PuSh Play Episode 2: “The Runner” Transcript

Listen to the podcast episode here.

Gabrielle [00:00:01] Hello and welcome to Push Play, a Push Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form. I’m Gabrielle Martin, PuSh’s Director of Programming. And today’s episode highlights the theatrical treatment of the extremes of the human condition. I’m speaking with Christopher Morris about his work, The Runner, which is being presented at PuSh Festival January 24th-26th 2024. The Runner takes us on a journey of self-evaluation, questioning the merit of actions, the nature of humans and the value of kindness in a divisive world. Christopher is an actor, playwright and director and the artistic director of the Toronto based theatre company Human Cargo. I am excited for you to hear a discussion that highlights his practice and extensive research. Here’s my conversation with Christopher, who is joining me from Tiohtià:ke or Montreal, unceded Indigenous territory and a gathering place for many indigenous nations cared for by the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, custodians of the lands and waters. I’m going to dive right into these questions because I’m very much curious to hear what you have to say about your work, your practice and The Runner. My first question to you is, you know, you create theatre that explores the extremes of the human condition. And what do you find to be key in the treatment of experiences that are potentially traumatic? So how do you avoid sensationalism or exploitation of these extreme situations?

Christopher [00:01:30] I think the first thing and it’s this is always a a tricky thing to navigate. I feel like a lot of my work goes out into corners of the world or communities that I’m not a part of. It’s not what I’ve been brought up in. So I always find it’s an interesting balance to trust the impulses that I have. The initial impulse for an idea for a project. One path could be: I doubt all the impulses because they’re wrong or I don’t belong to even consider a thought like that or an impulse like that. But on the other hand, you can’t just have freewheeling impulses and do whatever you want. So I feel that the first step is that I do my best to trust just as a pure artistic person. Trust what interests me artistically about something or the, the potential of what an artistic impulse would bring. I trust that if something excites me, I feel it, it’s an interesting thing to pursue. And then I feel like the next step is to constantly from the very beginning and throughout all of the process, very harshly examine and skewer, tear apart, look under every rock; why I had that kind of impulse, why I’m moving towards something. Because obviously, I’ve been brought up a certain way, just naturally the way I’ve been brought up in Markham, Ontario, going to Queen’s University and living in Toronto and being a white man. That that I cannot deny what that is and it can have potentially negative influences in the way I go about the world that I’m completely unaware of. And I’m aware that that can colour impulses like this. So it’s these incremental steps of like trusting it and then to thoroughly examine why I want to explore something like that, why and to find the potential negative things and maybe and why I want to explore something, the biases I have or and also to I think I think like this all the way through. From the second I get an idea for something till after we’ve premiered it and we’re about to bring it to the PuSh festival. It’s a constant examination and evaluation of why we’re doing this, what the point of this is. And equally, I always approach these projects thinking that at any moment we can kill it. We’re not bound to do it or to complete it. It is a long, ongoing pursuit and we may hit times where we feel that we’ve arrived at a place or gone down a path that it’s not right or, you know, artistically, but also ethically or morally or… And I always have that in the back of the mind that we can kill it. And that kind of enables me to, without pressure, go through it properly and and always be aware. So those are kind of like the ethical overalll things that that I think about as I’m working through when it gets to content. I want to do plays that are about human beings and about human relations and how complicated it is to be a human and how to live in the world. I kind of I’m not really interested in theatre that’s intellectual debating and that it’s more of a visceral, emotional, living experience that that’s kind of where where my my taste in theatre is. I love it. I love that. So with that in mind. When we arrive at, let’s say, a play like The Runner. It’s set in