By Barbara Ford
As I entered Kent Stetson’s study I felt as if I was stepping onto hallowed ground. This is where the Governor General Award-winning playwright, appointed to the Order of Canada, sits down at a monster of a desk to create some of Canada’s best theatre, bridging several genres and decades and working with some of the most notable names in the industry. As one fascinating story after another unravelled in that cozy room, I was enthralled by the richness of his life, his unbridled curiosity and expansive knowledge of Canada’s diverse people and history. Sipping Earl Grey tea and munching on the muffins he had run out to buy at the last minute, it was abundantly clear that between the research I’d collected to prepare for the interview and the material that was surfacing in the course of our exchange, squishing it all into one measly article was going to be a challenge, but I was up for it.
Here follows the account of the prolific PEI baby-boomer who grew up in a home without electricity (until he was thirteen) on one hundred and forty acres of farmland, sharing cow-milking and other assorted chores with his three siblings and attending a one-room schoolhouse.
Once Stetson graduated, with a B.A. in Literature, with honours, from the Prince of Wales College, he embarked on the “de rigeur” hippie tour of Europe where he came upon Lunchtime Theatre in Edinburgh. As soon as he returned to PEI, he started his own in Charlottetown but was abruptly scouted for the director’s program by CBC/BBC while John Hirsch (Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival) was the head of the drama division. Almost as quickly as he had got into theatre, he was propelled out of it and plunked into television where he made a decent living directing short dramas until early one morning in October, without warning, he sat down to write. Several hours later, lost in time, he had seven pages of his first play, Warm Wind in China, the first Canadian play to address the AIDS issue at its peak in the mid-eighties.
It was a chance meeting during a weekly bowling game with friends that focussed Stetson’s reactions to the AIDS crisis in Canada. Stetson recognised one of the teammates, Graham Ellis, as a former swimming student from his teenage days. Not six months after reconnecting with him, Graham passed away from AIDS and his parents tried to toss the grieving boyfriend from the house their son had shared with him.
Kent had a lot of feelings to express about the AIDS epidemic. “Theatre is the best vehicle. It has the power and the depth that you need. Film sometimes and TV more nowadays, but there’s nothing like theatre to touch people profoundly.”
He shopped the seven pages around to various artistic directors. Michael Springate was the Centaur’s writer-in-residence at the time and showed great interest in the script. By the time Michael got back to Stetson, he had left Centaur to head up Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal (PWM). Warm Wind in China was workshopped through PWM, with Michael as dramaturg, and was first performed in Halifax three years later, directed by Eric Steiner, with whom Stetson had a rare artistic affinity until Steiner passed away, also from AIDS, in the early 1990’s.
“It’s a very political play, yet very sentimental and touching at the same time … cathartic for the audience and isn’t that what Aristotle says? It’s not about putting something spectacular on stage, but to use the stage to create a catharsis in every member of the audience … change their lives, their world.”
Kent wrote two more plays between 1988 and 1992: Queen of the Cadillac and Sweet Magdalena, which completed his Survivor Cycle trilogy and were both set in Montreal. How is it, then, that I have never seen a Stetson play? Ironically, even though Stetson came to Montreal to pursue his career as a playwright and has lived here ever since, his plays have never been performed in English in Montreal. Though genuinely stumped by that mystery himself, Stetson does nurture a pet theory, steeped in history, about why the Francophone community, both here and in Europe, responds to his work. “The alliance between the French and the Scots,” (Kent’s background is highland Scottish), “rests on more than just their common hatred of the English. There’s an ancient Celtic overlap there … and the history of Canada is so dependent on the evolution of the Scottish and French sensibilities.”
Though neglected by Montreal Anglo stages, Stetson is enthusiastic about his love of the city, its close-knit and vibrant artistic community and all it has done for his career. “PWM played a huge role in my writing and I love the generosity of Montreal artists. Just recently I mentioned at a dinner party that I was working on a play that I felt was pretty good but I wasn’t sure. Immediately fellow playwright, Arthur Holden, piped up that he’d get some actors together at his house, order Chinese food and they’d read the play. How fantastic is that?” Stetson beams. “I feel more comfortable here than anywhere else in the country. There’s a broader ethical and moral code here, a more inclusive, intelligent base of inquiry and exploration. And the low rents … I couldn’t have made a living as a writer without Montreal’s subsidy. I love the French culture: the food, the sensibility … it’s sublime. There’s a wonderful openness towards the arts here. If you say to someone that you’re a writer there’s an immediate recognition whereas if you said that in any other province, they’d ask if you can really make a living at it!”
Truth be told, writing is a meagre existence but the bills must be paid so to subsidize his writing career Stetson also directs. His last gig was for his own creation, Horse High, Bull Strong, Pig Tight, a one-man show of fourteen characters about a PEI farmer that was first performed in PEI, then Saskatchewan and eventually went to Rouen, France (Théàtre éphéméride) where they “totally got the PEI farmer” he recounts gleefully.
He is also an essayist, script analyst and editor, dramaturg, and occasionally works on audio-visual projects such as the scenario for the opening spectacle of the 2006 International Conference on Climate Change in Montreal and the screenplay for the multimedia show at the new Mi’kmaq Cultural Centre in Metepenagiag, Red Bank, New Brunswick.
It was Denis Salter who first recommended that Stetson step into the teaching ring to share his writing skills and since the early 90’s, Stetson has taught at McGill University, the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS), The Atlantic Film Makers Co-op and currently teaches fourth year creative writing students at Concordia University. “I’m like the mama out on a limb with sixteen hungry birds waiting for me to regurgitate everything I know; they give me a run for my money!” Stetson also offers an intensive workshop, via Skype, for small groups of four to six writers from beginners to veterans.
