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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Profile: Arthur Holden on his play Ars Poetica

Arthur Holden and his new play Ars Poetica
joel fishbane

“I can think of nothing more completely useless and utterly indispensable than a poetry magazine,” says playwright / actor Arthur Holden. “When the stakes are simultaneously high and low, people get twisted in knots.”

The remark is typical of Holden, whose wry tone often hides a clever theatrical mind. A Montreal success story, Holden is putting his pithy observations about poetry magazines to the test with Ars Poetica, his latest work which will have its world premiere at the Bain St. Michel at the end of January. The comedy pits the employees of the eponymous magazine against one another as they try to save their beloved magazine from the slaughter.

Ars Poetica is Holden’s second play and, not incidentally, his second time working with Infinitheatre and artistic director Guy Sprung.

“Putting my play in the midst of a poetry magazine gave me a certain freedom to create more impassioned and articulate characters,” Holden told me via email, although he was quick to add that this doesn’t mean the play will involve heated discussions about iambic pentameter. “You know the old line about poets,” he added. “They do it in rhyming couplets.” Much of the comedy, then, will come from what’s been happening on the magazine’s photocopier after dark.

Ars Poetica is Holden’s second play and, not incidentally, his second time working with Infinitheatre and artistic director Guy Sprung. Sprung snagged Holden early in his playwriting career and seems eager not to let go: after awarding Holden first prize in the inaugural Write-on-Q contest (for the drama Fatherland), Sprung slotted Ars Poetica into Infinite’s annual Pipeline reading series. From here, it took only a few weeks and a phone call before the show was added to the 2012 season.

“Laughter comes more freely when the characters feel real enough for us to identify with them.”

“[Guy] doesn’t fear risk,” said Holden. “He courts it. I’ve benefited greatly from being one of the playwrights on whose work he’s taken a chance.” This is certainly the raison d’être for Infini, one of the few Canadian companies devoted exclusively to premiering new work. With Sprung’s help (along with some dramaturgy from Playwrights Workshop Montreal), Holden has continued to develop Ars Poetica, working primarily to tackle that problem central to all comedies: ensuring that humour never negates the humanity.

“Laughter comes more freely when the characters feel real enough for us to identify with them,” Holden said. “Creating, refining and intensifying that identification has occupied me for the last half year.”

Holden’s new-found relationship with Infinitheatre is proving to be a canny decision by Sprung, who seems to have noticed a talent that had long gone under-exploited in the playwright’s other life as a television writer. Holden honed his skills for some short-lived television shows, such as Lucky Luke and Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings. But don’t look for any television-style writing when Ars Poetica takes to the stage. “[My writing] takes shape from the tastes I’ve developed as a theatre-goer,” Holden told me. “As a human being in a web of relationships.”

Born in Montreal, Holden has worked primarily as an actor, fluidly transversing the worlds of film, TV and stage. His transition to playwriting began with Fatherland, a taut drama exploring the contrasts between two sets of brothers: the sons of Saddam Hussein and a fictional pair in Montreal. Ars Poetica is a departure from this sort of drama, although it also brings Holden closer to his roots. “Fatherland was the departure,” he quipped. “Comedy reflects my personal style.”

Ars Poetica runs January 17 – February 12, 2012 at the Bain St. Michel in Montreal. For tickets and performance times, call 514.987.1774 ext.104 or visit

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