Israel. It’s about a group of religious volunteers that collect the remains of Jews who are killed, who meet an early death, be it killed or a car accident or however it happens. And they collect the remains to give them to the family for burial. So. What, what is always interesting on stage to me in theatre is and what influenced the research I did on it when I was talking to guys who did this work and like is what I would ask them, “when is it difficult for you” or “when is there when is there a contradiction for you in your work? Like, where’s the problem for you to do this work? What’s the problem? What’s the problem?” And that that’s what I was always interested in. And then it becomes about a human problem, a singular solo, one person dilemma that, that belongs to them and who they are. And if if that’s it, if another person was put into that situation, they would have a different approach to it. It may not be a dilemma. So it’s very specific singular dilemmas that, that people have where where it’s a dilemma, a human dilemma. And that to me is where I find interesting writing. When I’m writing a character, it’s these dilemmas that are that are great material for drama, live, live drama. And when it gets that singular, it it helps to push aside any sensationalist tendencies that one would put on stage because it doesn’t actually serve the human singular dilemma. It’s, it doesn’t help. Because I always remember to where I would I, you know, talk to these men. They’d tell me these extraordinary stories, like unbelievable crazy situations that they found themselves in, like out of this world. And I’d I’d hear it, but I’d go that that might be good for 8 minutes on stage. But then what? Like it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t serve their human dilemma. Not unless the extraordinary story they were talking about was about the situation that caused them the problem. Then it’s worth it. Then, then it to me it deserves real estate in my play. Otherwise, it’s just an interesting story. It’s nonsense. It’s just… it’s it’s phenomenal, but it can’t be used. There’s no use to it. That that helps to kind of keep,m keep it from things being sensationalised because it doesn’t it doesn’t serve. It doesn’t serve. But even then, if you get a singular story that that is serving the dilemma of the character and, and it is solely their perspective and their their context. And I feel for me as a writer, I need to step back and understand what it means to present that context and really think about who am I presenting this, this world view, their singular worldview to and why and how and what am I putting around it, and am I am I satisfied personally with hearing their solo singular view? Is is that good enough for what actually, I want to also say about the situation that they’re in, and I find a lot of the times it’s not, it’s not enough for me because I’m kind of in the middle going, “I don’t want my play to be a vehicle for solely to serve their singular worldview.” That’s, that’s not what I’m… I’m not writing it for them. But I always take what is what I hear, what is being written and I make sure that I present it clearly, honestly, with as much dignity and compassion as possible. But also, I feel it’s important for me as a writer and a human being to bring my point of view and feelings to the table. And then again, it gets to that point where it’s like, “well, who are you to to be able to be putting your point of view forward? Why should your point of view be putting forward?” And it’s a constant, it’s a constant battle and debate. And when things arrive at the point when it’s going to be getting a state, a rehearsal ready draft of a script, where you are actually going to be like really doing this, throughout all the process of creating, but even then, even especially then, I always make sure I have people that who are related to the project, who are outside of the artistic work, who are from the community or other views that I always share the work with to go “ehh… what do you think? Is this…” Like I identify problems that I think could be problematic or I’m uncertain about, and I always get other other views in it. Because equally as an artist, when you’re kind of pushing down, you’re going down that path to push towards opening, you can just say, okay, enough, I just want to like finish the script and let’s go. And that that’s also a dangerous period where you just have to always step back, get different views, you know, And it’s important who the who they are, who those people are. But yeah, it’s a constant. It’s a constant, I don’t know, awareness and process and unearthing and examination over time.

