In October 2021, Post Productions managing director Michael K. Potter was able to interview Windsor-based playwright John Gavey. Gavey’s play, Dead Bear, won the 2020 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest and, as a result, will be produced for the first time for a three-week run at the Shadowbox Theatre beginning 26 November 2021. Here is the interview, in full…
POTTER: Welcome, Mr. Gavey. I’m very pleased to finally meet you in person.
GAVEY: Thank you. This is very exciting.
POTTER: So we are interviewing you about your script -- your play, Dead Bear, which is opening on November 26, 2021, at the Shadowbox Theatre after winning Post Productions’ 2020 Windsor Essex Playwriting Contest.
How would you summarize the story of Dead Bear?
GAVEY: It's about Detective Miles Mallow, and he is retiring. It’s the day of his retirement and, on that day, another detective from his past comes in with some DNA results that were from a case they both can’t let go of. He gives them to Miles as sort of a retirement gift so that he can solve the case, perhaps. But the case itself has grown like a vine all amongst Miles’ mind. He's not always sure what's real and what isn't real. He lives so much in that past because he was in love with that woman and he never ever got past it. So it’s all really tangled up for him. And on that last day he relives things that happened then with things that are happening now -- some things that seem to overlap and some things, perhaps, that he's just imagining -- as he confronts the realization that he has to deal with this now because it's right in front of him in those DNA results, and if he doesn't he's never going to be able to move on with his life.
POTTER: Right. So the stress of the situation sort of compresses past into present, and reality into fantasy -- or memory into fantasy.
GAVEY: Yeah. He goes to a lot of places. It’s heartbreaking, I think. Having seen some of the rehearsals -- the actors are doing a really great job. I'm really impressed, but it's really heartbreaking, I think.
POTTER: Tell us about the characters. You’ve got a really interesting assemblage of characters in this story. So give us just a little bit of an introduction to each of these people and what makes them tick.
GAVEY: Sure. We’ll start with the police.
There’s Miles. His focus really has been the woman in this case. He lived in the same apartment with her. He was in love with her. She was married. Perhaps they had a brief dalliance, were not sure about that because, you know, you can't trust memory, right? After she was murdered he kinda got stuck in time. He luckily got into the cold case squad, and has stayed there -- a cold case -- all along.
His boss is Captain Hemmin. She also was involved with this woman long ago. She lived in the apartment building. She's kind of taken Miles under her wing and watched out for him and taken care of him over the years. And not -- no spoilers, right?
POTTER: Yeah, no spoilers.
GAVEY: And Detective Easton. He's another detective who was Miles' boss way back then. He's obviously got something going on. He's pushing on this really hard -- not sure why. I mean, if you see it you’ll understand, as it goes on. But Miles doesn't know what's happening, and it's like Easton is lighting a fire under him, and Miles is in the pot boiling. And Hemmin is stirring the pot a little bit.
Then we have the people who exist only in the past because they’re not around anymore. One is Corky. That was her husband. He was insecure, but he was devoted to her.
And Kasara herself. She was an interesting woman. A person who found a way to love everyone she met. Corky had trouble with that sometimes. She had trouble with that sometimes. People around her had trouble with that sometimes. There's lots of positive to her, but, you know, it was a coin -- there's lots of negative on the other side too. And, somehow, she end’s up being murdered and Corky was accused. The investigation stalled. It went this way, it went that way – I don’t want to say too much.
POTTER: Now, one of the things that really stood out to us when we read the play, when you first submitted it to the contest, was that it’s sort of this neo-noir detective story, which we don't often see on stage now. People do the Agatha Christie kinds of mystery stories and so forth, but we don't see this kind of almost 40’s style detective story with a melancholy undertone anymore. What drew you to that genre, and how did you end up thinking that this would be a script – something that should be on stage?
GAVEY: I don't know. I think I am obsessed with the loneliness that each person carries within them. Even when they’re in groups, or in relationships, they still have this untouchable loneliness, and that melancholy really speaks to me. I guess, personally, I see myself as a person who’s very alone, standing in the world with a bunch of other people who are alone. And you do what you can, but it seems to be a struggle just going forward.
