An Interview With Brendan Pelsue, John Grace Memorial Playwright In Residence

Green College Staff

Brendan Pelsue, the John Grace Memorial Playwright in Residence, arrived at Green College in Spring 2024. His recent work includes adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities and Don Juan. In a conversation with Content Writer and Resident Member Kyla McCallum, Brendan talks about his approach to writing, translating text to stage and conveying meaning. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KM: How do you like Green College so far?

BP: It’s been really wonderful. The first night I was here was the Founders’ Dinner, so I actually sat with a bunch of people who were involved in founding Green College. It was really cool and interesting to hear about that process and the history of the place.

It’s been a really nice community; I’ve met lots of interesting people from all over the world each night at dinner. It feels like there’s a real culture of engagement and conviviality.

KM: You visited UBC almost exactly two years ago to collaboratively develop A Tale of Two Cities, your theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel that just completed its run in Atlanta. When you think back to that week, is there an experience or lesson that stands out in its contribution to the play?

BP: I remember doing staging experiments with the acting students, in which we would try different versions of a scene and different versions of transitions. This was really important for [my version of] A Tale of Two Cities especially, because it’s a massive story that’s built so the audience sees actors transform characters in front of their eyes. Time also transforms in front of their eyes, so we’re in 1787 and then we flash back to 1779, for example. With the workshop, I was able to see which transitions were clear to the audience and which were not. Do they understand now that this same actor, this same body, is a different character? Do they understand that time has shifted even though there hasn’t been a sound effect? These kinds of transitions are the most exciting if they’re the lightest that they can possibly be—if, with the most minimal gesture, the audience understands that they’re somewhere else or an actor is someone new. You can’t always do that without experimenting because it’s a very fine balance to get right.

KM: Could you give me an example of one of those transitions?

BP: So, for instance, there’s a moment in a courtroom scene when a witness being interrogated by a prosecutor is recalling something that happened in the past. Eventually the prosecutor actually becomes one of the people in that past event. In working on this transition, we realized that if the witness stays still and everyone else around them moves—becoming other people—the audience will understand that this person is still testifying in the courtroom, but the other actors are now somewhere else. The courtroom is in London, but we are in this dingy garret in Paris. The trick is, do we understand that the prosecutor, who was peppering the witness with questions, is now somebody in the flashback? We really found that this simple act of walking makes the change register with the audience. That was even without lights or sound in the workshop; we really just had a stage and chairs.

Any play lives in the imagination of each audience member as much as it lives on stage. There’s a way that theatre always asks us to fill in the blank, whether it’s something about the characters or something that’s outside the room. It was cool to see how simply we could ask people to activate that part of their imagination.

KM: What is your ideal writing environment like?

BP: I think it depends on the phase of the process. Sometimes, if you’re trying to finish something, you need to totally dive-in and stay up until 2 am. Green College is great for that because I can so deeply focus on the work, and then breakfast, dinner and even comradery is provided. When I need a break, I can go talk to somebody really interesting.

However, I would say that the most important aspect of my writing environment is the feeling that I am in conversation. While doing A Tale of Two Cities, I was in conversation with Charles Dickens. In working with my collaborator Leora Morris, who’s in the Department of Theatre and Film, I feel like I’m in conversation with her. Also, I think it can help to feel like I’m in conversation with an eventual producer or community. If I know that I’m writing something for a particular theatre, I have a destination for this piece and my writing is affected.

Sometimes it’s really hard to know what it is that can make something feel like it’s in conversation, and I think that a lot of writers would say that, but my hunch is that playwrights would say that in particular because the text is not the finished form. Playwrights finish their text and then go and make a performance with designers and actors and a director. I think the earlier that I can bring that sense of dialogue into the writing room, the better.

KM: What proportion of your work is writing, do you think? Are you deeply involved in the creation process of the actual play itself?

BP: Yeah, absolutely—especially if it’s a premiere. If that’s happening, I’m in the rehearsal room, often rewriting and restructuring and doing everything from totally changing the order to tinkering around, making sure the lines of dialogue work. I would say that it can actually be a blurry line when I’m done writing or not—in a way that is, I imagine, different from a novel or a poem.

KM: How many times do you think you’ve read A Tale of Two Cities?

