When did you start writing? Was becoming a writer a dream you had since childhood or did it come later on?
I suppose my first serious attempts at writing were lyrics for a punk band I got involved in when I was about 19. Mercifully, I don’t remember any of the songs, and the world hasn’t remembered any of them either, although a Nick Cave type of thing I later wrote, using imagery from Jonah and the Whale, eventually evolved into a play called Bestiary which ended up on BBC Radio 4. My childhood dream was to become an actor or movie director, which is why I chose to do drama at University, but I soon got tired of making-like-a-tree-in-the-wind and gravitated towards writing scripts instead of acting in them. Actually, that “tree” reference might come over as a bit unfair, given that actors obviously go through an incredibly rigorous and multi-faceted training process. But it’s also true to say that my Road to Damascus moment of thinking “You know what? Maybe I’m more suited to writing” actually came when we were being asked to make-like-a-tree-in-the-wind. I have acted on and off since then, which hopefully helped with the playwriting process.
Painter Chuck Close Once said, "Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just shows up and gets to work." How do you "get to work?" Do you have any ritual or specific requirements to get the juices flowing?
Yes, that quote reminds me of another one, from William Faulkner : “I only write when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” Would I had the discipline to be at my desk at 9am every morning. I have the habit of brainstorming all sorts of stuff on a project – thoughts, character studies, synopses, etc – in all kinds of locations, until the looming deadline impels me to just write the bloody thing. So far, it seems to have gotten results, but that way madness sometimes lies. Often, inspiration does come like the proverbial shaft of lightning, and you can spend days wandering around blissfully thinking what a wonderful idea it’s going to make for a play, or a scene, or a moment of stage action. The hard graft comes with knuckling down to make it actually work on paper. This can be a long, frustrating, blood-sweating business as you wrestle mere words into some kind of correspondence to that original bright, shining vision. Sometimes you get there, sometimes you get tantalisingly close, more often you’re left with a faint echo of it which will just have to do. But, yes, you have to show up to work again and again, just to have a shot at it.
Are you working on a new play at the moment? Do you have a play coming up on stage soon?
I’m currently writing a play called The Angel of Hearth and Home, thanks to a Canada Arts Council grant. It’s free-wheelingly based on the absurd and tragi-comic figure known as Lord Haw-Haw who was hanged for broadcasting all kinds of slimy stuff for the Nazis right to the end of the war. Largely forgotten now, he was, at the time, second only to Churchill as the most recognized voice on the radio. It’s not a biodrama as such - in his last ignominious hours propagandizing for the Nazis, Lord Haw Haw seemed to go into full-blown delusional meltdown (much like that other uber-creep at the next bunker along), which offers the opportunity to create a dramatic situation that isn’t too limited by reality or historical fact. The title comes from a surrealist painting by Max Ernst which shows a monstrous figure sweeping over the landscape, which struck me as an effective image for the then relatively new phenomenon of broadcast propaganda bouncing around the world’s airwaves.
A possibility for the stage later this year is a production of my one-man adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground which was recently work-shopped at the Shaw Festival. The director of that workshop, Paul Van Dyck, is interested in directing and performing it here in Montreal.
What would be your dream project?
Speaking of Dostoyevsky, that would have to be an adaptation of his The Possessed (also known as Demons or The Devils). I’ve been working on this one on and off for years, but it’s such a huge project, I’d need a good sustained run at it over a longer period than I can currently manage. I’d also like to do a revival of my adaptation of Moby Dick, which did pretty well in the UK. It’s a highly physical piece with four performers playing over forty parts (including sharks and the sea itself). Any takers? Right now, though, I have about nine dream projects swirling around my head, and I’m taking the summer to think about which ones I lasso first.
What is the one advice you would like to share with aspiring writers?
Stop aspiring. Write.
Massotherapist and yoga instructor Christine Guenette interviewed two weeks ago would like to know "How challenging is it to be in English theater in a province where the English/French battles never die?"
As far as theatre goes, there really do seem to be Two Solitudes. When I first arrived in Montreal (in 2006), it seemed from conversations I had that one side was pretty much unaware, or interested, in what was going on with the other. Maybe that’s the way things look superficially. Increasingly, there seem to be a lot of efforts by the French and English theatres to be on much more than nodding terms, with more bilingual plays, surtitles, translations, etc. As far as being an English playwright, I’ve found it’s rather worked to my advantage compared to working in England. I’m not necessarily a big fish and Montreal certainly isn’t a little pond, but it’s true to say that you can get lost in the sheer volume of theatre (and theatres) in England, whereas here it’s much easier to make the acquaintance of people in the business and get them to seriously consider your work. In England, it sometimes felt like trying to get an audience with the Pope. I’ve been lucky to get the attention of one or two highly influential figures in Montreal’s Anglo theatre scene, which has guaranteed a serious look over my efforts which has then led to productions. (Not insignificant in this has been the help of Playwrights Workshop Montreal) Maybe a downside of the relatively modest size of Montreal’s Anglo theatre scene, though, is that space on the boards is pretty limited and you really aren’t going to get filthy rich, or even keep the wolves from the door, even if you get regular work. But that’s theatre, I suppose. Maybe if only I’d thought, while pretending to be a tree that time, “you know what, maybe I’m more suited to accountancy...”
Our next featured guest will be a young man who quit his little Ontario village to become a swing dance instructor in Montreal; what question would you like to ask him?
If you were confronted by a student who seemed to have absolutely no sense of rhythm, was horribly self-conscious, and danced like an embarrassing dad at a wedding, would you see him as a challenge to be met, or would you politely suggest that dancing might not really be for him.
Jim Burke is a playwright originally from Manchester, England. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick, both of which won Best New Play in the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards. He has had several plays produced on BBC Radio. Source
Since Mr. Burke doesn't have any play in theater at the moment, this giveaway will be a little bit different. I will be visiting the UK next week and since Mr. Burke is from England and a playwright, I will offer the winner of the giveaway a little something from the Globe theater in London. I will ship it directly from across the pond to you. To enter the giveaway, leave a question for Mr. Burke to answer. Whoever asks the best question wins! You have until Tuesday July 16th 11:59 ET to enter. Don't miss your chance!