I guess I saw it as a script because I like the aspect of Miles trying to sort out all of the places that he'd gone in his mind. He has to untangle it to get to the bottom of this, and that’s really hard. I mean, if we go back and think of it as vines, they're like living things that he has to rip the roots off of. If you’ve ever peeled vines off a wall or something -- it's messy. He has to destroy himself a bit to do that. And I guess I find it interesting to see people suffering on stage. That doesn't sound quite right. But when you can understand why. I think more than anything I wanted to show the why here. Why he was like that. That's why we see so many things in the past. Because it shows you how he got where he is today, and that's what I'm really interested in.
POTTER: You mentioned the loneliness, and that you’re drawn to that. As a company, we tend to be drawn to that as well. But that also speaks to something else that I see in the script, which is there’s a romanticism to it. And by “romantic” I don’t mean that it's a love story. What I mean is that fixation or obsession on love, desire, longing, that is typical of romanticism as a poetic movement and a literary movement long ago. But without the idealistic element. There’s an edge to it. There’s a realization that, as you mentioned earlier, there’s a double-sided coin.
Were you aware of the romantic sort of elements of this play when you were writing it, or is that something that is generally present in what you write?
GAVEY: I don't know if it's generally present, but certainly that obsession with something that borders on romanticism -- I find especially in police officers. I remember there was a case, the boy in the box. You might have heard this -- a cardboard box with a dead boy in it. He had his hair cut, and so he had been cared for, but he was also beat up. And there was a police officer who followed that for about forty years and he just couldn't let it go. And he finally -- they finally find out who the boy was. There was a lot of cases like that which seemed to come down to one individual saying, “I'm not going to give up on this. I'm going to find out who that baby was, or who that infant was.” And also the mystery seems to grow behind it. And I guess, speaking of romanticism, lots of times you're in a situation where you don't have the information, often you fill it in. And it does become kind of romantic in a way because you make it what you want it to be and it's not true.
POTTER: Right, and you may lose the ability to distinguish between what you added and what was actually remembered.
POTTER: I’m interested in this distrust of memory. That's, I think, what gives it that edge and sort of keeps it from being a full-on romantic work. Because it's not idealistic. That mistrust of memory is what holds it back, or gives it an identity of its own -- more unique. Where does that come from? Is this an interest you've had for a while?
GAVEY: In the play Miles writes poetry. But it’s not really poems. They're not to be shared with other people. Really, it’s snapshots of emotions felt in an instant. It’s just like when you see a photograph, you can sometimes say, “Oh, I remember that! I remember what happened then.” Over time it fades. But in a poem, if you've got twenty lines, he can write down the exact emotions of that instant and then compartmentalise them. Sort of forget about them. But anytime he wants to look, it's there again.
The problem with that is he collects these little moments of all the past things that he felt strongly about – that were important -- but there's all the time in between where he never recorded anything. So he has these specific memories, but what connects them to the other memories he doesn’t remember. That's gone. What he truly felt he doesn’t know. It’s just what he gets from the words in that instant. It's like a little shot of memory, but it's isolated because it's not connected to any of the others. So he can collect those, but it's not really what happened. It's just little snippets of things he wrote afterwards, and there’s big, big, blank spaces.
POTTER: A snapshot rather than a film.
GAVEY: Yes. Exactly.
POTTER: One frame.
POTTER: That's interesting. This idea that articulating your emotions in this way -- through poetry -- is almost like an exorcism for Miles. It's a way of getting those emotions out so that he can put them somewhere and move on. But then, like in an exorcism, we got the demon out of the person but then we put it in a box in their bedroom, right? So it's always there. You got it out through articulation, but he holds on to these books where he’s recorded his poetry, and he goes back to them.
GAVEY: It’s almost -- he thinks he’s exercised them -- put them in this box but, really, that's just the key and all the feelings are still inside him. Then he takes that little key, opens it up, and it's all still there. So he’s still full of the demons but he thinks he's gotten rid of them.
I had a friend once and she had boyfriend boxes. Whenever she broke up with a boy -- and you know she was a beautiful young lady in her 20s -- she’d put everything from their relationship in this box, lock it, and put it in the closet. Somehow that helped her deal with it.
POTTER: That’s interesting. Well, the poetry is kind of, in a way, what makes this something that needs to be done as a play rather than, say, a novel, right? Because the poetry, as it's written in the play, becomes a way for Miles, and for the audience as well, to transition between these different points in time. Miles – the poetry’s a vehicle for him to enter these memories as we go through the play. And so, in a way, it helps the audience see the story rather than read the story.
POTTER: Is that an integral part of how you thought about the story when you approached it, or is it something you added later?
