To understand the work of local playwright CE Gatchalian it’s important to realize that, as a child, he started off on a completely different creative path.
Gatchalian was something of a child prodigy in music, with 12 years of musical training and an eye on a career as a concert pianist, when his muse took him elsewhere. He began to write poetry and plays. “Things change,” he says matter-of-factly.
Critics, actors, directors and Gatchalian himself all acknowledge the influence of music on his writing. His latest work, Broken, a suite of five one-act plays linked by common themes of obsession, alienation, physical and emotional violence and sexual identity, is no exception.
“All of [his] plays have a musicality to them,” Broken director Sean Cummings explains, pointing to the rhythmic quality, logical flow and crispness of his dialogue. In Gatchalian’s working scripts (which the actors use in rehearsals) there are even stage directions about how loud sound effects should be, using the dynamic markings of an orchestral score. Forte for the city sounds here please, triple forte there.
A co-production of Meta.for Theatre and Broken Whisper Collective, Broken premieres this month at the Firehall Arts Centre. It consists of previously written plays entitled Motifs & Repetitions, Diamond, Star, Hands, and Ticks. The oldest, Motifs, was written in 1994, the most recent in 1999.
“I did not write the plays with the idea they would all be performed together [some day],” Gatchalian offers. It was only after taking a fresh look at the material that he decided they worked well together. He proceeded to adapt his earlier works with the input of Cummings.
Part of that adaptation involved splitting up Ticks into small bits, which were then inserted throughout the final 100-minute show, creating a sort of idée fixe analogous to the musical themes found in the work of romantic composer Hector Berlioz. Ticks also features a metronome, another bow to Gatchalian’s musical past.
Cummings, who previously directed Gatchalian’s Crossing in May 2004, finds a lot of similarities with the work he is directing now: “Both [Broken and Crossing] are sexually charged, both are very brave, both deal with repressed sexuality, specifically crossing with homosexuality. Chris certainly doesn’t shy away from tough issues.”
Broken is also about the negative fallout from people not being able to communicate well or deal with their feelings.
When you are repressed and unable to express yourself, your feelings manifest themselves in other ways, such as anger and hurting other people, Cummings says. There are lots of stony silences and screams in Broken.
The structure of Gatchalian’s play sets it apart from most mainstream drama. There is rapid-fire delivery of lines, often with the actors standing on a minimalist stage talking directly to the audience. There is language bordering on poetry, which is not as easily digested as a traditional play.
“Plays are really just poetry on your feet,” Cummings declares.
“The style goes against the realism that dominates most mainstream theatre. This show is definitely not in that vein,” Gatchalian says.
It’s not a particularly light-hearted piece, either.
In the past, Gatchalian has been chastised for being utterly humourless by some critics. Although he says he has “tried to put more wit” into his writing, he feels he must stay true to his vision.
In addition to Gatchalian and Cummings, two of the cast, Thrasso Petras and Nelson Wong, are also gay. All the sections of Broken, except one, have queer content, so their contributions are valuable.
Petras, who garnered critical acclaim for his work in Corpus Christi and was directed by Cummings last August in Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone, appears in several parts of Broken. He is particularly drawn to and challenged by the role he plays in Ticks, as a man who comes to believe he is doing people a favour by recklessly spreading HIV.
“The character has a lot of pathos, desperation. He’s in a very extreme situation but wanting to belong. There’s a very ordered segment [in Ticks] and a very frenzied segment and for him, it has to be one or the other, there’s no in-between.
“He deals with [HIV] by completely shutting down and becoming an almost robotic figure that has a mission,” Petras continues. “He believes that by infecting [his sex partners] he’s giving them a different perspective; it makes them better people.”
In Motifs & Repetitions, the movement training Petras did at the Toomba Physical Theatre Centre (where he now teaches) is put to good use in a segment where he and Wong do a dance exercise called polarity. In polarity, Cummings explains, one actor does a movement and the next actor reacts to that movement depending on how it makes him feel. Without worrying about the text or narrative, actors explore their relationships to each other.
“The stage is pretty sparse. It can be pretty static, so I really wanted to incorporate some sort of movement” without resorting to a clichéd musical production number, Cummings says.
Wong will be familiar to Vancouver queer audiences from his comedy work with Assaulted Fish and the Bob Loblaw Comedy Troupe. Broken will mark Wong’s first dramatic role on the live stage, his first nude scene, and his first time working with either Cummings or Gatchalian.
“There’s a lot of firsts for me in this play. It’s exciting,” Wong enthuses.
The cast is rounded out by Ntsikie Kwesa, Michael Fera and Tanja Dixon-Warren.
Next up for Gatchalian is a full-length play entitled Who Beat Rocky? which he wrote as playwright-in-residence of the Firehall Arts Centre. Firehall artistic director Donna Spencer is pouring over the script now and will make a decision on production in the near future.
As he moves forward, Gatchalian will take inspiration from a legend in the music world, the late tenor saxophone great Lester Young. Young, after influencing scores of jazz players in the ’30s and ’40s, continued to grow and was in turn inspired by his disciples as he aged.
“I don’t ever want to start imitating myself. I always want to push to do something new,” Gatchalian concludes.