A Conversation Between Playwrights – Darrin Hagen

Nov 17, 2016

With Colleen Murphy

For our 2016/2017 Season Theatre Network has invited Governor General Award Winning Playwright Colleen Murphy (Armstrong’s War, Pig Girl, The December Man) to interview each of our writers as part of the Mainstage Season.
First up, we hear from Tornado Magnet playwright Darrin Hagen.
CM: Your writing is often wildly funny and bitingly dark and provocative but it never strays far from your big heart. Where do you get your tremendous heart?
DH: I always thought heart was the product of the experiences you live through. I was an outsider in many ways – as painful as that was at times, I am grateful now for the fact that it allowed me to view the world from the sidelines.
I tend to write about real people, which means you can’t be cavalier or flippant when you put them on a page or a stage. There’s a real memory there and that demands a certain respect from a writer.
CM: In Tornado Magnet you play your own mother. How easy or how hard is not only to write the character of your mother growing up with you and your brother, but also to perform her as well?
DH: I performed this play for 5 years before I allowed Mom to come see it. The thought of her being upset or insulted by it terrified me. I actually invited other moms in Edmonton to come and see it so I could quiz them about how they would feel about the play if that was their life being performed by their son. Their answers made me feel better about it – but it was still very strange to be telling those stories when I knew she was sitting in the audience.
Dotty doesn’t look a thing like my mom – but she sure sounds like my mom.
Writing the stories was actually pretty simple, as my mom is a natural teller of tales, and I could hear her voice so clearly as I wrote. And I was the kid that liked to listen to her talk to all the neighbour ladies – mom used to accuse me of “sittin’ at the table with your ears flapping”. Nowadays mom is always impressed by my memory of details from my early childhood – so much of that is because she told such fun stories.
CM: You call the social class in Tornado Magnet ‘trailer trash’. We don’t see enough plays from this class or from the ‘working class’ or the ‘working poor’ or the ‘welfare class’. Why do you think they have, for the most part, disappeared from our stages?
DH: When I saw 5 minutes of Trailer Park Boys it made my blood boil. It takes very little imagination to create insulting stereotypes.
To draw people that live under the poverty line, or in the lower-class, you need to have an insight into why they are in that situation in the first place. Empathy and insight keep you from having fun at their expense. Context is everything though – I once submitted a comedy song about Christmas in the trailer court to a CBC call for submissions, only to be told they wouldn’t accept it because it wasn’t fair to make fun of poor people during the holidays. I had submitted something that was 100% real and true; I had found humour in the pain. And they assumed I was insulting the lower class. I had to remind them that I had grown up in that world.
CM: I love that the view Dotty sees through her window never changes. She says, ‘I would never find a better view.’ It roots her to the trailer and to the earth. What roots you, Darrin, because to be as prolific as you are, there must be something strong and steady in your creative life?
DH: My view has always been important too. I’m facing the window as I type this.
Music is my blood. My relationship with some of the artists I listen to goes back over forty years. I have a vast collection and it fires up my brain in so many ways – I almost always listen to something while I write. Because I’m a composer, whatever I hear is constantly getting dissected and analysed – like math in motion; formulas, scales, key changes… even while I’m doing something else, it’s always happening. Strangely, lyrics often get past me. I sometimes don’t even notice them because my brain is following beats and structures and instruments. But it means my brain is always intensely working through something, like a machine in the background. It keeps my memory sharp to for acting. And I believe it creates a way of thinking that’s moving on several levels in different directions simultaneously.
Solitude is important as well. I think people still think of me like I’m some wild party animal, but in reality I’m up early, and I spend most of my time at home working. If I’m not working towards a deadline, I just create music or start writing something. It will always come in handy later.
Laughter is my oxygen. Saying something out loud and listening to waves of laughter in response to something you wrote – that’s better than applause.
And of course, having a partner that sticks with you through your formative years as you figure out your artistic course…. That’s essential.
CM: I have not yet seen Flora and Fawna’s Field Trip but hear it’s hysterically funny and very moving at the same time. You and Trevor Schmidt created it and star in it and rumor has it there’s a sequel on the way – hurray. Your wit is a gift – how has it protected you from the world and also given you the courage to open up completely to the world?
DH: Humour is born in pain. I hated being the one being made fun of. Even as a kid, I knew I could be funny. I just needed to get away from the unfunny bullies that seemed like they were everywhere. Being in drag in the 80s at Flashback is where I really learned the power of humour… and it’s how I got addicted to making people laugh.
CM: I have had the great pleasure of working with you as a playwright and a composer. You’re also an actor, a drag queen, a teacher, a director, an activist and one half of Guys in Disguise with your partner Kevin Hendricks. Given all your talents, if you could do one thing to change the world, what might that be?
DH: I’d make everyone in the world write a book, because there’s no end to what you will learn about yourself spending that much time thinking about life. And I think that kind of introspection makes for a better person. The very act of telling your story changes you forever.
Every life is a work of art, and every piece of art changes the world.
CM: You were chosen one of 100 Edmontonians of the Century and, more recently, named one of Alberta’s 25 most influential artists. What do you imagine could entice you to ever leave this city?
DH: I don’t think I would leave now… maybe the right opportunity, although being a freelancer I’m not really looking for a job. I would love to be able to afford a place in the country someday and split my time between the city and the country. But Edmonton is a place where good things keep happening to me. And now – at this age – I’m getting more and more rooted in Edmonton. It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else now.
CM: What are you looking forward to working on next?
DH: As I type this I am racing towards deadline for the new incarnation of Witch Hunt at the Strand. And then I have a few months of well-deserved time off. I have a play in my head called 10 Funerals that I am dying to write, as well as a new comedy for the festive season. I also have several plays that are sitting waiting for finishing touches. So the next few months is all about hibernating, writing, and baking.