Shelter From the Storm has words for the war resisters
“I’m writing for my life,” playwright Peter Boychuk confesses as he talks with the Straight in Carousel Theatre’s Granville Island space, where the artists of Touchstone Theatre are rehearsing his new play Shelter From the Storm. It’s the first time that one of Boychuk’s scripts has received a professional production. “This is such an amazing opportunity for me,” he says. “Quite frankly, I don’t want to fuck it up.”
There’s already a lot of buzz about the play, which explores the relationships between a draft dodger named Rick, who came to Canada during the Vietnam War; Scott, a U.S. Marine who has fled to Canada rather than returning for another tour of duty in Iraq; and Rick’s daughter Caitlin, who is a surfing champ in Tofino, where the story unfolds. Complicating that story, Caitlin’s mother has died, suddenly and recently.
“The impetus for the play came when I was watching the news one day,” Boychuk recalls. “At that time, one of the first war resisters was being sent back [to the U.S.], and one of the people who was advocating on his behalf was a draft dodger. I thought, ‘Wow. Suddenly it’s 40 years later and things have changed that much. Okay. There’s a story here.’ ”
According to Boychuk, the difference between Canada’s welcoming attitude toward draft dodgers in the ’60s and our current government’s hostility to war resisters reflects an overall shift in Canadian values. “The Canada that I had in mind growing up,” he remembers, “was all about multiculturalism and peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. And yet, in Afghanistan, we have a combat role.” Boychuk cites concerns about our nation’s changing relationships to Medicare and immigration before adding, “On a personal note, it feels like the country is just getting meaner.
“The economy is making people draw inward,” the 32-year-old continues. “Most people my age are still struggling to start their careers. A lot of people are moving back in with their parents or going on to their second graduate degree in hopes of becoming more interesting to the marketplace. And I think that necessarily dilutes the ability to care about the larger world, because you don’t even feel like you have a place in that larger world.”
Still, Boychuk wants to engage in a conversation about Canada’s cultural shift, and he has chosen to do so in the most personal and compassionate of arenas, the theatre.
The playwright, who studied performance at Studio 58, exemplifies that compassion when he says, “I use the same strategy with writing that I did when I was training as an actor: it helped to think of the characters as being similar to me but under a different set of circumstances.”
Researching Scott, the war resister, Boychuk interviewed Rodney Watson, a Marine who, like Scott, couldn’t bring himself to return to Iraq. The First United Church on Hastings Street offered Watson asylum and he has lived within its walls since 2009. Like about 40 other war resisters in Canada, Watson is in limbo as his case works through the appeal process. Boychuk says that he feels responsible for doing justice to the gravity of the choices made by war resisters, who have left their country, their homes, and their families, while risking prison for desertion.
But Boychuk’s character Scott is not simply a heroic victim. In fact, he is decidedly morally ambiguous. Without giving away the plot, Boychuk reveals that, in the play, Scott has to choose whether or not to betray someone who loves him in order to stay in the country.
Boychuk’s identification with Scott emerges from his general interest in military culture; his understanding of Caitlin is even more immediate. “Caitlin’s story is informed by my own personal experience after my mother died,” he explains.
Remembering his mom Linda’s death, he goes on: “I had left theatre school in my last year and I was lost because theatre had been my entire life until then. I was back in Ucluelet, living with my mom and dad at 22, which is always delightful. And we woke up one morning and she was dead. She had had a buildup of plaque on her heart that we didn’t know about. She just died in her sleep.”
In Shelter From the Storm, that’s exactly what happens with Caitlin’s mom. Through Caitlin, Boychuk says, he can “get into the power of grief and how much that messes with your head. You try to anchor yourself in all sorts of ways—in relationships and by helping others. And that’s Caitlin’s big thing: she needs people to help.”
In contrast, Boychuk has been struggling to get a handle on the story arc for Rick, Caitlin’s draft-dodging dad. The play has had several different endings in which Rick takes various courses of action.
Fortunately, Boychuk has had the luxury of an extended development process, in which he has worked closely with his director, Katrina Dunn, and his dramaturge, Martin Kinch. Shelter From the Storm is a product of Flying Start, a script-development program initiated by Touchstone Theatre and realized in association with the Playwrights Theatre Centre and the Firehall Arts Centre. Boychuk has benefited from five workshops with professional actors, as well as a $6,000 grant from the Vancouver Foundation.
He’s nothing if not grateful. “This is something that I’ve been building to all my life,” he concludes, “so you wonder if it’s going to live up to the expectation. And the experience so far has been so much better than I ever thought it could be. Even if it’s a disaster and it gets ripped apart and nobody ever wants to produce my shows again, I’ll be so glad to have had this opportunity.”
Shelter From the Storm runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from tonight (May 31) until next Saturday (June 9).