Speaking Truth to Power: Talking Diversity

From Sean Devine: A couple of years ago Valerie Sing Turner sent me an email with a question of concern over my new play DAISY, which was still in its early development. I think she may have either read a draft or heard about the characters, or something to that effect. At the time, the characters were all white, and all male. And it was going to require a large cast of 7 male actors to perform it.

Valerie wrote to me asking if I’d consider making changes to my characters, in order to add some diversity. She was asking me to change the cultural / gender make-up of characters who were based on real people! DAISY is a true story set in the real world of politics and adversiting of 1964. None of the real people in my true story were non-white or non-male.

At first, I did not respond too well to Valerie Sing Turner’s request, and said as much to her. My first obligation was to be truthful to the history I was dramatizing, and the real people whose lives I was borrowing.

And then I chose to honour Valerie’s request.

I now have a play where the lead role is a female character named Louise Brown, who took the place of a real person named Stan Lee. And another pivotal character – one might even call him the antagonist – is a fictional African-American character based on a real African-American political pioneer; though the original historical figure was certainly not.

Each of these new characters has brought with him and her nuances and complexities that I would never have found otherwise. The issue of race in American during the bloody riots of the 1960s is now a focal point of the play. A strong female character – the protagonist – is driving my story on questions of ethical struggles and opportunism that have nothing to do with her gender, just as if she were a man. But of course the male characters attack her for it, which makes her struggle all the richer.

And this play – perhaps thanks to its rich nuances – is getting a big-budget world premiere at a major American theatre company at a time in history when the subject matter is being reflected right on the streets that the theatre’s doors open onto.

So I wish to extend a heartfelt thank-you to Valerie Sing Turner, and all of the other theatre pioneers who are bravely speaking truth to power when it comes to demanding that our noble art form be truly honourable, as we seek to honour the rich diversity of lives and truths that we walk among.


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History Repeats Itself: DAISY

The cyclical nature of humankind’s foibles and achievements is a common thread to much of HHG Theatre’s work. Several of our plays – shows like Re:Union, Except in the Unlikely Event of War, and works-in-progress like Glacier and It Can’t Happen Here – are set in bygone eras or previous generations. In a sense, we’re choosing to investigate our present state through a “reflective” lens. Perhaps it’s a more direct route to coming to terms with who we are by connecting with who we’ve always been.

This is certainly the case with our new project Daisy. When we started developing this story set during the 1964 U.S. Presidential election we knew that we were using it to comment on contemporary society and democracy, but we had no idea just how similar the past was going to be to the present.

The 1964 U.S. Presidential election featured Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate, a man who was carried forward to his Party’s nomination on a wave of extremism that he was both the progenitor of and the fortunate beneficiary of. Sound familiar?

Donald Trump (and Ted Cruz) and the current state of the Republican Party are looking frightfully similar to what was going on in 1964.

Of course, the 1964 campaign is most remembered by the infamous “Daisy Girl” ad, which is the central element to our play. But there was another famous advertisement from that campaign which was just as devastating, and which has recently come back into the public consciousness like a bolt of collective lighting.

“Confessions of a Republican” is a brilliant piece of political messaging created by Doyle Dane Bernbach that features an actor (who was a real Republican) delivering a blistering criticism of why he cannot support his nominee Barry Goldwater, even though he’s been a lifelong Republican. As you listen to this brilliant ad, it’s impossible not to hear “Trump” everytime you hear “Goldwater”.

It just so happens that this ad has gone viral over the last few days, with a huge stream online discussion and commentary about the similarities.

Bill Bogert, as the young Republican in 1964.

Bill Bogert, as the young Republican in 1964.

Bill Bogert today, still a Republican, but with no one worthy of his vote.

Bill Bogert today, still a Republican, but with no one worthy of his vote.

Playwright Sean Devine went to New York City in 2014 and got to meet and interview the actor Bill Bogert who played the “Republican” in the ad, and got to watch Mr. Bogert watch himself. Here he is:

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Fifty Years Ago Today…

On November 2, 1965, American Quaker Norman Morrison took his own life in an act of protest that continues to mystify the world today. This event bears special significance for us here at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre, since Morrison’s actions are the subject of our production of RE:UNION, written by HHG artistic director Sean Devine.

The life and death of Norman Morrison was a subject of deep study and reflection in our company and our home for many years. We developed an ongoing correspondence with Morrison’s surviving family, and several other people who knew him personally. We defended his actions when confronted with audience members that expressed outright condemnation and anger, and empathized with those who were dumbstruck that a man could willingly sacrifice so much. Norman Morrison was a human being, after all, entitled to the same mercies and sympathetic flaws as all of us.

It was said that ony the many poets who wrote about Morrison’s act had the imagination or compassion to truly understand what he did that day in Washington. Here, we offer up one of the many poems that touched us.

Of Late – by George Starbuck

“Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card”
and Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
You, Robert McNamara, burned what you said was a concentration
of the Enemy Aggressor.
No news medium troubled to put it in quotes.

And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
He said it with simple materials such as would be found in your kitchen.
In your office you were informed.
Reporters got cracking frantically on the mental disturbance angle.
So far nothing turns up.

