Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery Adapted by Joseph Goodrich, from the novel by Rex STOUT.

The fourth show of our upcoming 2018-2019 season, MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD: A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY, sees the return of Playwright Joseph Goodrich's work to our stage. Goodrich previously adapted the Ellery Queen mystery CALAMITY TOWN for our 2016-2017 40th anniversary season. We talked with Joe about the fame of Nero Wolfe, working with Vertigo, and the unique opportunities of adaptations.

 Nero Wolfe is perhaps one of the most beloved of fictional American detectives. What drew you to adapt him to the stage?

 After Calamity Town, I wanted to bring another of the “Golden Age” detectives to life. (What constitutes the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction varies from person to person, but it refers to works created between 1920 and 1960.) Wolfe was an obvious choice – his popularity is undiminished in mystery circles, and he’s still recognized in the larger world of non-mystery fans. I’ve met a number of Wolfe fans who don’t read any other mysteries; they just love spending time with Nero and company.

 You previously debuted CALAMITY TOWN at Vertigo Theatre in 2016, an adaptation of Ellery Queen, another famous fictional American detective. How do Wolfe and Queen compare for you?

 Both are super-sleuths and descendants of Sherlock Holmes, the king of all gifted (and often eccentric) detectives. Apart from that, the two are complete opposites.

 Ellery Queen’s character went through a number of changes over the years, moving from a bloodless intellectual to a much more human figure – a change which began with Calamity Town. He becomes involved in the lives of the people who come to him for help. Nero Wolfe’s character remains essentially the same over the years, which is one of the continuing pleasures of the series; his foibles endear him to readers. Rex Stout created a world as palpable for Wolfe fans as Victorian London is for the devotees of Sherlock Holmes.

The Queen novels are densely plotted and challenge the reader to solve the crime before Ellery does. This rarely happens! The Wolfe stories, on the other hand, are much less concerned with plot machinations. The heart of the books is the relationship between Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin. It’s a classic case of the immovable object – Wolfe, a sedentary figure who almost never leaves his brownstone on W. 35th Street – and the irresistible force – Archie Goodwin, who pokes and prods Wolfe into crime-solving when finances run low. Archie narrates the stories; his “voice” is classic mid-20th century demotic speech. He’s young and breezy. Wolfe is stolid and middle-aged. Readers love the clash of temperaments. It’s the reason the books can be read over and over again even though the reader knows who the villain is. 

What are some of the challenges of adapting these stories to the stage? What are some of the opportunities?

 The question of “voice” was one of the major challenges. The books are in the first person, whereas the stage is relentlessly third person. I had to find a balance between narration and action.

 Another challenge related to plot. The books aren’t plot heavy, but they still have them. I streamlined and compressed the plots in both plays because, unlike the reader, an audience member can’t turn back the page to check a detail. The audience must never lose the thread of the story. The play must always be one step ahead of the spectators.

Rebecca Stout Bradbury, Stout’s younger daughter and the manager of his estate, only stipulated two things:  I couldn’t change the title of a book or the identity of the criminal. Readers feel passionately about Wolfe and his world, so I tried to be true to the spirit of the stories, even though I altered something here and cut something there. Any dialogue I invented had to match the language of the books.

Form was also a consideration. Because The Red Box was published in 1936, it was appropriate to use the conventions of the classic well-made play, something you’d have seen on Broadway during those years. Might As Well Be Dead was published twenty years later.  The theater scene had changed, which gave me permission to shake things up a bit. Box had one location, Wolfe’s office. Dead travels all over New York City, from Wolfe’s office to Greenwich Village, from mid-town to the City morgue, from a prison cell to a courtroom…and I’m probably leaving a few out.

 The main influence on the play’s form was Vertigo’s production of Calamity Town. I was deeply impressed by the staging and the projections. Locales shifted in the blink of an eye – one moment you’re here, another moment you’re there. I kept that in mind when working on the adaptation. I can’t wait to see the Vertigo production!

 One of the great pleasures of moving Queen and Wolfe from the page to the stage is the opportunity to introduce them to readers and audience members who may not have heard of them before. They’re classic sleuths, part of a great tradition, and they deserve to be celebrated.


Might As Well Be Dead. Art by Jordan Wieben

Jonathan Christenson and The Invisible Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare

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We asked Jonathan Christenson about Catalyst Theatre's upcoming production of THE INVISIBLE- AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE. THE INVISIBLE will be premiering May 11- June 9 as the fifth show in our 2018/2019 season.

