Vancouver playwright Adam Grant Warren embraces autofiction in Lights

Touchstone Theatre's new show explores distance, isolation, and how to care for one another

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      Playwright and actor Adam Grant Warren has some things in common with his character, Evan Chaulk, in his new play Lights. Both have parents in Newfoundland, where the production is set. And Warren readily acknowledges in a phone interview with the Straight that Evan is a deeply personal creation.

      “His upbringing is an agglomeration of a number of experiences I went through,” Warren reveals.

      Evan is also a teacher, which is something Warren did for a while after graduating with an English degree from Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador.

      “His relationship with his parents is different than the relationship with my parents,” Warren continues. “His relationship is rooted in my relationship with my wife.”

      But Warren the playwright and Evan the character became increasingly different with successive drafts of Lights.

      “I think that’s a fairly common thing when the characters become their own things,” Warren says.

      As a playwright, he asks himself over time what the characters need and what they want in the moment.

      “It drifts away from your lived experience, so that mine is the foundation, but it does leave room for the fiction,” Warren notes. “I’m a big fan of the word autofiction.”

      He certainly had a great deal of time to rework Lights. Touchstone Theatre was planning to produce it before the pandemic but it was delayed on more than one occasion. The world premiere will finally take place on December 3 at the Firehall Arts Centre following a preview on the previous evening.

      Directed by Roy Surette and costarring Susinn McFarlen as his mother Nancy, Lights focuses on a son who returns to the family home at Christmas.

      Warren doesn’t want to divulge too many details about the play before its debut. He will allow, however, that Lights is really about love and care.

      “The show came about for a number of reasons,” he says. “but one of them is because I live in Vancouver and my parents still live in Newfoundland. They’re getting older and I’m getting older.”

      Adam Grant Warren drew on his own experiences in creating Evan Chaulk's character in Lights.
      David Cooper

      Show explores distance and isolation

      He wrote the early drafts before the pandemic, but it’s been “contemporized” for the times he’s living in now. That wasn’t a huge leap because one of the show’s underlying themes is “this notion of crossing over a great distance and experiencing a sense of isolation”.

      Certain lines and certain moments in Lights were changed, which added a sharper focus, in his opinion.

      “I’m starting to feel the size of the country,” Warren says. “And I’m starting to feel the distance from my parents as they age. I’m starting to be aware of what there may be in their future and what might be in my future with them. The show sort of arose out of that.”

      While the pandemic has been challenging for many Vancouverites, it hasn’t been as disruptive to Warren, apart from his play being delayed. That’s because he often worked at home before the emergence of COVID-19, so that didn’t change.

      “The one thing the pandemic made challenging for me was staying engaged and wanting to stay engaged with the practice of theatre,” Warren says.

      That’s because he didn’t know in what form theatre might re-emerge—or if people would even want to see live plays in the future, made him feel sad.

      Although Warren worked in the film industry for a few years, earning a Leo Award nomination for Conocerlos (Get to Know Them), he’s always maintained a deep love of theatre. While he appreciates the artistry in films, he considers that art form to be “inorganic”: whatever is filmed is collected and taken back into an editing bay, where it’s chopped up and pieced together.

      “Theatre is not like that,” Warren says. “Theatre exists as a whole.”

      He describes theatre as a “living, breathing organism” that shifts and changes with each performance, no matter how many times a play has been rehearsed.

      “Every show is different,” Warren insists. “Every performance is different. Everything is different.”

      That extends to the audience, which he described as a “force in itself”, adding to the organic nature of theatre. In fact, he believes that audiences can have an enormous impact on a production. Depending on who is in the seats, he notes, his lines land differently.

      “The ones that I kind of love are the ones you didn’t really plan to land and they really do,” Warren says. “That’s part of the liveness and that’s why I love it.”