A Conversation with Robert Chafe, Artistic Fraud Artistic Associate, Playwright & Co-creator for “Fear of Flight”

Robert Chafe playwright and co-creator of Fear of Flight playing at The Cultch

Robert Chafe

What happens in this show?
Fourteen singing passengers endure turbulence, paranoia, their fear of flying and their fear of what’s waiting on the ground, during a bumpy transcontinental flight. There’s Joyce on her way to her sister’s lesbian wedding, and the invariable familial grilling of her continued singledom. There’s Blandy, the tough-as-nails fourteen year old, flying to say goodbye to her dying mother in Florida. There’s Glynis, the naïve ball of optimism, flying to Vancouver because Jesus asked her to.

How did Fear of Flight come to be?
It all started many years ago when Director Jillian Keiley and friend and actor Torquil Colbo created a five-minute movement piece to explore their shared fear of flying. They concocted the plan on the lawn of the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College Fine Arts Building. Flash forward ten years and Jill and playwright Robert Chafe are back at the college in residency and asked to create a show utilizing the 30 second and third-year students. Fear of Flight was born. Since that time the original student production played at the 2006 Magnetic North Festival in St. John’s, before a pared down (14 person), ramped up (new a cappella score) professional production debuted in 2008. That production travelled to the Magnetic North festival and Toronto’s Factory Theatre last spring, and now comes to the Cultural Olympiad.

This production was written by some of the nation’s most prominent and lauded English playwrights: How did you get so many talented and well-known writers to participate?
We asked them nicely. It’s one of the most amazing things about the Canadian theatre community; it’s great and diverse and inclusive and relatively small. Over the years of working and travelling to festivals, (Magnetic North deserves a big tip of the hat here) we had the great pleasure of meeting many of our country’s theatrical luminaries. When we had the idea of getting different writers to script some character sketches for us, we simply sat down, did up a list of who we would like to ask, and sent off some emails. We were thrilled that most said yes. The writers have been amazing through this process. They delivered some great stuff to work with, and were incredibly generous with allowing us to sculpt their characters into the larger narrative. It has been a big gift to work with these folks.

Petrina Bromley as Bride

Petrina Bromley as Bride written by Bernie Stapleton

Writers on collaborative works often talk about the challenges of keeping their piece focused. How were you able to keep Fear of Flight focused with so many authors?
It was kind of amazing, actually, that all of the writers delivered monologues that had a distinct shape (a beginning, middle and an end) and that all seemed, though in very distinct ways, to be talking about the same thing; courage, how to find it through the fear. The writers themselves were tasked with writing a monologue about fear of flying, or fear of what’s waiting back on the ground. It was all admittedly pretty vague at the start. We went through a bunch of different versions of the script, cutting the monologues into sections, shifting them around, building an overall story arc for the plane as a whole. The company’s process focuses on a slow and steady development of works of this size and complexity. Each time we have gone back and revisited the piece, we assess what is working and what needs improvement. Each subsequent production of the show is that much stronger for it. The short answer to the question; talented and generous writers, and time.

Can you give us a taste of what the creative process was like for putting a show like this together? How different was this process from previous shows you have directed?
The student production at Grenfell College in 2005 saw the first story arc constructed from the cut up monologues and the first attack on the movement choreography. The music soundtrack at the time was from found sources, the idea being that the music we were hearing at any given point was what that particular character was listening to on the airplane entertainment system. For the Magnetic North presentation of this student production in 2006, we took another swipe at the story arc, cutting some sections, moving a lot of stuff around, trying to really solidify the feeling we were watching the one story of this entire plane. When it came to the professional production in 2008, the show took a very different direction. The cast size was reduced from 30 to 14. We were now able to give each passenger a distinct personality, lines, a conflict, a goal. We also at this time commissioned the original score from Jonathan Monro. When we revisited the show a year later for Magnetic North and the Factory, we took another swipe at the story, did some more auxiliary writing around the main monologues to strengthen the spine of the piece. Fear of Flight, perhaps more than any other piece we have done since Under Wraps, (1997) has benefited from multiple productions and careful consideration of post-production re-writes and development. With projects this big, time in front of an audience is the biggest gift for its continued development and refinement.

What was the impetus for using choral music in the show?
Our work has always been chorus based, and always had a musical aspect. We love theatre that fully utilizes every performer and all their skills in finding the onstage magic. It was a given from the start that the show would have music, and that, eventually, music of the show would be generated by the performers. Artistic Fraud has always sought to create spectacular pieces that would retain their wow factor even if they were performed in a rehearsal hall with no lights, costumes, or set. It’s all about the performers for us, and how they can function as a group to create something large and luminous.

cast of Fear of Flight simulate crashing


What do you love most about this production?
Personally, I love that the production marks the intersection of work by many many artists, diverse in practice and geography. It’s truly a trans- Canadian affair. But I’m also extremely proud of how a project that started as a vague idea has developed with time and patience into a solid piece of theatre, a solid story told in a unique and eye-catching way. I also love each of the actors in this piece. They make it look very easy. But think about it, above and beyond their duties as actors, they are singing a full 80-minute vocal score without accompaniment or a conductor. They can’t even really look at each other for cues. Anyone who has ever sung in a choir can appreciate the difficulty of what they are doing every night, but yet they make it look so easy.

Can you describe some of the themes that arose beyond the initial idea of the fear of flying?
As I said, courage was a big theme in most of the original monologues. What it is, how we can foster it in ourselves. The story of the show really ends up being about control, our insatiable need to have it over all aspects of our lives, and the freedom and courage that comes with sometimes relinquishing it.

“Absolutely hilarious is how director Keiley includes the minutiae of airplane ritual. The show is not to be missed.” Paula Citron, classical963fm.com

Fear of Flight is playing at The Cultch Feb 9-14. Buy tickets here or call The Cultch Box Office at 604.251.1363

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