 THE INVISIBLE - AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE has its roots in real-life history, including Canadian Millionaire William Stephenson's WW2 contributions to British Security in the fight agains the Nazis. How are you going about researching these stories, and what excites you about what you've learned so far?

 The first book I read was A Man Called Intrepid. It's a biography of William Stephenson that was written in 1976 before people generally knew much about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – the agency Churchill secretly set up to fight a covert war of espionage and sabotage in Europe during WWII. The book was originally considered a work of non-fiction, but over the years its veracity came into question and it was recently reclassified as fiction. Which is interesting because I imagine that in the world of espionage the truth can get very slippery. Anyway, I started there because Stephenson was this Canadian who had a huge impact on WWII and on the evolution of espionage during the last half of the 20th century. And I'd never heard of him. I'm interested in Canadian stories that have the potential to speak on a global level and I was struck by the international nature of this story. It had a significant Canadian connection, but it had equally strong ties to British, European and Asian history.

More than anything, though, I was interested in the women who were recruited by the SOE as secret agents. I had no idea that women played this particular role in WWII. And these women were fierce. They weren't the agent/seductress sort of female spies that populate the work of writers like Ian Fleming. So, I got my hands on as many books as possible about them. There have actually been a lot of them written over the past two decades. And as I began reading these books, I also started to see the stories of these women cropping up more and more in popular culture. There seems to be a growing interest in them.

One of the women that I became most intrigued with was someone named Vera Atkins. A lot of people say she was the real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming's Miss Moneypenny (much as many people say that William Stephenson was the inspiration for James Bond). Vera was very high up in F-Section – the branch of SOE that was dealing with agents in occupied France and she became very involved in the lives of the female agents. Before they set off on their missions, she was often the last person to see them.  At the end of the war, many of these agents were missing and no one knew what had happened to them. Vera made it her personal mission to go to Europe after the war and find out.  She spent months investigating and, if not for her, the stories of many of them may well have been lost forever.  I find Vera an endlessly intriguing character and she was the first to really take hold of my imagination.

THE INVISIBLE is titled as such because it refers to spies in the Second World War, but there's possibly another meaning about this story being "hidden" by history, while other more famous aspects of the war are celebrated. Was it important to you to write an "untold" story? What excites you about being able to bring this to the stage?

 Yes, absolutely. As male agents were increasingly identified & targeted by the Nazis, female agents were recruited from around the world & trained at secret camps throughout the UK & Canada. Women, it was believed, could coordinate the resistance without being suspected, without being observed, without being detected.  Women could be invisible. We're reimagining the stories of this international team of female agents through a 21st Century lens. Drawing on historical research, film noir, spy fiction, & graphic novels, we're working on creating a genre-busting, multi-lingual, "film noir musical" for our times, a contemporary portrait of 7 extraordinary women who risked their lives to fight a dangerous war of sabotage, propaganda & espionage during WWII, only to find themselves betrayed by the very world they believed they were fighting for.

Catalyst and Vertigo previously collaborated on NEVERMORE, which went on to tour nationally and internationally, including a run Off-Broadway. What are you looking forward to when working with Vertigo again? What unique aspects do you find Vertigo brings to the table?

We had a great time working at Vertigo in 2011! The Vertigo audiences were fantastic – so supportive and enthusiastic about NEVERMORE. So, I'm definitely looking forward to sharing this new work with them! Also, Vertigo has a fantastic team! Artistic Director Craig Hall and Executive Director Rose Brow have been amazing! It's not easy committing to something that only exists as a concept. It requires a lot of trust and confidence. It asks everyone involved to take a leap of faith. That’s not easy – stepping into the unknown – and even in the world of theatre, people can be reluctant to take that risk. But Craig and Rose never hesitated and I've really felt, from the very beginning, that we're all in this together.  It's been a real gift to begin a creative journey by such trust and support.

Photo of Vera Atkins, Spy mistress.

Photo of Vera Atkins, Spy mistress.


This month on VERTIGO VOICES, we talk with Braden Griffiths and Curt McKinstry, two of our actors in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE AMERICAN PROBLEM. Griffiths and McKinstry tackle the world's most famous detective duo as Holmes and Watson respectively, and we chatted with them about stepping into the shoes of these colourful characters.

Curt McKinstry as Watson (left) and Braden Griffiths as Holmes (right), costumes designed by Deitra Kalyn, photography by diane+mike photography

Curt McKinstry as Watson (left) and Braden Griffiths as Holmes (right), costumes designed by Deitra Kalyn, photography by diane+mike photography

You're both familiar to Vertigo's audiences, having acted in several roles at the theatre over the years. What do you feel is different about taking on this famous duo? What feels similar?

