TJ is probably the hardest working man in Vancouver independent theatre, and undoubtedly one of its most talented. His one-man shows are consistently sold out at the Fringe, both here and internationally. An acclaimed performer, writer, and director (One Man Star Wars Trilogy, among others), he was given the Jessie Richardson award for Best New Play or Musical in 1998, which is just one of his many theatre and comedy related awards. He shows no sign of slowing down.
1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
2.) In any amount of words, describe the present condition of Vancouver theatre.
Small. Underfunded. Struggling. Gutted by the everpresent need to stay available for an audition for a mustard commercial. Gasping for an audience. With the notable exceptions of the PUSH festival and the Fringe. So there’s hope…
3.) How does the health of the independent theatre here compare to other cities across Canada?
A little feeble. But everyone says that, across the country. I’ve never heard a theatre person in Canada (independent or otherwise) say “the scene here is thriving! There’s work and funding and audience enough for everyone! And there are so many excellent plays being put on!” Canada’s generally not a nation where people go to plays. Why is it so absurd to imagine two roommates sitting on the couch after a hard day’s work, saying: “Man, I’m exhausted.” “Me too.” “I need to blow off some steam.” “Yeah.” “I know! Let’s go to the THEATRE!!”? Answer: because so much theatre is irrelevant. Or dull. Or both. Theatre’s doing fine in francophone Quebec, though. They have their own hugely well known actors. And directors. And writers. And comedians. And people actually go see them. Regular, normal people. They genuinely want to, and look forward to it. They have their own popular TV shows and movies, too. So it’s possible! It’s happening within our own country!
4.) What effect do you see the Fringe having on indie theatre throughout the rest of the year?
Not much. How many fringe shows get remounted? How many companies that produce a fringe show do anything the rest of the year? The fringe lets you do it cheap and easy. And brings in an audience. Proving there is an audience. And there are people capable of doing good work. Why can’t we do that the rest of the year? Hard to get funding. Hard to find spaces. Hard to bring in an audience. And why aren’t people from the bigger theatres recruiting people from the better fringe shows? Are they? Maybe they are. The Back Kitchen Release Party made the Arts Club mainstage season. Lazy Susan had a remount in the Here Be Monsters festival. The Drowsy Chaperone is still running on Broadway. The One Man Star Wars Trilogy is still touring the world. It can happen. But I rarely hear whispers of there being artistic directors and agents and producers going to see fringe shows. There are pretty sharp lines dividing levels of the theatre world’s hierarchy. Maybe that’ll get better. How? Same answer as the answer to the next question.
5.) What does indie theatre here need to be doing to popularize itself with Vancouverites?
Knock people’s socks off. Produce work so powerful, so good, that people can’t help but grab their friends by the lapels and demand they go see it. I’m still naive and idealistic enough to believe talent and quality can break through the thickest walls.
6.) Can you quantify your approach to playwriting?
I try to be interesting. Do something that hasn’t been done. Something that would keep me engaged if I were just some guy walking in off the street. Something you don’t have to be a theatre insider to get. Keep it simple. Tell the truth.
To answer the question from another direction, I harvest thoughts and conversations. I find regular experience and the things that naturally come out of people’s mouths much more interesting than guns, vampires and political conspiracies.
7.) More gifted comedy writers and actors are produced by Canada than any other nation. Why is that?
We’re a nation of outsiders. We grow up in the shadow of the most influential culture in the history of human civilization up to this point. We’re raised on American movies and TV, showing us aspects of life that often don’t apply to us, advertising products we often can’t buy, wowing us with contests we often can’t enter. We’re wooed with a dream that doesn’t necessarily apply to us. Makes us outsiders. Artists are outsiders. Comedians are outsiders. Comedians in the states very often come from minorities for the same reason.
8.) Any pearls of wisdom for someone trying to make a living through stage work?
Be in it for the long haul. Do what you can on your own, without waiting for someone to let you work. Find like-minded people. Put up some kind of regular gig. Get in front of audiences, even small ones, as often as possible. Explore your ideas. Come up with your own stuff. Do something unique. Self-produce. Tour the fringe. The more you do the better you’ll get. The more you see the more you’ll learn. Examine why you’re in this in the first place. Is it to make money or to create art? If you had to choose between the two, which would you take?
9.) Given a time-traveling DeLorean, what would you tell a young TJ Dawe just setting out on his career?
Find artists whose work means something to you – writers, directors, actors, musicians, composers, painters. Then get your hands on everything they ever did. Even the bad stuff. Look for patterns. Get a sense of how their brains worked. Read biographies of them. Look for interviews online. Find out who their influences are. Do the same with them. Keep this up for the rest of your life.
10.) Besides The Power of Ignorance, what are your top 3 reads for the aspiring theatreist?
Anything that inspires you as an artist. And that’s a highly personal thing. Three books that have inspired me are The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, John Barleycorn by Jack London and The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Another huge one: The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Riso and Hudson. It’s about personality types. Brilliant. Changed the way I look at life.
11.) What’s next?
My new solo show is called Totem Figures – it’s about personal mythology – which faces, which stories, which ideas, which physical details would be on your own personal Mt. Rushmore, your own Sgt Pepper’s album cover (or in this case, mine). I’m touring the fringe circuit with that, Orlando to Vancouver. I’m also involved with four other touring fringe shows. It’s gonna be a motherfucker summer. And I’m trying to write something full-length, with an actual cast. Busy days.
Dishpig, a Pick of the Fringe play from last year that was co-written and directed by TJ, is running at the Havana until January 19. See the Listings section for more details.