How do you make a play about political history interesting?
With a lot of work, says award-winning Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen.
His new play Pugwash, about Pugwash-born, U.S. billionaire Cyrus Eaton and the famous Pugwash Conferences to stop nuclear war, has its world premiere Saturday at the Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro.
“It's taken five years,” says Thiessen, flying in from New York for previews and opening night.
He's thrilled that Pugwash is premiering in Parrsboro just 90 kilometres from the village where Eaton turned a summer retreat into a centre for academic and scientific think tanks during the Cold War.
Eaton wanted to confront nuclear proliferation. “He was paving a path very much against the politics of the United States even though he was an incredibly powerful industrialist,” says Thiessen.
“He's awesome and I've met many of his relations and they've been very forthcoming and very helpful.”
Thiessen also did extensive interviews with local residents who remember the conferences that started 60 years ago in 1957 with 22 academics and scientists landing at the Thinkers Lodge and his play is rooted in the community of Pugwash.
“After a long time of writing it became apparent to me the story I was interested in was how a small fishing village in rural Nova Scotia changed the world,” he says in a phone interview from New York, where he's lived since 2007.
“Because of the practice of hosting scientists in the homes of the local community, there became a connection between the local people and the people from away.”
He calls Pugwash “a memory play” as a woman who was a child in 1957 looks back at what happened in her small town.
“There's a sense of childhood naivete and at the end you realize it's not nostalgic, these are prevalent issues," he says, adding that nuclear war is always a threat "more so in the last six months.”
The play, directed by Ship's Company Theatre artistic producer Natasha MacLellan, is about two kids growing up in Pugwash “and their relationship to two of the 22 scientists and, of course, Cyrus Eaton makes an important appearance.
“My play is a fictionalization. I'm putting a lot of words into Cyrus Eaton's mouth.”
His characterization of Eaton, played by actor Stephen Cross, is as a “passionate, deeply ethical man with a really solid moral compass that came from growing up super poor,” he says.
“He was charismatic, well-spoken and not afraid to be contrarian and he has a flaw that all characters should have. He's a moral man but he's also a very, very wealthy and privileged man”
Thiessen has mined Canada's history before in plays like Vimy, twice produced in Nova Scotia, but he had never heard of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
“It's become a Heritage Minute, but it's not widely known, oddly enough,” says the Winnipeg-born playwright, winner of the 2003 Governor General's Award for Drama for Einstein's Gift.
He stumbled on this story when he was commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York through the Sloan Foundation, a U.S. organization that supports artists telling stories about science, to write something about Pugwash Conferences co-founder and scientist Sir Joseph Rotblat.
“As I looked into his life, I saw he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for the Pugwash Conferences and that led me to think: 'What's the Pugwash Conference?' And I thought, 'Oh my God, I know nothing of this story and I'm Canadian.' ”
He went to Pugwash three times, once with the cast members and was also “privileged” to be invited to attend a conference.
He's thrilled the play is being produced by the Ship's Company Theatre for its world premiere.
“It's the closest professional theatre to Pugwash and it's the perfect place for it to be and I'm hoping it will have a life after this production at well," says Thiessen, now adapting Jack London's The Call of the Wild for the Stratford Festival and a Canadian novel (that he's not permitted to identify) for Soulpepper Theatre.
Pugwash, now in previews, opens Friday and runs to July 30 with 8 p.m. shows Tuesday to Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday matinees at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro.
Pugwash stars Stephen Cross as Cyrus Eaton, and Karen Bassett, Ian Leung, Theo Pitsiavas, Gina Thornhill and Henricus Gielis.
On the creative team are director Natasha MacLellan, stage manager Ingrid Risk, working with apprentice stage manager Carmen Lee, set designer Garrett Barker, lighting designer Vicky Williams, costume designer Cathleen McCormack and sound designer Paul Del Mott.
The Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash is open to the public to Aug. 31 Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. This year's conference is being held in August in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.