Braden:  To a certain degree, there’s nothing really different about the process of bringing this production to the stage, regardless of the notable source material. The job is always to inhabit a character and hope that you can illuminate something of the truth of what it means to be a human being. Now, I say that, but, the truth of the matter is, Sherlock is an EXTREMELY important character to many, many people. People have “their” Sherlock: whether it’s Rathbone, Brett, or Cumberbatch. I have no intention of doing an impression of any of those performances, but I think understanding the different flavours of Sherlock is important when you are playing a cultural touchstone.  I can only ever play my version of this character, based on my own opinions of what I’ve researched and, based on this specific script, but, hopefully, all of the prep, has led me to a version that honours at least some of what people are hoping for. 

Curt: In previous productions I’ve been involved with at Vertigo, the audience wasn’t necessarily familiar with the characters, and the plot is typically new to them. With Holmes and Watson there is an immediate relationship that is understood and expected. The Vertigo audiences knows these characters just as well as we do, if not better at times. So ultimately, the stakes are raised somewhat from other productions. That being said, from an acting perspective, I can’t say that I approached the character any differently than I would in any other production. The fundamentals are the same, there is just more of an awareness of what people expect.

It would be hard to argue that there is any director in North America (perhaps the world) who knows more about the mystery genre than Mark Bellamy.

How familiar are each of you with the original stories by Conan Doyle? How do you feel about how this new production presents your characters? 

Braden: There has also been a lot of Sherlock reading. I can’t claim to have read every Sherlock story but, it was important to me to understand where this timeless character was born and for me to understand something of what Arthur Conan was originally trying to do with his brilliant character invention. I’ve spent a lot of spare time in the last year with this character, which is not something I can say for most plays I perform in. The nice thing about this script is that R. Hamilton Wright was obviously EXTREMELY familiar with the entirety of the canon. He has stayed beautifully true to the literary character of Holmes but, he has also allowed for the different flavours (that have been offered by Cumberbatch; Brett and Rathbone) to colour this scripted version of Holmes. It’s also a wonderful thing that we have Mark Bellamy directing. It would be hard to argue that there is any director in North America (perhaps the world) who knows more about the mystery genre than Mark. Having that kind of expertise to guide the proceedings is absolutely incredible.

Curt: As part of my research into Watson I read the majority of the Conan Doyle canon. As a rule of thumb, I try to stay away from film and television adaptations that may have previously been done, but with these characters it was difficult. I felt that NOT watching the Benedict Cumberbatch and the Jeremy Brett versions of the series would be doing myself a disservice. In all honesty (don’t tell the playwright), I kind of feel that Watson is a little underestimated in this production. He comes across as being a little slow to the punch, and isn’t very sharp. In the novels, Watson is quite astute and often provides Holmes with an unforeseen perspective on things. That being said, I still love Watson in this version and we still see all the lovely dynamics that are shared between Holmes and himself.

A frequent trope of Sherlock Holmes stories is the inclusion of historical figures, and this play is no exception. Who would be some Sherlock contemporaries - or even some anachronistic ones - that you would love to see on stage, and why? 

Braden: It would be fun to see Holmes and Watson bump heads with Erwin Schrödinger: maybe they could figure out whether the cat in the box is in fact dead. Maybe they could find Shoeless Joe Jackson’s shoes. As far as more anachronistic figures are concerned, watching Holmes discover the true identity of D.B. Cooper might be exciting. Also, I’m morbidly obsessed with serial killers and the psychology that would lead someone to a mental state in which they are capable of such atrocities, and so watching Holmes solve the Zodiac murders is like a dream case for me.

Curt: I’d have to say I’d love to see Mary Shelley appear on stage. We’re all familiar with her famous novel Frankenstein, but few people are familiar with her extraordinary personal life. I think the Vertigo audiences would find her quite an intriguing character.

Actors are pretty good at surprising us.

What is another dream casting you might like to see for Holmes and Watson (big screen, small screen, sky's the limit)?

Braden: Ralph Fiennes would be an UNBELIEVABLE Holmes and, I’m a ridiculously big Mark Ruffalo fan, and his Watson might match Fiennes’s Holmes nicely (though I can’t attest to Ruffalo’s British accent, maybe it’s terrible). Or if you’d like a lady Holmes and Watson, I would love to see Cate Blanchett in the role of Holmes with an Emma Thompson Watson. Or, come on, Tilda Swinton as Holmes - gimme-a-break - Tilda Swinton as Holmes and David Oyelowo as Watson. That one. That’s the pairing I choose.

