Playwright Ryan Griffith talks about the impact 80’s sci-fi has had on his writing.
As we prepare to launch of 49th season of theatre with the world premiere production, Fortune of Wolves, written by New Brunswick playwright Ryan Griffith, we thought it would be fun to chat with Ryan about his fascination with the supernatural and how his deep interest in the unknown has influenced his writing.
A lot of your work with Next Folding Theatre Company has involved themes of the supernatural. Where did your interest in the strange and unexplained come from and how do you think it has influenced your work?
RG: So this is a big question.
I was a kid in the eighties, I think, is the real answer to that. Many of the first movies I saw were eighties movies. It was such a great era for science fiction and horror. I think the first three movies I saw in the movie theatre when I was very young were Star Wars, Splash, and E.T. I would also watch Doctor Who every Saturday night on MPBN (Maine Public Broadcasting Network), which was great because they would always show the full episode back then. Basically it was like a Saturday night movie. We also only had three television channels growing up so it was a bigger deal back then.
When you start writing stories or plays and start taking creative writing classes, many professors/dramaturges actually discourage new writers from dragging supernatural elements into their work. Sometimes using ghosts or aliens can be seen as something a new writer is introducing into a story when they are having trouble realizing the actual real conflict that is occurring between their main characters. The supernatural can sometimes be used as a sort of ‘instant conflict’ or ‘instant resolution’, a shortcut to realizing the drama actually happening in the story the writer is trying to create. So many writers are encouraged to cut such superfluous content and focus on committing to the hard work of making their story ‘real’.
I think the trick is to make sure you’re not using it as a gimmick or as some kind of cure-all for your story.
If you watch the original Ghostbusters, there is a scene where Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd are driving back from a job in the Ecto-1. (watch it here) It’s sunrise and they’re driving across a bridge and Winston asks Ray, ‘Hey, Ray. Do you believe in God?’ What follows is, for me, one of the greatest dialogue scenes of any movie ever made. It’s phenomenal writing. It develops conflict and tension, reveals character and makes the audience think about some really big questions. Everything they talk about could actually be real for them because they live in a world with actual ghosts.
Another one of the best dialogue scenes I’ve ever seen is in Repo Man. There is this scene between Tracey Walter and Emilio Estevez. (watch it here) Miller is burning clothing and garbage in this old barrel with Otto standing nearby. Both men are staring at this fire in this garbage barrel while Miller explains his theory of time travel to Otto and their conversation ends with the line, ‘The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.’ This is a sweeping statement about humanity, but we are led there via a speech set in a world where time travel is real.
I am a big fan of the 2nd Doctor, Patrick Troughton, because I have always felt like his take on the character was the most human. His speech about how ‘our lives are different to everyone else’s’ could be delivered from any world, by any character and it would resonate. However, because it is delivered to us by this Time Lord who can go anywhere he wants and has seen so much, it lends so much more to the meaning of the words and ideas he is trying to express.
Most science fiction and horror works immerse the audience in a world that is bigger than the one we assume we are living in. Our own personal worlds can become very small sometimes. You can get all wrapped up in your job, your family and your own insecurities sometimes and your world can get very small. Science fiction and horror offer an escape from this. While you can say that about all fiction, maybe, more than that, these genres remind us that our small worlds probably aren’t that small, really. We are all part of a giant universe, full of things we can’t explain. I think that reminder can be like a breath of fresh air sometimes.
I like thinking about big questions. I also like writing stories that anyone can identify with. Stories where anyone, regardless of their economic background, age, gender or cultural group can be the hero, villain or the victim. Science fiction and horror are very accessible genres that can accommodate these things I like.
As an element for storytelling, “the unexplained’ can embrace an endless amount of possibility and meaning. Is this part of the attraction?
I think the use of ‘the unexplained’ is really just another tool a writer can use to engage an audience in the world of the story you are trying to create. I like watching murder mysteries because when I watch them I am constantly trying to figure out who the killer is. I think people automatically start looking for patterns in things. So when you write about ‘the unexplained’, you are introducing an element that might not necessarily fit the pattern that an audience member has already figured out in their brain. It might make them work harder. It might add more fun to the experience of that play/novel/movie. It might not, though. Not everyone enjoys a puzzle, but everyone needs a pattern.
In Fortune of Wolves, you pair this supernatural element with a very Maritime (and/or Canadian) story. This isn’t the first time you’ve worked these two elements into a story. For you, what sets Fortune apart from your earlier work?
Fortune of Wolves, in a way, is the first play I’ve written in a while that doesn’t try to mythologize the landscape of New Brunswick so much. All of the places in the play are real places. The protagonist actually travels to Alma. He spends the night in Fundy National Park. He works in a motel in Perth-Andover. He stays at a bed and breakfast in Gananoque.
You have to be very careful when you write about real places sometimes. The last thing you want to do is exploit people. Or have your audience stereotype people from a certain town because of the way you’ve drawn fictional characters that you determine have come from there.
There’s a universality Fortune is striving for. It uses the genres of sci-fi/horror to help people understand it’s ultimately just a story. But it also uses real locations to encourage people to think about these very real places in fantastic ways.
New Brunswick, in particular, can be a very regional province. We might think of people from the Miramichi or from the Carleton County or from Saint John in a certain light, even though, in Fredericton, we’re a short drive away from all of these places. Part of what Fortune attempts to do, is to show how people from all of these different places are similar, on certain levels. It tries to find a common human experience. And through the imagination of its protagonist, Lowell, I think it does.
Ryan Griffith grew up along the banks of the Saint John River in Lower Woodstock, New Brunswick. A graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, Ryan enjoys performing and writing for theatres in his home province. His play LUTZ was published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2011. His short play Shepody, Rage And Wolfe was featured as part of the National Elevator Project Plays produced by Theatre Yes in Edmonton and Halifax. Ryan is the Artistic Director for the Next Folding Theatre Company in Fredericton, NB.
Fortune of Wolves | October 12-22, 2017 – Open Space Theatre (Fredericton) | On Tour: October 23-30, 2017. To learn more about the play or to buy tickets, visit us online at tnb.nb.ca