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Flying Low into Another Tour of Duty - Jerry Wasserman speaks with John Gray
by Jerry Wasserman

I spoke with John Gray in the kitchen of his home in Vancouver's Kerrisdale last November, soon after the Playhouse opening. John is the author of a number of successful musical plays besides Billy Bishop Goes to War. Three of them-18 Wheels, Rock and Roll, and Don Messer's Jubilee-are collected in Local Boy Makes Good. He has published a novel (Dazzled) and a cultural analysis (Lost in North America), written a feature film (Kootenai Brown), and a book about tattoos. He has won a Governor General's Award, a National Magazine Award, and numerous theatre awards, and holds honorary doctorates from Mount Allison and Dalhousie Universities. He currently writes a weekly column for The Vancouver Sun.

JW: What's it like bringing Billy Bishop back again after twenty years?

JG: It's hard work. Eight shows a week! Last time we were either playing in dives or carrying the whole burden of the country on our backs. Now that pressure's off.

JW: Are audiences receiving the show differently now than they did in 1978?

JG: Definitely. War is kind of normalized now. We used to get asked if we were pro- or anti-war, predicated on the assumption of a nuclear holocaust. Now people seem to have the idea that war will probably be around as long as humans are. It's as though war is back to its normal form; people are willing to look at it as a more complex activity than they did before. They have more distance. That's good.

JW: Choosing to have the older Bishop tell his story in retrospect-how does that affect the narrative structure of the play?

JG: In the original version, Bishop spoke from a succession of platforms. For example, he talks about his first solo flight just after it happens, and before his first kill, so the narrator changes as he tells the story. In this version, he doesn't change. It's the same guy. So we had to ask, "Why would he be telling this story now?" We never knew before. Now he has to tell others to go off, so he has to remember what it actually was like. And it becomes much more about life and less about war. "Survival" means something different to a fifty-year-old than to someone who's just survived a battle.

JW: I became very aware of the presence of your piano during this production: accompanying the songs, establishing moods, providing all the sound effects...

JG: The piano is a really evocative instrument. I try to model my technique on Thelonius Monk's. He keeps the sound simple without being corny. Because the songs in this show are basically Presbyterian hymns with a bit of ragtime, and some Gershwin thrown in now that we're moving into the Forties.

JW: How do you feel about the size of the venue? Isn't the Playhouse really a little too big for this show?

JG: You've got to have a big enough theatre so you can get laughs. 300 is too few, 800 too many. You make adjustments. For example, playing Sir Hugh way upstage, Eric has to make him much bigger, with a lot more body language. We do want laughs. We want to avoid that sense of depression in the theatre when people are about to undergo art.

JW: I thought Eric was amazing: his timing, his use of silences and space...

JG: He's got a lot more chops now than he had twenty years ago. And what he's really doing with those English characters, you know, is actors he loves from Pinewood Studios: he's got Alec Guiness in there, Harry Andrews.

JW: What was the idea of that bungie harness he flies in for the aerodrome raid?

JG: For the flying contraption, we went back to Magritte. And the vulnerability of it. Those planes were just canvas. So the harness was built to look like an abstraction of a piece that somebody might have worn back then. When he gets up there it becomes a kind of H.G. Wells version of flying. The problem we had was afterwards, how to fix the noise of the winch taking it up. I figured out that the sound of the winch was in B-flat, so now I play a Suite for Piano and Winch to cover it.

JW: Why the new song in Act Two, "Who Wants to Go Back Home"?

JG: It replaced a song I never liked: "Drinking Champagne with Kings and Queens". Why did Bishop do the aerodrome raid? I wanted a song that talked about two things. One, the ante goes up the longer you're there. Two, in the letter just before this, he writes to Margaret and says maybe they should get married. For the first time he imagines that the war might end and he might actually go home-and what then? So he does crazier and crazier stuff. I remember a term my dad used to use when he was in the air force-"flying low". These guys addicted to the adrenalin smashed up their cars and just flamed out. Bishop was "flying low".

JW: Do you still believe in the theatre?

JG: I quit the theatre every few years, it seems, and I always come back. I find a bunch of people in a room looking at the same thing to be remarkable. Simple and complicated at the same time. We're not doing anything different from cavemen and it's amazing to me. And the physicality of it-everyone in the room has moved their body to be there. With TV no one has moved. With movies, the audience has moved but the actors haven't. Also, you believe a lot more in parapsychology when you do theatre. You can feel people emanating something. I don't know what it is, but I can feel it.

Two things really bother me about theatre. It's caught the film industry disease. Once you open and as soon as the reviews are out, the only news is the box office. The marketing aspect has become shameless-the lack of differentiation between theme park entertainment and theatre. The other thing of course is that you don't get enough time now to rehearse a new show. People don't separate the process from the play, so I don't want to do that.

JW: Do you think you'll ever do Billy Bishop again? A 50th Anniversary tour?

JG: (laughter) I guess we never thought we'd be doing this one. I doubt it. I don't know what we could do that would be different. The whole process was amazing though, just amazing. Marty Bragg was the first stage manager for Billy Bishop and now he's head of Canadian Stage [one of the co-producing companies]. Chris Wooten, our first producer, was suddenly available [another co-producer]. We'd like to keep it in rep. It's as good as it's going to get. We'd do it again for a theatre if we were asked. Not another tour, though. 

Jerry Wasserman is Professor of English and Theatre at the University of British Columbia, and editor of Modern Canadian Plays. For more than a decade, he has reviewed plays for CBC Radio, and as an actor he has compiled more than 200 credits in theatre, TV, and film.


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