concerned...
Tom: The biggest surprise for me was that the work had a more improvisatory nature to it. Music I can accept because I've seen so much improvisation in music, but where the language came in—there was a lot of looseness and space to improvise. I didn't realize how that would work and some of it was really successful.
Jenny: Maybe you could also talk about the project you initiated at Cap College?
Tom: Andrew Klobucar approached me about the TCR Writer-in-Residence pro¬gram ... and I told him that if all of you could choose six students, three women and three men, to write a five-minute play each, that they would have to be willing to go the route in a very intense period. So we ended up with six wonderful writers who all wrote very heavy-going plays, from early pregnancy, ostracization, violence, drug addiction—God! Someone actually did put a poem in the play—at the end of hers, while she was in jail, she read her lover's poem—but it's important to know that you can pull that off within a play, within a five-minute form, that you'd be able to do that. So it was great. I really enjoyed it. In many ways it began with Andrew and I talking about "What do these students want out of their lives when they come here?" So they want X, Y and Z, but why aren't they interested in this, and what's going on with them? Everyone I know has the same conversation. So we let the challenge of the topic be what was going on in their lives. What were the concerns they had in their culture or their community or their family? And I think that's what released the authenticity of the six five-minute plays.
Jenny: Can we talk about this project at Cap in the context of other projects that you've initiated?
Tom: Well it's been the same thing as any collaborative project bringing good writers and theatre people together. And those Theatre students training—those actors and directors—got to meet writers. Theatre students don't often get to meet playwrights. That's very unusual.
Jenny: Right, and this allowed them to witness the process from the start. Typically students would come in part way through the process, with the play printed and ready to go. But I think it's an extraordinary privilege to be able to go that much further back.
Tom: One of the things that I think made it really great was getting them to read the Pinter Nobel lecture. Thinking about the world they live in. I really liked it a lot that we organized it that way.
Andrew: I was quite excited for the students because they were seeing that you presented the work as a life project. And I thought. My God, Tom is trying to create a movement! and I got excited because—first of all, I wanted to join it—and I thought the students were lucky, because in a lot of my classes I describe really important moments in art and literature that begin with similar interests like this. People coming in and saying, "We've got to create something new so let's drop everything, and we have to start really working with each other, and I mean really working with each other," you know. And that's something that I think students have a very distinct distance from. I don't think they've been seeing many examples of collaboration in their own lives, social or private. Would that have seemed completely bizarre to them? Did any of them say, "I'm not into this"? I mean, the intensity of the collaboration...
Jenny: I think that partly it came out of the need to make something happen in a very short space of time. So there's a kind of urgency that I'm sure had a galvanizing effect.
Tom: It's going back to this conversation about what they wanted—what was going on in their lives—because to answer your question about the intensity and the personal aspect—it was very long before they were telling me all sorts of things about their private lives. The writers were very—"Yeah, yeah, yeah, a couple of nights in the tank," and that guy calling me up and asking, "Can I use cancer as a character?" That's so great—how do you beat that, you know? And generally everybody hung in.
Jenny: At the end of each of those performances they looked entirely comfortable with each other.
Andrew: It was definitely a really important moment for them. To one extent it shows at a structural level, and I guess at a cultural level, the difficulty of forming a company because in a sense that's what they were doing. I doubt very much that at that age and in a theatre program forming a company is really on their minds, so that must have been very brave for them too.
Tom: What I tried to teach those six writers was "OK, you're the boss. It begins with you. Without you there's zero. I don't care how talented the actors are—without you they're nothing. They'd have nothing to perform." So to get writers in collaborative models, interpretive models, to know that they can sit in the driver's seat, is crucial. So you see in a lot of theatre, even here—it's writing by group.
Jenny: Can you talk a bit about your new play?
Tom: It's called Donald and Lenore. It's set in the Tahitian Room at the Holiday Inn. Donald plays keyboards, Lenore plays drums. This is their tenth anniversary and there's no one there. So we begin with irrelevance. We begin there, on stage, alone. I was more interested in writing about the condition than about the topic. So that's taking me all the way back to Pinter. For a topic—I can turn CNN on. Show me a play that's going to compete with all the blood and guts and all the topical issues that they produce. I've found that where we are now is confusion. It's different, the elements of the confusion are different but one period that articulated its dilemmas was between World War I and II. The art that was created in that period, whether it be visual art or music or poetry, we all know what happened in that period... all the -isms, Berg, Schoenberg, Ionesco, Pirandello, Camus, Kafka, et cetera—it didn't seem to be about a topic to me. It seemed that they were writing about some kind of conditional ripple that people were experiencing and grappling with. The horrors of being sandwiched between those two wars. It was an opportunity to look at behaviour.
One of the hard things for me was moving from the poetry world, which was more of an insular world and built in through academia, to going to a much more public discipline. I found that even though I'm a gregarious person—actually that's always been a big struggle for me. I like the attention but I hate the attention, and that kind of thing. And work goes out there that you've been working on for three years and someone else is interpreting the work, not you. So you're always in other people's hands as opposed to just you and that page and the reader. But nothing can compare with the intensity of a living actor on the stage.