Featured Member — Joel Bernbaum
**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Joel Bernbaum, an actor, director, playwright, journalist and the founding artistic director of Sum Theatre in Saskatoon. He is a graduate of Carleton University, where he did his Master’s Thesis on Verbatim Theatre’s Relationship to Journalism. Joel is currently a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, where he is investigating the potential of theatre companies to strengthen cities. Produced plays include “Operation Big Rock”, “My Rabbi” and “Home Is A Beautiful Word.” Upcoming productions include “Reasonable Doubt” (Persephone Theatre) and “Being Here: The Refugee Project” (Belfry Theatre).
How did you get started as a playwright?
I had an incredible playwriting teacher when I was a student at The Canadian College of Performing Arts. His name is Christopher Weddell. He still teaches there I believe. He has a way of inspiring writers to see the joy of creating a theatrical world. He also tore my first play to bits and that made me want to do better.
What is most important to you when storytelling?
That the story I am telling takes people a little further down their path of thinking about and feeling about the world around them.
Tell us about this new play, Reasonable Doubt, how did it come about?
This project began five years ago. I had a great experience making Home Is a Beautiful Word — a documentary play about homelessness — at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C. That play showed me the true power of community engagement and I wanted to return home and make a documentary play about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Arts Board funded the first 50 interviews. The conversations were interesting, but very polite. It was important to keep talking to people about this topic, and I was thankful that Persephone Theatre saw the value of continuing the conversations and decided to commission a full play. I kept doing interviews.
On August 9th 2019, Colten Boushie was shot and killed on the Stanley Farm. This tragic event rocked our whole province. I kept doing interviews but they were different now. People were speaking with a new kind of raw honesty. People wanted to talk. People needed to talk. Interviews were transcribed and my collaborator Yvette Nolan began pouring over thousands of pages of transcripts. My other collaborator Lancelot and I would sift through transcripts and see how they became songs. We worked together with the hopes of capturing a kaleidoscope of views about this incident, this province, and our people.
It is our hope that this play creates a bigger conversation. An opportunity for us to talk to each other, and with each other. To talk about what has happened on this land and how we can live together in a good way. It may be uncomfortable at times, but our creative team feel it’s worth it.
What are some of the challenges you face as a playwright?
I feel it is a privilege and a responsibility to be an artist. I think the ongoing challenge is remembering to be grateful for the privilege and at the same time showing up to the responsibility. We live in a pretty dark time and it takes courage to show up to the responsibility we have as artists.
If not a playwright, what would you be today?
As a fairly new member, what encouraged you to join PGC?
One of my mentors, Yvette Nolan, told me to join. I listen to pretty much everything she says. So far she has not steered me wrong. So now (among other things) I chew cloves instead of gum, I am a PGC member and I drink ginger tea daily. I recommend all three.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.