Gabrielle [00:12:18] Clearly you’ve thought about this. Clearly, you’re a professional of many years thinking about this. And I’m hearing that there’s a real criticality, you know, within your own process thinking about that, even though you’re a writer, you’re also a dramaturg and thinking about how this work will land and ties into a question I was going to ask in a bit, which is about the role that your theatre, theatre serves in society. But I’m also hearing the necessity of having complex and specific dilemmas, and I want to know a bit more about the research because I know that writing The Runner involved years of in- depth research with Z.A.K.A members in Israel over several years. How did the concept evolve over time and as a result, when you went in with an idea about what this, what The Runner would be and what we’re going to see at PuSh, is there a big difference or has it…? Yeah, can you talk about that?

Christopher [00:13:23] Originally I first heard about Z.A.K.A when I was in high school. I heard a news report on CBC about these guys picking up body parts after a bombing in Jerusalem. And it was just so extraordinary. And I thought, “wow”, it always stuck with me. And I thought as I got older, I thought, “wow, I wonder if this would be a play or…” But then it seems so obscure. What is the play? What the hell would a play be about this? Like it? So when I initially said, okay, I’m going to I’m going to go for this, I’m going to do this, I had an initial concept of, okay, there would be some kind of event that occurs, negative event maybe. And I thought, I’ll go to Israel, I’ll meet people, maybe something will occur while I’m there because I went for like five weeks or six weeks. And if that’s the case, and I’m already connected with the Z.A.K.A volunteers, I could maybe explore the event that occurs and research and tell the story of how everyone got to that moment and their back stories and kind of bring it to this moment and see what brought them all together at that moment. That was my initial kind of instinct from that from my first trip, it became very clear that it was a very strange pursuit because A.) It’s insulting to think that, I’m going to go there and think something bad is going to happen. That’s that’s not cool to think that about. It’s just not cool. It’s not cool. And then also the circumstances in which I thought I would find myself in a situation, I just I found it just a very odd frame of thinking for this, which rapidly went away the second I was there, because the situation was much different, and I realised that it’s just it’s not, it’s not good. But what it did do was it got me there and it made me go. And then I was able to quickly let go of it, which was amazing. But what I found though is there were like threads that that continued throughout that that influenced the writing. So part of me thought I don’t just want to focus on the Israeli perspective. I thought it would be interesting to see what life is like in the occupied territories. I thought it’d be good to kind of see what that is all about. So I went in being very open to everything and just wanting to understand and let it all just come in and then to let it see where it will go. So over a bunch of time, a few years and after a few visits that the the premise for the, the play there was going to be a bunch of characters in it. There was you know, it was all it was going to be in reality, like in a very real realistic state. And I had written drafts like that, and they all felt horrible. Like they they just they weren’t good. They weren’t it wasn’t good writing. So I went back because I always had an instinct that it would be highly theatrical in some way. Sometimes I think very visually when when I get inspirations to write, like I think I imagine there’s all these… if something exploded and it’s all hanging in the air around someone and he’s in it and it’s all suspended or something. So my mind kept going to that

kind of an impulse. And I thought, well, a single person and a theatrical expression of it. And I brought Daniel Brooks or asked and he agreed to work on the on the piece years ago. And he was with me working on it for about four years or so until we opened. And he, I brought him to Israel at one point about a year before we premiered it, just to kind of be there with him and get into the world with him and share the worlds that I was getting into with him. And he gave me this really great advice. He always kind of knew how to, to ask this very random question that unlocks things. And I remember he said one day in Israel, “just go. Go off and write. Write ten pages of free flow of consciousness. Like, just whatever comes. It can be anything. A poem, however, comes out. There’s no judgement. Just let a free flowing kind of thing occur. Just write ten pages.” And he’s like, “it never has to go in the script or go on stage. It’s, it’s exercise.” And from that, it it created the form of what this play now this singular man in the state of existence that that that he’s trying he doesn’t know what state he’s in, what’s going on around him. And it was from that and it it kind of touched deeply into these initial instincts of of it being theatrical and in a state of of unrest that can’t be defined. And so it’s sometimes there is a weird loop where it started with these initial instincts went all the way through all these different variations and then kind of back again. But what that did as well was equally that the container for the play allowed a more rigorous discussion and pursuit of ideas that at the core of of the play that that I think and having a one person format allowed a more richer discussion of of the the dilemmas that that that were with the character. So yeah it took many trips there it took a lot of throwing things out. I’m always asking advice from different people that I know in organisations. I’m always I it’s important for me to hear views that I don’t agree with normally or I wouldn’t agree with, or it’s necessary to hear them out, to contemplate it and just examine it thoroughly. And I feel like all the trips there, the people I’m meeting and then this, this theatrical framework allowed it to kind of become… in the form that it that it’s in now.

Gabrielle [00:20:18] Your work examines what happens to us when we’re pushed toward spiritual, moral and emotional limits. Is it also infused with an underlying optimism or cynicism about humanity? Have you become more optimistic or sceptical about human nature as a result of your project’s research?