Curt: He has since passed, but I would have loved to have seen Alan Rickman try his hand at Sherlock Holmes, and maybe Derek Jacobi as Watson. I don’t know though, it’s hard to say. Actors are pretty good at surprising us. 

This Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Behind the scenes at the photoshoot of diane+mike photography

Behind the scenes at the photoshoot of diane+mike photography

Q&A: THE LONELY DINER, with director Kelli Fox

This month on VERTIGO VOICES, we talk with THE LONELY DINER director Kelli Fox about working on this show and its unique time period, as well as the challenges and opportunities of being a women in a male-dominated profession.

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Q: When you were offered the chance to direct THE LONELY DINER, what in particular did you find exciting about the script?

I've been a fan of Beverley Cooper's work for a while, so I was just excited for the chance to work on her play. This one in particular appeals because it centres around a middle aged woman. We gals tend to be "disappeared" from our stages and screens after 35 or so, and it's heartbreaking to me that, while our men friends are moving, as they should, into roles that challenge the skill set they've built over the first 20 years of work, so many of my peers, some talented women who should be having the same opportunity, are languishing on the sidelines, or choosing to move on to a different career, because the roles aren't there for them. This is slowly changing, and writers like Beverley Cooper are helping that change. Also, it's got gangsters and it's a bit sexy. That part's fun!

Q: How do you find your own modern sensibilities working on a show set in a time period of almost a hundred years ago? What seems familiar, or alien?

Well, I'm old enough that most of what we see in this setting isn't entirely unfamiliar to me. My childhood home didn't have that kind of phone, or those types of appliances in the kitchen, but my mother's did. I imagine young people today look at a rotary phone, like the one I grew up with, the same way I look at the phone in the Milton's home. It's familiar, I know what it is, but it's a bit strange too. I have couple of questions about exactly how it works.  I spent a lot of years at the Shaw Festival where the tag line on the brochures was "Plays about the beginning of the modern world." Those years around the turn of the last century are fascinating to me because of that very thing. I recognize that world, and I certainly recognize those people, but the distance allows me some perspective that makes it fresh. Sometimes I long for the days when, if the phone rang when I wasn't home, I just didn't get that call. It's hard to remember that that didn't used to seem like a tragedy. It's interesting to imagine what people 50 years from now will make of the standard mystery trope of "cutting the phone line." Will it have meaning? Will people understand the implication immediately and gasp, like the woman I heard in our preview audience the other night?


Q: There's a lot of shifting dynamics and hidden agendas in this show. Is there any particular character you empathize with more than the others?

I usually find, through the course of rehearsal, I begin to fall a little in love with each of the characters in a story. Directing means stretching your imagination to encompass all the points of view. That said, Lucy breaks my heart. One of the big differences between then and now, is that we really do have choices and agency as women that Lucy just doesn't have. It's easy to judge her selfishness, and her inability to find grace and happiness in what she has, but not all women are cut out for marriage and children. Now we can simply choose a different life, but then? This was pretty much the destiny of all women, and to not achieve it meant something far worse for all but the bravest and most adventurous of women. I empathize with her restlessness. 

Q: Working in the theatre as a woman, what challenges have you encountered? What opportunities?

I guess I covered the challenges a little in your first question. The great thing is that things really are beginning to shift. We are all beginning to open our eyes, look around, and realize that we've allowed one group of people to run the show and reap all the rewards for a very long time. Now when we begin a project we ask, how can I be more inclusive? How can I open up to women, to people of colour, of varying abilities? That's going to make it a very different world for all of us, really soon. I've definitely benefitted in recent years from a conscious push to get more women in the director's chair. 

Time is money, they say. I actually believe time is far more valuable than money to the making of good theatre.

Q: What change, if any, would you like to see occur in our performing arts scene? 