GAVEY: No, that was the starting point. I wanted him to have, you know -- I think one of the big struggles I always see is how do you know what the protagonist is feeling? And you have to show it. You can't tell it. It's hard to show. It can be interpreted this way, that way -- everybody lies constantly. So, this was a cheat, you know? Here he is. He's presenting these poems, which he may not even remember himself entirely, of his feelings. What he felt at that moment. And especially the way Simon, the actor playing him, recites them, reads them, whatever he's doing with them – it’s very evocative for us as an audience. I mean, I know what happens and to see him going through that thing -- it's really strong because he's not hiding anything. When he's reading the poem it's almost like he's reading it for the first time, but he doesn't know it intimately and the emotions are all coming out. So really, it’s like we said before, it unlocks that demon of that instance. I mean, what happens if you have books and books and books of those poems and it's your entire life story collected? In a way, like Miles, you don't have a life anymore. You're just an empty husk. Because he's taken every bit out and put in a little book and put it on a shelf.
POTTER: Right. Or at least he thinks he has.
GAVEY: He thinks he has, yeah. Now, all of a sudden, they're all coming apart. They’re all coming out of the books and everything’s a mess and he's trying to navigate it to get back to himself somehow.
POTTER: Yeah, it’s an interesting challenge trying to communicate what the character is feeling, as you know. In using the poetry, I think -- especially the way it's being done in the production -- it's this sort of immediate raw vulnerability for Miles, where the audience can see into him. I think it will help the audience really empathize with him and root for him as this story moves along.
GAVEY: You’re inside his body with him. You experience it as he does. When he goes, there's no preamble, you understand at once. When he takes the poem, he’s zoomed right back to that instant in the past and we’re all right there with him and know that he's watching. It was a very quick way to jump time.
POTTER: I’m interested too in the character of Kasara. Because she is, in a way, the central figure of everything. Because everyone involved and everyone else in the story, in some way, has spent a lot of time thinking about her. She’s like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. Everyone has spent a lot of their time thinking about that person. In a way each character is defined by their relationship to Kasara. So where did that character come from? How did you think of this sort of free-spirited character who is so infused and overflowing with love that she can't help exhuming it wherever she goes?
GAVEY: I think it came from Miles. Because I know where I wanted him to start and what his journey to be, I needed someone significant enough for him to end up where he is. So she had to be that strong and that wonderful, and horrible, or whatever she is, so that he would never forget her. And then all the other people in the story had to be connected to her too. So, as Miles evolved, he created her.
It's almost like I created her through his memory and then all the other things fell into place. And the relationships with other people were developed too. I mean, she's so strong -- it's the most powerful thing that ever happened to him and he’s never been able to get past it. And by extension the other people have similar things. Their relationship with her was the most powerful thing that had ever happened to them too.
POTTER: I feel like I’ve, every now and then in my life – not very often, but once in a while – met a person like that. Who is… in philosophy it’s referred to as “charisma” -- who just has that quality that draws people to them. Where people just have to pay attention to them and have to notice them, have to think about them, almost against their will.
Did you know anybody like that that informed the way you wrote Kasara?
GAVEY: Yeah, I think one comes to mind for sure. I don't remember any others, but I'm sure there was. If I looked through my books of poetry, I’d find them.
POTTER: Tell me about your writing experience. I know when you submitted the play to the contest you mentioned that, you know, at least your wife liked it.
What sort of writing background do you have? Is this your first script?
GAVEY: It’s pretty much my first script. I have spent my life, just like Miles did, recording snippets into poems and, you know, they pile up and up. It's sort of… I don't know, I guess I'm not going to qualify it by saying what it is. But it’s a frequent gift I give to my wife, which are collected pieces of -- you know, if we go on a trip I’ll write thirty little poems about things we did. Just small things. Or, you know, about when we met. I’ll give her that -- a little booklet that has 25-30 things that happened. She's different than me. I remember things extremely well and she doesn't. But when she reads this, it comes right back to her at that time too. So that’s really nice.
POTTER: So you’re a romantic in both senses.
GAVEY: I don’t know about that. It’s a nice double-use. I’m able to record these things to exercise themselves from myself, but it's nice that I can share them. I mean, there's a drawback to that too. Now, because she reads it all, I don't necessarily always write exactly what I'm thinking. I write things which I think a) will be acceptable to her and b) will be meaningful to her as well.
POTTER: So you’re writing for an audience.