Christopher [00:20:35] The longer I live on the earth, the more it feels like there is no answer to anything. There’s, there’s no… Nothing’s defined. Nothing. Nothing’s right. Nothing’s wrong. It’s just. I think that’s a that’s… for me that that would be a pursuit of folly there. It does not exist in the world. I feel that’s where I’m arriving at more that the world is just complicated and sometimes we do really bad things and the greatest people can do bad things, and sometimes the worst people can do the best things. And. It’s just complicated. I feel that more and more, and I think there are structures that exist in the world, for example, wealthy countries, I think we’ve, we’ve developed a structure that allows us to have everything we have at the detriment and on the backs of the less wealthier countries in the world and the less… and we we thrive in that and I thrive in it. And I can be aware of it and know it’s wrong and at the same time not give up anything or just continue to exist in it. I find these things are, these types of truths and known realities are are just more aware. I’m more aware of them now and the contradictions of them. But yeah, I think there are there are structures set up that are always going to be a problem, and I don’t think they’re going to go away. But I equally believe that the pursuit to exist against them and to pursue a life against it has value. Even though it may not take down, take it down. The pursuit is meaningful. It is the pursuit that has meaning. Just two weeks ago or last week, I was in Israel again and a colleague there brought me to the protests that are happening, the anti-judicial protests. You know, 120,000 people were out that day. They’ve been protesting every week against the government’s plan to help that the government is trying to erode the democratic state that’s there. And for like I can’t remember how many weeks now I think it’s 35 weeks, they’ve been protesting in large numbers on the streets. One may look and go, well, are you going to stop the government from from doing that? Because the government is in charge. They’re going to do what they want to do. You can’t stop it. You can’t stop it. Literally. But. There’s value to the pursuit. There’s value. And maybe I don’t live there. I don’t know what the end goal will be, and nor will I say what the end the best end goal should be. I have no idea. But I recognise. That there is meaning in the in the pursuit. And maybe that is the value that that is the value is the act of the pursuit, because it builds something and it will build on it. It’ll, it’ll build. But yeah, I kind of exist in these kinds of places. More and more I’m am, but I’m not necessarily pessimistic about human human nature. I feel if I think of the bad stuff that we do as people, I just feel I’m more sobered by it. I’m not like, depressed, just more sobered. But what I get more, more enjoyment from, enjoyment is like the the the extraordinary things that people do to to pursue a better way of life. I, I feel I’m drawn more to that and I’m, I’m, I get more out of I react more to that; the the, greatness that the extraordinary things that we as humans do when we are in these situations that are really hard, I believe they can engender people to do the most extraordinary things. And it’s it’s, that’s exciting to me and it’s exciting about life.

Gabrielle [00:25:20] Yeah, I definitely appreciate what you’re talking about in terms of the complexity of these situations. What could be moral dilemmas. I think I appreciate the complexity that you explore in The Runner, and I did have this question What is the role your theatre serves in society? And what I’m hearing is it’s not necessarily didactic, it’s not demonstrating or offering a moral compass, but perhaps inspiring the pursuit of a of a more engaged, critical existence. Or…? I am looking for you to finish.

Christopher [00:25:59] Also, I would say it’s the beginning of a discussion that that that’s how it… that that’s what I like about these plays when they when, when I don’t screw them up, when when it’s… I never want to present an answer or a solution. It doesn’t mean I’m I’m I’m backing out. I’m backing away from presenting an answer. On the contrary, I don’t believe there should be… what the hell answer would I have to give. Me? That, that’s not my job. And because A) there is no answer, there is no writer, I can’t give an answer to anything. It’s impossible, no matter what. But what I can do is thoroughly, emotionally, critically, without fear and no bullshit, Examine something from a pure humanistic point of view and… lay it all out, and offer that as a… As an offer. It’s an offer for discussion. It’s,that that’s all it can be. Yeah, I’m really. Yeah.

Gabrielle [00:27:10] That’s The Runner, an offer for discussion and more. Yeah.

Christopher [00:27:18] Equally as well, I feel theatre is really beautiful and a special thing in the sense when to me, when it is theatrical. What is theatrical? Something that is above above our normal everyday existence and way of communicating. That is that, it’s lifted. It’s a heightened kind of thing. I feel theatre soars when it’s like that, when when it’s when it can only exist on stage. It could only exist on stage that a script and the way it’s directed and performed could only be on stage as theatre. To me, that’s really exciting. I want to create theatre that does that. Yeah, I think that that’s that’s what else I would, I would say with our company that we’re always trying to push to, to achieve that, that these performances exist in a heightened theatrical scenario. So we offer the audience theatre, you know, not something that would probably be better done on TV and a TV show with the dialogue and you know, we could get close and but that’s just theatre. It’s like it’s yeah, that’s, I believe strongly about doing that, that I feel like that’s my, that’s what I like. And I feel that that’s my goal as a theatre maker to do that. That’s what I offer.

Gabrielle [00:28:46] Thank you so much, Christopher. Christopher [00:28:49] You’re welcome.

Gabrielle [00:28:50] Wer’re still talking. But we have to stop. But we are, we’re really thrilled to be presenting The Runner with Touchstone Theatre and SFU Cultural Programs January 24th-26th this upcoming PuSh. I’m so thrilled. Thanks so much, Christopher.

Christopher [00:29:08] You’re very welcome. Thank you.

Gabrielle [00:29:12] PuSh Play is produced by Ben Charland and Tricia Knowles and supported by our incredible community outreach coordinator Julian Legere. New episodes with Gabrielle Martin are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, please visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media @PuShFestival.