The Return Of Vern

After a stint in New York, playwright Vern Thiessen picks up his career in the city where it all started.

photography by Darren Jacknisky

photographed on location at The Local Omnivore

Vern Thiessen's plays are being staged in half a dozen countries this year, he has commissions with Canada's biggest theatre companies and he has won many awards for his scripts. But what really gets him excited these days is sending other writers off to explore Edmonton.

In his second season as artistic director of Workshop West, the Governor General's Award-winning playwright gets evangelical when he talks about his experiment in community building, This is YEG, which runs April 21 to 26.

"I wanted people to see us as a company that was responding to the unheard voices of Edmonton. I wanted us to be a playwright's theatre again and to use writers as lightning rods, shit disturbers, comedians, activists — however the individual writer wanted to plug into the community." Then Thiessen repeats his mantra and mission statement:

"My big thing is build community, build community, build community." 

The cornerstone of his community building is the This is YEG project, in which Thiessen commissioned eight local playwrights — Jason Chinn, Megan Dart, Minister Faust, Heidi Janz, Conni Massing, Nicole Moeller, Cat Walsh and Kenneth T. Williams — to embed themselves in different parts of the city and search for stories. The locales include a funeral home, a comic shop, the Edmonton Valley Zoo, the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital and city councillor Ben Henderson’s office. 

For five nights, Thiessen plans to bring the people from these worlds together to see themselves, each other and “the entire tapestry of the city as these eight writers see it.”

Although he was born and raised in Winnipeg, the 52-year-old writer’s theatre career was born in Edmonton. After moving to the city in 1990 to earn his master of fine arts degree in playwriting at the University of Alberta, Thiessen served as a grants officer for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and worked as a dramaturge for the Citadel Theatre and Workshop West. He also had four plays premiere at the Citadel Theatre — most of which have now been produced around the world.

His recent hits include adaptations of a pair of novels. Thiessen took on W. Somerset Maugham’s classic, Of Human Bondage, for Toronto’s hottest company, Soulpepper. 

Soulpepper founding artistic director Albert Schultz, who directed the show, said: “Vern has an unerring ability to find the theatre in a narrative.” The play won the 2014 Dora Mavor Moore awards for Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play.

Terry Fallis, who wrote the Leacock Award-winning comic novel The Best Laid Plans — which Thiessen adapted into a musical — echoes Schultz’s praise. “I was a little in awe of Vern,” says Fallis. “I found him to be thoughtful, warm and affable. I loved his vision for the adaptation.” So did the jury at Vancouver’s Ovation Awards for musical theatre, which named the show 2015’s Outstanding Professional Production.

In 2007, Thiessen left Edmonton for New York and, despite several off-Broadway productions of his work, he and his wife, best-selling novelist Susie Moloney, wanted to return to Canada. They were looking at Toronto, where Thiessen was working with Soulpepper. That’s when Thiessen heard about the opening at Workshop West. “This job just popped up out of nowhere. It happened like that,” says Thiessen, punctuating the line with a snap of his fingers. This wasn’t just a chance to come home to Edmonton, but home to Workshop West. “It’s where I got my start as a playwright and as a dramaturge right out of my MFA,” says Thiessen. Once he got the job, though, he faced his first challenge: “Convincing my wife to move to Edmonton.”

After clearing that hurdle and returning home, Thiessen was struck by how much Edmonton had changed in the seven years he’d been away, and he wanted his theatre to reflect that. “Not only is it different architecturally, but the whole vibe of the city is completely different. There’s a 30 per cent increase in visible minorities in the city in the last 10 years.

And I kept asking myself, ‘How could the theatre better serve the citizens of this city?’”

Thiessen also wanted to make sure he was carving out fresh territory in a place with a thriving theatre scene. It’s not New York, but, for a theatre lover, YEG is one of the best places to be. “Edmonton is a theatre mecca,” says Thiessen. 

One local playwright Thiessen has no plans to produce at Workshop West, though, is Vern Thiessen. “Even though the city is a very diverse city, the theatre here is still super-white. Here I am, a big old white guy of privilege — I mean, you can’t get more white older man of privilege than me,” says Thiessen with a laugh. “You won’t see a play of mine anytime soon at Workshop West.” 

Other local theatres are planning to give the old white guy a shot. In the meantime, though, Thiessen has a community to build.


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