BP: Cover to cover, a few times now—many times now, actually. Then, as I’m doing the adaptation, there are scenes that I’ve probably read twenty times, and lines that I’ve read over and over and over again—figuring out how they’ll gestate. Other things that were cut from the story, I made those decisions pretty early because the book is mammoth and there’s more in it than you can possibly put in a play that’s under 7 hours. So, there are some parts of it that I have not reread in a long, long time. People will sometimes ask me about a scene that I cut, and my memory of it will be hazy.

As you’re doing an adaptation, you have to let it take on its own life, momentum and logic based on the choices you make about what to include. The original has to always be present, but if it's too present and not letting the adaptation become its own thing, then that can be difficult.

KM: So it would be funny if you donated your copy to a used bookstore.

BP: Yeah, exactly. They would be like, “who is this very intermittently active reader?”

KM: When deciding what your next project will be, what elements or themes are indicative of an idea worth exploring?

BP: Sometimes it’s actually that question of conversation for me; is there a person, idea, work of art or institution with whom I can be in conversation? I also want to feel that the work contains questions that I don’t know the answer to. Writing a play takes a lot of time and thought. If I know the answer, it’s not really worth it.

KM: Do you think you’re closer to an answer once you’ve finished the piece?

BP: Sometimes, but often I feel that the questions I’m drawn to are questions that don’t have easy answers. So, one of the questions of A Tale of Two Cities is, “what do we do with the violence and injustice of history? How do we try to create justice that doesn’t replicate the injustices of the past?” There are lots of answers to those questions, and I’m not sure that writing a two and a half hour play is going to make me say, “now I know.” Or, if it did make me say that, maybe you shouldn’t trust me. I think it’s a question that I don’t know the answer to and a question that doesn’t have one answer.

Also, one of the things that I really like about drama as a form is that it can be quite open; a play can contain a lot of dissonance because you have all of these characters, and you almost never have an omniscient narrator. So, you have people fighting as hard as they can for whatever it is that their perspective is. All of those voices are just present in a room and the audience has to find their way through them. I find there’s a really nice capaciousness to drama as a form.

KM: Your podcast, We Are Not These People, is a practice in improvisation. What is your relationship with improv like, and how does the practice inform your work as a playwright?

BP: I grew up improvising. I always took little drama and theatre classes, and improv games were a big part of that. It’s so fun when you’re a kid, and I think it’s a great way to not lose your grasp on pretend. The world wants us to stop playing make-believe before we’re actually ready to stop, and so a class where you do improvisation helps you to keep that alive. And then, I think that it informs my practice in the sense that it makes me feel open to discovery. You don’t have to know everything that’s going to happen in a scene. One person can say something and you can imagine what’s next and imagine what’s next and imagine what’s next, discovering a place that you didn’t expect to go. I think the other way improv informs my practice is that it’s collaborative. My podcast is with a dear friend and collaborator of mine named Natasha Haverty, and we’re deeply in conversation when improvising. That is true of the whole theatrical process too—you’re deeply in conversation with a director, or with an actor, or with the text. That idea of conversation and dialogue that I’ve been talking about is deeply embedded in improv.

KM: You’re currently working on a play based on the Admissions and Policy Committee of the Seattle Artificial Kidney Centre, which in the 1960s chose patients for a new kind of chronic dialysis treatment based on what it believed to be their "social worth." Despite taking place many years ago, the conversations brought forward by your play will surely be relevant to the social and political landscape of today. How do you balance successfully conveying a meaning without being overly didactic?

BP: I sometimes imagine theatre like a kaleidoscope. As I’m watching it, a character is advocating for an idea, and I think “oh, this could be America in the twenty-first century.” Then, the character keeps talking, the image shifts and I think “oh, this isn’t right now. This person is really different.” For example, this person in the eighteenth century is advocating for democracy, but their idea of democracy is not my idea of democracy. This causes me to ask myself, “what is my idea of democracy?” So, things coming in and out of focus—harmonizing with the present and then being in dissonance with it—feels like one of the ways that I can get people to ask those questions.

The other thing that I always try to think about, and that a playwriting teacher of mine once said to me, is that a play is a poem in action. Often, when a play can feel didactic, it’s because it feels like the ideas are existing as the only vehicle or the only driver, as opposed to something that is embedded in every other aspect of the performance.

Brendan is staying in residence at Green College in March through mid-April, 2024.

Post by: Kyla McCallum, Green College Resident Member