Oh boy. Soapbox time. I've been going on about this for weeks now. Four weeks to be precise. That's how long we've had to work on this play, and it's been positively luxurious. And it's rare these days. Increasingly, theatres are being asked to do more, with less. Audiences want to see lush design, and technological wizardry on stage. They are flocking to big musicals, with large casts and fancy costumes. But all of that costs money. And if the money is spent there, it can't be spent elsewhere, like salaries to keep a production team at work for the time it takes to really polish a piece of work. For years artists responded to the need to economize by making it work any way they could. We all subsidize the work with hours, days, weeks of unpaid labour in preparation so that we can get a show up and in front of a paying audience as quickly as possible. We've all experienced the 20 day (or less!) rehearsal period from first day to opening night. And the problem we've given ourselves is that, because we take pride in our work, we keep compensating and finding a way to make it happen. Nobody wants to look underprepared when the public comes into the building. Which only makes some producers, and people who don't really understand what it take to achieve a fully professional piece of theatre, think that it's not only possible, but reasonable, to expect a high quality production of Twelfth Night, or Drowsy Chaperone in two weeks. The burn out rate is unsurprising to those of us on the front lines. I know Craig Hall has worked hard to ensure a four week rehearsal period at this theatre, and I have been singing his praises for it out loud every day. It's meant all the difference to what we have been able to accomplish with this play. Time is money, they say. I actually believe time is far more valuable than money to the making of good theatre. I wish we, as artists, would push back a little harder on that front. I think four weeks should be the minimum standard. 

Q: What advice would you give to any women who are hoping to enter the performing arts?

Do it! Jump on in and help us change the landscape. There's never been a better time for us, and it's only going to keep getting better as long as we show up and speak up and make art. If you really want to make theatre, find a good school. This work is not as easy as some people manage to make it look, and good training is important. Really good training institutions usually have some connection to the professional world, so while you learn your craft you will get to spend time with people who are practicing, and you'll probably find that those people will be among your first professional workmates.


Header photo: Kelli Fox headshot. Body photos: Citrus Photography, featuring Lara Schmitz and Shawna Burnett, set design by Scott Reid, costume design by Hanne Loosen

Q&A: UNDERCOVER with Rebecca Northan

This month on Vertigo Voices, we join UNDERCOVER co-creator and Spontaneous Theatre artist Rebecca Northan to talk about what it's like to work with audience members of all kinds for her unique blend of interactive work.

How do you approach a work like UNDERCOVER, with its unique audience volunteer interaction?

The one thing that we can never predict, is how a person might be affected by being thrust under bright lights, in front of 400 patrons. The most jovial person in the lobby might well freeze under those conditions. We ask our audiences to have compassion for this non-performer as the production unfolds.We are the professionals, and we take very seriously our primary task of caring for this non-performer and say "yes" to anything, and everything that they do, or don't do, while with us on stage. Our internal rule is, "Whatever they do is 'right'", and we will shift the play around them in support of their choices. It is our aim to celebrate the "average person".

You engage with a lot of strangers. Do you ever feel shy?

Oh yes! Each of the cast members has to overcome a certain amount of social anxiety just before we head out to do the mingle in the lobby, but it has gotten easier over the years. Part of the trick is reading the body language of the people in the lobby, and respecting when someone clearly doesn't want to be approached for fear of being chosen.

How many people solve the case?

Roughly 35% of our Rookies have solved it correctly. The first volunteer to nail it 100% was a 15 year old girl during a student matinee! She caught every single clue. It was like being on stage with Nancy Drew! We consulted with a Homicide Detective during the creation of UNDERCOVER, and he shared that the solve-rate for the Police is about 40% (he also got it wrong when we put him through the show, but oh boy, his interrogation techniques were terrifying! We all wanted to confess!)

Photo by Citrus Photography | Rebecca Northan and an audience volunteer in UNDERCOVER

Photo by Citrus Photography | Rebecca Northan and an audience volunteer in UNDERCOVER

Spontaneous Theatre has also produced shows such as BLIND DATE and LEGEND HAS IT.What takeaways are you incorporating into UNDERCOVER? How is UNDERCOVER different?

Our utmost priority, which carries forward from BLIND DATE, through LEGEND HAS IT, is to take very good care of the Audience Member, make them look good, make sure they're having a good time. We were surprised to learn early on in UNDERCOVER, that it doesn't really matter if they solve the mystery correctly, or not. What matters most is HOW they go about playing with us. So - you might see a Rookie who misses clues, and gets it wrong, but theyre clearly having a good time and being themselves, and the audience as a whole likes them, and is charmed by them regardless. UNDERCOVER is a bit different, in that we don't get to know the volunteer in depth they way we do in BLIND DATE - but our theory is that every person's "inner-detective" says something about who they are, which remains fascinating.

 Rebecca Northan, BLIND DATE by Greg Tjepkema, LEGEND HAS IT image courtesy of Alberta Theatre Projects.