Interview with Playwright Steven Ratzlaff
For patrons who have been with TPM for a long time, Steven Ratlaff’s work will be familiar to you. For those of you who are new to TPM, you may not know that Reservations is the third of Ratzlaff’s plays we have had the pleasure of presenting. In 2010 we presented the premier of Ratlaff’s Last Man In Puntarenas, a piece that confronted issues in health care, and in 2012 we presented the premier of Dionysus in Stony Mountain, a play that tackled the criminal justice system. If it is not already apparent, Ratlaff has a talent for writing politically-minded plays! We convinced him to take some time off from his busy schedule of being both Reservations‘ playwright AND performer, and here is what he told us.
How do you get your ideas for plays?
When I’m on the hunt for a story that could be an idea for a play, I’m paying attention in a certain kind of way. When I’m reading, when I’m listening to a conversation, whatever – I’m waiting for something to click. When it does, I might start writing a scene. If I start to hear the characters talking in my head I know that there might be a play.
In the case of Standing Reserve what clicked was a story I read about foster parents in conflict with their agency. Listening to a conversation about family inheritance got me thinking about what eventually became Pete’s Reserve.
Can you say a little more about why certain stories “click” for you.
I’m not drawn to stories about good people struggling against bad people. Situations that interest me are ones where well-meaning people are in conflict with each other or even themselves. This conflict might be about different priorities, different beliefs, none of which are bad.
I understand why politicians feel it is necessary to speak about Canadian values, but I do think it’s misleading. Canadians value all kinds of ideals and things differently. The resulting tensions are felt even within individuals. Take one question that is asked in several different ways in both plays: What is owed to whom? The answers are not obvious. I guess I’m not interested in obvious answers. Obviously.
Your play deals with some complex elements of Mennonite faith, First Nations culture and Manitoban Child and Family Services. What sort of research was necessary to write about these topics?
Most of the research I did was for Standing Reserve (the second act of Reservations). For me there seems to be a lot of reading around and mulling over a topic or area before I can imagine the characters. Once that happened I could do research. I interviewed several social workers, foster parents and a family court judge. I attended several days of testimony at the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry and the Nicole Redhead Inquest. I read reports, articles, books about and by people who had been in care, and in residential schools. I read Heidegger and commentary on him. I read the work of Indigenous scholars and activists. Of these I found Taiaiake Alfred particularly interesting.
As for Mennonites, I grew up among Mennonites in rural Alberta.
As a non-Indigenous playwright, did you find it difficult to write about First Nations culture? What are the challenges of creating characters that come from a culture that is not your own?
I have to learn and be more attentive. In the case of Reservations at least, the settings for the scenes and the occupations of the characters are familiar to me.
Your other plays (Dionysus in Stony Mountain and Last Man in Puntarenas) are full-length plays. What made you decide to create Reservations out of two one-act plays?
Dionysus in Stony Mountain for me seemed to have a similar two-play structure, although there was a continuity in the story. With Reservations I wanted to push that farther and have two completely different stories, only related in terms of their concerns.
I’m hoping for a thought provoking evening of theatre and one way to do that is to provoke audience members into actively thinking about the relationship between the two stories.
You are an actor as well as a playwright. What do you get from writing that you do not get from acting?
A little bit of power instead of almost none.