Interview with Eugene Stickland

Apr 19, 2007

“I suppose it’s a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. There’s a challenge involved to see if you can get all the words in the right order.”
What motivated you to write this play?
A friend of mine told me the story of her father, an architect who developed Alzheimer’s Disease and I was struck by a few aspects of her story. As for the full-length version, I suppose I was motivated by the fact that I perceived an interest in the subject even greater now than when I wrote the one act eight years ago. Sadly, the numbers of people affected by Alzheimer’s are growing at an alarming rate. So part of my motivation for writing the full length version had to do with hoping to create a vehicle that would allow people to come together and maybe even support one another.
What, (if anything), is different about Closer and Closer Apart than other plays you’ve written?
I’ve never written an “issue-based” play before, although that was really just part of the original story I heard that I thought was interesting, dramatically.
How has Alzheimer’s Disease affected your life, if at all?
There have been a few family friends who had Alzheimer’s Disease, and I would hear stories about them from my mother. One man in particular lived out of town, and would drive in and lose his car. Sometimes he would disappear for days on end. When he was younger, we would play duets together on the piano. He was a very cultured and lovely man. I was sorry to hear those stories about him. And like many of us who attain a certain age, I have lapses with my own memory that make me wonder if I’m heading down that road. Don’t we all think that could be a possibility? It’s rather frightening, especially knowing there’s nothing we can do about it on any account.
What impact do you think art can have on mental illness and disease? Do you think artists have a responsibility to try and make that impact?
The one act version of this play was performed for a large number of people involved in the issue at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary. In attendance there were physicians, researchers, therapists, caregivers, and people who had a loved one affected by the disease. The play was a focal point for a forum afterwards. It allowed people to talk about the disease in a more objective manner I suppose, because they could refer to the events of the play as opposed to events from their own lives. There is a movement afoot to use art in this manner. In many ways that was one of the finest events of my career.
When and why did you begin writing plays?
I’ve always written and always thought I’d be a writer when I grew up. A chance meeting in a university creative writing class put me in contact with a man who wanted to start a new theatre. (This is my hometown, Regina.) He had some money so he commissioned me to write a play for this new company. It was produced, not well, but it was produced. I guess I got bit by the theatre bug. I went to Toronto and did an MFA in theatre at York University and have been writing plays ever since.
What keeps you in Alberta?
My daughter. Although she travels a lot now, (she’s a fashion model), she is just going into high school, and until she’s finished that, I’m not going anywhere. Beyond that, though, I have a sense of curiosity of how the arts will end up being regarded by our culture, our society. When I came to Calgary 13 years ago, most people didn’t know what a playwright was, or that such a creature might actually exist in our society. And raise a child. And buy groceries. Through my work for the stage, and my column for the Calgary Herald, I’d like to think I’ve helped change that perception. But there’s still much work to be done. I’ve stayed this long, I’d like to see how it ends.
Who/what are your biggest creative influences?
In a pure sense, I came at this from a literary background, as opposed to a theatrical one, so my influences have been some of the great dramatic writers, such as Chekhov and Beckett. Pretty good company to keep. In a more practical sense, though, I feel I’ve been blessed by the directors I’ve worked with, and they’ve always found ways to challenge me and keep me moving forward. In particular Bob White in Calgary and Bradley Moss here. For example, this is the second premier of mine that Bradley has directed, the fifth of my plays in all.
A journalist said “For Stickland’s characters, life often turns out like the Christmas toys described by dad in Some Assembly Required: either there is a screw missing, or a screw left over, it doesn’t look like the picture on the box, and it certainly isn’t as seen on TV.” Do you agree this is a recurring theme in your work? If so, why?
I guess it is. Although it doesn’t seem exactly revolutionary now, to write a play about how disappointing Christmas can be, and often is, but it was quite novel in its time. Personally, I try to rise above this disappointment, but I find myself saying again and again. “There’s always something. There’s always a catch.” In this play, for example, just when it seems that Melody and her father have found a way to become closer, Joe’s disease prevents that from happening. I guess that’s irony. Maybe I look upon the world with bemused, ironic detachment. Why do I? No idea. (If I knew, I probably wouldn’t be writing plays anymore.)
What other projects are you currently working on?
I have an unabashed comedy called Writer’s Block that will open in Calgary next season. In the back of my mind, I’ve started working on a rather grand piece called Prairie Triptych, a trilogy comprised of three shorter plays entitled Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. I’m also working on a piece called Interior Designs which is about exactly that, again, a comedy. And then there’s a high art piece that’s more poetic and probably unproducable, which I write as I listen to the Bach ‘cello suites. All in all, enough to keep me out of trouble.