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned, and while burning, screamed.
No tip-off. No release.
Nothing to quote, to manage to put in quotes.
Pity the unaccustomed hesitance of the newspaper editorialists.
Pity the press photographers, not called.

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned and was burned and said
all that there is to say in that language.
Twice what is said in yours.
It is a strange sect, Mr. McNamara, under advice to try
the whole of a thought in silence, and to oneself.

ca. 1960s, USA --- Norman Morrison is best known as the Quaker who in 1965 committed self-immolation outside of the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Bold Exploration: Pig Girl

HHG Theatre continues to operate out of both Vancouver and Ottawa, developing and creating work in both cities which reflects our mission to use theatre in order “to reveal the vulnerable heart and champion the brave idea.” HHG Theatre co-founder and associate artist Mindy Parfitt sends in this latest blog post about her ongoing work in Vancouver on one of the most controversial new Canadian plays in years: Colleen Murphy’s PIG GIRL.

When I was a small child there was a family that lived down the street and around the corner. We were a family of four kids as were they. Sarah, my counterpart and I would play in the forests and parks that surrounded our houses. We ate red licorice and popcorn twists. During grades 8 and 9 Sarah and I started to go downtown. Sarah ended up living on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She became a drug addict and a street-based sex worker. Her life came to an end on Robert Pickton’s farm. So when Colleen Murphy gave me her play PIG GIRL to read I was struck deeply by its exploration of violence against woman using Pickton and his farm as a framework.

I saw the premiere of the play in Edmonton and since that time have been in discussions with Rachel Ditor at the Arts Club about a possible life for this play in Vancouver. We chatted about what might need to happen in conjunction with a production, who would need to be involved and what does the play add to the discussion about the missing and murdered woman from our city.

PIG GIRL is a very violent portrayal of the events which took place on that farm. As I was watching the premiere I wondered what it would be like to remove some of the brutality. I had concerns. I didn’t want to silence the woman more. HHG Theatre along with the Arts Club received some funding from BCAC to hold a staging & design workshop and a reading of the play to an invited audience. For several reasons we decided to separate those two events. From October 16-18 I held a staging & design workshop at the Shadbolt Centre (many thanks to them for supporting this project) with four wonderful actors: Kerry Sandomirsky, Quelemia Sparrow, Frank Zotter and Kevin MacDonald. The workshop also engaged frequent HHG Theatre collaborator and associate artist John Webber as our set & lighting designer.


The purpose of these 3 days was to see if my idea for re-staging the play was viable and to spend some concentrated time talking about if and how this piece could be done in Vancouver. It was a rewarding and fruitful experience. We talked a lot about violence on stage, about our society’s perception of poverty, sex work and our relationships with indigenous communities.

The second stage of the process will be a reading and discussion with theatre makers and community organizers. This event is being planned with the Arts Club. More information will follow.

One of the ideas that surfaced was that of waking up. The process of coming out of one state and into a new one is an engaging adventure. But it also entails letting go of a past identity, of things we love and hold dear. The murdered and missing women are part of our city’s story. In order to change, we must understand our collective responsibility for creating an environment that allowed for this horrible event. We must understand what it is we are attached to that enabled and continues to enable atrocities that happen.



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A new direction for our artistic director!

Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre artistic managing director Sean Devine  is running as the NDP candidate in the new federal riding of Nepean. Regardless of how this goes, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre will continue along in its mission.

For more info and to find out how you might support Sean visit www.seandevine.ndp.ca


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Westward bound and packing some history

As I sit in an airport in Ottawa waiting to board a flight to Seattle, inside my bag is arguably one of the most valuable and unique archival items I’ve ever had the good fortune to discover through research – EVER! Indiana Jones himself could swipe the item itself from my bag and yell “It belongs in a museum!” and he wouldn’t be exaggerating.

I’m headed to Seattle to take part in a three-day script workshop of DAISY at ACT Theatre. The workshop will be led by ACT’s artistic-director-in-waiting John Langs (original director of RE:UNION), and it’s the last step before we can confirm that there will be an international co-production of DAISY between ACT Theatre and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre in Summer 2016.

DAISY is the true story of the creation of the most infamous political television commercial ever produced, the “Daisy Girl” ad. It was the centerpiece of the 1964 U.S. Presidential election. The ad literally changed – some say for the worse – the way that political ads are created and even experienced. The world of political communications was never again the same after the creation of this spot.

DAISY has been the most thoroughly researched projects I’ve ever created. The access I’ve had has been unprecedented. Today, I’m traveling with a reel of tape created by advertising genius Tony Schwartz that is literally labeled “Johnson Bomb Mix – Three Versions”. It’s an original tape containing three separate versions of what is widely known as one of the most famous soundtracks in modern media history.

And I’ve never played it. I’m hoping to do so in Seattle for the first time.

Stay tuned.

These tapes represent the 'B-side' alternate recordings of the most infamous political ad ever. It's astonishing that they're in my possession.

These tapes represent the ‘B-side’ alternate recordings of the most infamous political ad ever. It’s astonishing that they’re in my possession.

Inside the box. Delicate 1/4 inch tape that I haven't even listened to yet! But it's as rare and valuable as unwitnessed history.

Inside the box. Delicate 1/4 inch tape that I haven’t even listened to yet! But it’s as rare and valuable as unwitnessed history.

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