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Writers at War - Norman Ravvin speaks with Richard Sanger
by Norman Ravvin

Toronto-based playwright and poet Richard Sanger is in Fredericton this year, serving as the University of New Brunswick's writer-in-residence, while in Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects is mounting a $200,000 production of his new play, "Two Words for Snow". Sanger and his wife, actress Deborah Lambie, are expecting their second child any day, and around the same time Sanger will learn if "Not Spain", his play about the Balkan crisis, will win the Governor General's Award for drama.

With all this brewing, Sanger and I met on a sunny afternoon to discuss the progress of "Not Spain" from a fringe production in Toronto to Governor General's material. The play's first incarnation was a cooperative effort between Sanger and his two directors, Lambie and Naomi Campbell.

"I wrote a lot of material," Sanger tells me, "and I'd get together with the directors to organize it, to shuffle the scenes." The play follows Sophie, a western journalist visiting a Balkan hot spot reminiscent of Sarajevo, and Andrei, a Bosnian whose reticence to tell Sophie his story leads to an intriguing pas de deux, an uneasy coming together of the wealthy west and the wartorn east.

"I thought it would be too sensational to set the piece, explicitly, in Sarajevo," Sanger explains. "Everyone was doing that. The word is not even in the play."

Sanger is aware of the difficulties raised by an outsider's attempt to address such provocative material.

"I always have mixed feelings about people like Susan Sontag," he says of the American writer who made a celebrated visit to Sarajevo. "They've grown up knowing about writers who became famous because of their connection with a great cause, like the Spanish Civil War. I suppose I would want some reflection, even on the part of a writer like Sontag, on what might be her ulterior motives. In any writing about these kinds of things, some self-consciousness is required on the part of the person who is playing the white knight from abroad".

"But I'm not aiming to trash journalists," Sanger adds, thinking of Sophie, who finds herself at odds with Andrei as shells destroy the city around them.

"I come from a family of journalists. Both my parents are journalists. Three of my brothers have worked as journalists. The line between a journalist and a writer in this play is not very thick. Sophie could easily be a writer. Journalists have played a role in the sensationalization of the war. But Sophie's conscious of that. Her specialty is the human side of the story. She's not doing big stories."

I see myself in Sophie-as others might who view "Not Spain"-in her recognition of the world's passive response to acts like the destruction of the National Library in Sarajevo by Serb shells. Sophie imagines westerners "reading that newspaper that morning-they were all judging, making pronouncements, using words to label the world."

"I've become friends with a woman," Sanger tells me, "whose sister was writing a doctorate in Sarajevo. The sister went back into the library during the shelling to retrieve something and was killed by some sort of shell. But it gets worse. My friend's father wrote her a letter about her sister's death, and by the time it arrived he'd been killed."

With subject matter so removed from Canadian experience, I ask Sanger what he thinks the Governor General's jury saw in his play, which made it the kind of work they wanted to celebrate.

"I honestly have no idea," Sanger says. "I've gone from writing poetry exclusively to writing poetry and plays, and in the time we're in now, theatre is looking for a raison d'Ítre. The answer to that search might be in the language, in theatre's use of the live human voice. If theatre is now freed from telling the kind of story that TV and film do, then theatre can do something else with language that's more challenging. I was thinking on the way down here that at least one of the things I like about "Not Spain" is that it includes poetry-a ballad-and uses it as an integral part of its plot."

Sanger's new play, "Two Words for Snow", is more ambitious than "Not Spain".

"It's got seven characters," he says. "We have bigger, longer scenes with more dialogue. I'm learning about theatre as I write these things."

The background to "Two Words for Snow" is Robert Edwin Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole, but the dramatic nexus of the play includes Peary's black assistant, Matthew Henson, who learns to speak Inuit, an Inuit woman, who speaks no English, and the celebrated German-Jewish anthropologist, Franz Boas.

As one of the four mainstage productions in Alberta Theatre Projects' PlayRites Festival, "Two Words for Snow" will receive an uncommon amount of attention for a play by a young Canadian writer.

"I've never been to PlayRites before," Sanger says, "but I've heard wonderful things about it. They do readings of plays, but they do four mainstage productions in the Martha Cohen Theatre. They invite artistic producers from all over North America, and some from Europe, who are looking for new plays while they're still considering their season for the coming year."

Looking forward, from his temporary Atlantic home, to a western opening, Richard Sanger seems poised to become one of Canada's most interesting playwrights. 

Norman Ravvin's recent books are a story collection, Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish, and a volume of essays entitled, A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory.

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