Published on March 21st, 2018 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Mark Leiren-Young
Mark Leiren-Young has long been a friend of Biz Books and with his newest artistic endeavour – the play Bar Mitzvah Boy – opening at Pacific Theatre this week, we thought it would be a perfect chance to catch up with the man himself.
Here is our conversation with the one and only Mark Leiren-Young.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about Bar Mitzvah Boy?
When I was a teenager, one of my best friends told me he’d never really felt Jewish because he’d never had a proper Bar Mitzvah. As soon as I heard that I thought… I have to write about that someday. With all due respect to John Fogerty, someday finally came.
Can you share some of your creative process in writing it?
This idea was on my “to do” list forever, but I never quite saw the whole story (and, for a long time, wasn’t sure if it was a play or a screenplay). Because I write for a living, spec projects can’t often top the “to do” list when other writing work is paying the bills. Then I signed up for a playwriting class at UBC (as part of my Master’s program), I had to write a play and figured I’d take advantage of having a real deadline and a half-dozen brilliant writers giving me notes.
What was the most rewarding thing about writing Bar Mitzvah Boy?
I’ve been knocked out by the responses so far, but the most rewarding moment so far may have been when a dear friend (who is Orthodox) told me she felt the Rabbi was believable and the religious aspects tracked.
What should audiences expect?
Two actors at the top of their game really diving into this. Richard Newman and Gina Chiarelli are a treat.
What are the three most important ingredients for a successful play?
Wow. I feel like the best answer would be three elements of a Hogwart’s potion like… a Phoenix feather, a strand of a unicorn’s hair and the whisper of a wizard? My idea of a successful play is one people are still talking about after they leave the theatre. So… for me… I’m always looking to leave the audience with at least one thing they can argue about over caffeine after the show. I’m also a fan of including at least a few laughs.
“Tell the stories you have to tell.”
You have had a storied career that has included journalism, writing, and filmmaking. What have been your most cherished career moments thus far?
To avoid confusing the heck out of your readers I should probably stick with theatre highlights…
It’ll be tough to beat attending opening night of my play, Shylock, performed in Czech in Prague by an actor who won a huge award for his performance. And if you’re thinking of visiting Prague, that production is still in rep until 2020!
Other fave stage moments… opening the Vancouver Folk Festival on the mainstage in front of 10,000 people singing a satirical version of our national anthem…
Having former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell join my comedy duo, Local Anxiety, on stage at the Arts Club in her first public appearance after being decimated in the election…
And winning the (American) Jewish Playwriting Prize last year with this script and workshopping it in New York with a phenomenal creative team was pretty epic.
Leaving theatre life for one other highlight… I should probably mention winning the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour for my debut book – Never Shoot a Stampede Queen – since Biz Books hosted the book launch! Mind you, this became a play too and another highlight was opening night in Kamloops (where Ryan Biel played me) I sat next to my best friend from Williams Lake (who features prominently in the book and play).
What is the most important lesson you have learned along the way?
Tell the stories you have to tell.
What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights?
Tell the stories you have to tell. Attend the theatre. (If you say you don’t go to theatre because it costs too much, you’re lying. Aside from theatre tickets still being a cheaper buy than concerts, sports etc. — and not much more than seeing a Marvel movie in IMAX — most shows have pay-what-you cans or they need volunteer ushers or, you can do what I did, and review for someone to score free tickets). Read plays. Write plays (not screenplays and TV scripts disguised as plays). Don’t be shy about producing or co-producing your own work. That’s why God and Brian Paisley invented the Edmonton Fringe and the North American Fringe movement.
Are there any books or authors that have been influential to you so far in your creative journey?
Lots of writers and stories in all sorts of mediums… three who pop to mind right now…
The big life-changer for me was Kurt Vonnegut. I remember reading Cat’s Cradle and being shocked to discover writers were “allowed” to write that way. So it goes.
Bob Bossin’s Home Remedy for Nuclear War inspired me to jump on stage and perform my own political/satirical stuff. Thinking of Bob because I just caught his “farewell tour.”
And I studied Colleen Murphy’s wonderful play, Armstrong’s War, to get a handle on how I wanted to approach Bar Mitzvah Boy. And she was generous enough to give me notes on this script.
What other projects do you have coming up and where can people find out more about you online?
You mentioned my various different career paths and this month is absurdly eclectic even by my standards.
I just got back from San Francisco where I attended the west coast premiere of my new documentary, The Hundred-Year-Old Whale. The movie — about the J-Pod matriarch — is currently making the rounds of festivals throughout North America. Still waiting to confirm a BC premiere. You can find out where we’ll be next on Facebook.
I just got back to Vancouver to attend rehearsals for Bar Mitzvah Boy and Friday I’m off to a writer’s festival in Campbell River to talk about my book, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World.
Ongoing… I host a podcast about environmental issues – Skaana. We must be doing something right, because BC’s environment minister won’t talk to me. Here’s our iTunes link.
Thanks for asking! Love to everyone at Biz Books!
Thanks to Mark Leiren-Young for speaking with us!
You can see Bar Mitzvah Boy at Pacific Theatre from March 23rd until April 14th. For more information, please visit PacificTheatre.org.