Character is at the core of Stetson’s writing and is central when teaching his craft. “You want to entertain”, he explains, “but then elevate and illuminate. Character is the natural vehicle and everything else follows … story, the devising of the plot, etc.” On his web site Stetson expands on E. M. Forster’s advice to “only connect.” Stetson states that the writer’s job is to “… connect the major characters in your work to each other and to every member of your audience. Connect the images, symbols and urges of the collective unconscious to the living, spoken word. Connect the word to the action on the stage. Connect the central theme of your work of dramatic fiction to its dramatic action; in the process, create theatrical metaphor.
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars. – Aristotle
“It usually takes about six or seven drafts to make a play audience worthy,” says Stetson, representing between two and three years of work and ideally involving readings as part of the process. Scriptwriting takes place between 7 AM and 1 PM and prose between 10 AM and 2 PM. The reason for the difference in time slots? “Plays are so much more immediate than prose. I can jump right into them first thing in the morning but for fiction, I need to get a good breakfast and read my Globe and Mail before I’m really ready to sit down to that.”
Like many artists, Stetson has his share of self-doubt but, he says,” you learn how to temper them; they’re just part of the daily fare. They’re no less debilitating or painful, but you learn over time how to build a fence against them. I know, it sounds like a war but it is a bit like a war … it’s sheer determination.”
Siting the old adage that great art is five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent hard work, Stetson sticks to the methodology of his craft, just as he teaches it. “Inspiration for a script can come from something as simple and basic as an image,” says Stetson, who prefers to let an idea nag at him rather than run to jot it down. “If I forget an idea, then it wasn’t worth pursuing. You never know what is going to pan out so you do your best to juggle various projects. It’s all smoke and mirrors until it happens.”
I sense that over the years, Stetson had developed a keen awareness and respect for his artistic instinct and intuition, trusting in the process and following it, not unlike a spiritual path, wherever it leads with no guarantee that his quest will reap reward. Each project is “a huge leap of faith really … you don’t know where it’s going, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, but the doing is enormously fulfilling.” His singular devotion has a mystical quality to it, serendipitously presenting the right people at the right time.
One of Stetson’s greatest writing accomplishments, Harps of God, an epic play for twenty men about the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914, is a case in point. Donna Butt, Artistic Director of the Rising Tide Theatre in Newfoundland, was looking for an original work that reflected both the rich history of the region and its strong, proud inhabitants. Stetson’s suggestion struck the right note. With support from Rising Tide, the NAC, The Canadian Stage Company, the NTS, the NFB, a Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec grant and the dramaturgical guidance of several artists, the play went on to win the Governor General Literary Award. Gaetan Charlebois of Hour Magazine wrote, “Though not all of the plays that have won the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama have been magnificent ... this year's GG winner truly deserves the accolade; it is a terrific read, and theatrically its ambitions are breathtaking.” Further praise from The Gazette’s Matt Radz: “…the one thing that all Canadians need to know about Kent Stetson is . . . he's the author of The Harps of God, probably the best single play written about this country."
Stetson’s generosity and wisdom permeate all aspects of his creative life. He is a font of encouragement to his fellow artists, attending as much theatre and as many readings as his schedule allows, urging them to stay true to their own voices and stories.
Steadfast in his own unique Canadian voice, Stetson has several pokers in the fire at the moment himself. One is Caledonia, a mammoth musical sporting a 26-piece orchestra and thirty actors, give or take, with book and lyrics by him and music by Alasdair MacLean, a widely versed composer whose own career began as a rock musician and subsequently took him to study composition at Julliard, the Fontainebleau near Paris, and the Universities of McGill and Toronto. The story spans the life of Stetson’s grandfather, Dan John Dan MacKinnon, chronicling the transfer of culture from his own highland roots (growing up in a small community speaking Gaelic unilingually until his mid-teens) to Mordred, his pumped-up, punked-out granddaughter, with music and dance mirroring the journey. Highland Scot Anne Allan, who at one time gave Princess Di private dance lessons, will be directing and choreographing the piece slated for Confederation Centre.
Another ongoing project is Excess, a play for five actors, which he hopes to have ready in time to commemorate the centenary of the War of 1812, which deals with contemporary relations between Canada, the US and Cuba. Stetson began writing it before 9/11 but put it away for a while when the world changed forever that day. Recently he’s picked it up again and is about to start his fifth rewrite after the afore-mentioned reading the play received at Arthur Holden’s home.
He’s got yet another idea kicking around in his head about a ship that gets stuck in the St. Lawrence Seaway shortly after it opens, but he’s letting that one simmer on the back burner for a while.
Most recently, Stetson ventured into the world of prose launching his first book, The World Above the Sky, at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival last spring, based on his play New Arcadia and volume one in a trilogy. With no experience in novel-writing, he told his agent that it would probably take him two years to write the first instalment but he was off by an additional two years. Stetson figures that at this rate he’ll be seventy by the time he’s done!
“Here’s how I characterize the difference between writing a play and a novel. A play is the tip of the iceberg but in a novel you write the tip of the iceberg, you write the iceberg, you write the ocean that it’s floating in, you write the fish that are swimming by, what the fish are thinking, the iceberg going past the town and going into the town ...”
Well … that’s my tip-of-the-iceberg account of the exceptional life, so far, of Kent Stetson, C. M.
For those interested in taking Kent’s writing workshop, he has one starting up January 15th, 2011. For writers, budding and otherwise, I can’t think of a better way to start the year. You can learn more about it at here.
Happy Holidays, Kent. May your roast goose be cooked to perfection as you celebrate Christmas on the farm where it all began and may the matriarchal head of the family let those one-liners rip in her characteristic style: stand-up comedy, only lying down!