GAVEY: Yes. Yeah. Well I guess that was always a hard part. I mean, who am I writing for? Is writing for yourself enough? Sometimes it's not, you know? Writing for an audience is great, but then you end up adapting what you're doing to fit the audience.
POTTER: Yeah, or what you think the audience wants.
POTTER: Yeah. I won't press you on that because I don't want to disrupt your marriage. We’ll leave that there.
Because your script won the contest in 2020, I think a lot of people will be really interested in your process. Can you tell us something about your writing process -- how you approach a script? I know you've written scripts since Dead Bear.
POTTER: What does your process look like?
GAVEY: Well, I guess I thought of it as just like the poems. Each little piece of where he was at. I mean, I guess I'll say it's linear. It was like a journey. But one of the whole things in the show is that it's not linear. Memory is not linear. All these things happen to him now, even though they were in the past. I needed to start with him, so the audience could hear where he was at -- that he was at the end of a journey -- that he was retiring. But he still had this hidden journey that he needed to take. And he had all these little pieces of whatever you want to call them…time jumping pills, that would send him back. And we went all over through that journey.
So the writing process, for this piece anyway, was trying to uncover -- trying to show the audience what happened, piece by piece, poem by poem. I mean, when he gets out a poem it takes us to a place. Something happened. Something is connected to that poem. Then he recovers from it, because it's a huge emotional journey for him. And then he kind of wakes up to where he is now. Perhaps something happens now, or spurs something that sends him on another one. So I needed enough poems and enough ideas to make him cover this whole journey in the time that he's in, from that single day of retiring, thinking about retiring, getting the DNA results, being invited to reopen the case, thinking about the case, reliving the case, going through it all, to opening that envelope and finding out what really happened. And… I'm not sure I've answered the question.
POTTER: Structurally it's a complex play because of exactly what you've been saying. Did that make it more difficult to write? Did you find that it took you a long time because of the unique structure?
GAVEY: I don’t want to say that that was hard. I want to say that was a beautiful part of it. I find that -- especially the rehearsals I've seen -- the first act just zooms by. And it's partly the structure because you're in here, you're finding out this, now you're here and this is connected to that. And somehow those things in the past, the way the structure of it was, it wasn't difficult. It was beautiful to get lost in. Things would pop up again and we would go over here. And so, for me, it was incredible.
It was like reading one of my own books of poetry out of order, you know, about incidents that happened. Because sometimes you pick it up and you just flip to a page, flip to a page, flip to a page. And you don't necessarily remember that -- well, for example, when we went to Banff I did that. I wrote a great big book, about sixty poems. I can, you know, pick a whole bunch. You don't get the whole story of what happened when we went to Banff, but underneath it it starts to take shape in your head about what we did each day and how we felt about it. It was a beautiful way for it to sink in rather than it being presented linearly. Just, you know, like this happened, then this happened, then this happened. Instead, it was an emotional journey. He felt this. He felt this. He felt this. We start to understand why. We start to see what happened and why it happened. He relives it and we get to relive it with him. We get to live it for the first time. So that's what I really like about the structure.
POTTER: Yeah, it's one thing I really like too. I mean, for me, it's almost as though there's an image of what really happened and over top of that images is a jigsaw puzzle. And every time he relives something through a poem, and through a memory, a piece of that jigsaw puzzle is taken off and gradually the image behind it is revealed. And because of the nonlinear approach, you don't know which piece is going to be removed next. You can't predict that.
GAVEY: Yeah, and that’s terrifying too.
GAVEY: He doesn't know what the real image is. And he starts to suspect, but he can’t even trust his own memory anymore. I mean, how much is he involved? Is he responsible? He's not even sure that.
POTTER: So, on that note, how accurate is your memory of writing Dead Bear?
GAVEY: I didn't write a poem about it. I will say that a big part of it certainly was entering it in the contest and getting the feedback from the judges. That really helped to shape it a lot for sure. So, you know, there's pieces. Me working on it myself. My wife reading it and going, “Yeah, that's OK, keep going.” But she’d probably say that no matter what it was like. And then submitting it and wondering how you folks would take it. And then taking your first feedback and applying it and then going through the process again. So that’s kind of what I remember. Spread over time, it’s kind of murky.
POTTER: Well, I think what you ended up creating is really unique and audiences are really going to appreciate it because it’s something they won’t have seen on stage before. So thanks very much for writing it and submitting it and letting us produce it. And thanks for this interview.
GAVEY: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
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