States of Shock
Fend Players, Station Street Arts Centre, 1993
States of Shock : War, Betrayal, and the BluesAt the time of its production by the Fend Players, States of Shock was Shepard's most recent play and his first after 1985's A Lie of the Mind. It was clearly inspired by the Gulf War and revisits thematic obsessions in Shepard's work--betrayal of sons by tyrannical fathers--but with a return to the more free-wheeling dramatic style seen in the plays before the family dramas of the late 70s.
In his Georgia Straight review (Feb. 12-19, 1993: 24), Colin Thomas trashed the production, claiming that there was nothing new thematically--"Stubbs may or may not be the Colonel's son, but whichever way the schrapnel flies, it's apparent that the old man's need for war has resulted in the young man's meaningless sacrifice. Universally applicable, I'm sure, but hardly fresh analysis. Masculinity is equated with aggression, violence, potency--all the usual stuff." Thomas was particularly disappointed with the direction: "Ron Sauvé is appropriately bombastic as the Colonel, and Vincent Gale is just fine as Stubbs, but there are other characters, too, and director Paul Crepeau seems to have no idea what to do with them."
I remember being so annoyed with Thomas' review that I dashed off an over-long letter to the editors of the Georgia Straight that was hopelessly self-righteous and indignant. In fact, Thomas was not alone among the critics who found Shepard's work undisciplined, aimless, and heavy-handed.
I'm still not so sure, even though this is not one of Shepard's premier works. What he seems to be confronting in States of Shock is how to address the problem of violence in a culture where violence is so pervasive as to render all discourse tiresome, familiar, and readily dismissed as being of minor intellectual import. What John Simon called "thoughtlessness," Mimi Kramer labeled "predictable," and Gerald Weales found to be "obvious"--all faults, they imply, of the playwright--exactly describe the presence of violence in North American culture, whatever forms these violations may take.
Tellingly, in my view, the play reminds its audience that the victims are legion, and their desire to resist oppression is expressed by the blues:
Good morning heart-ache
The unhinged verbal and psychological violence of this play is over-the-top. It is aggressive and assaults the senses. It's Artaud. The playwright, however, embeds this violence in the matrix of the blues and the physical mediations of the server Glory Bee. The blues, here, frames the violence. The blues disrupts the bankrupt rhetoric of domination and places it within a mood of defensive resignation--a defense against unbearable ideas. The blues singer need not capitulate to carry on.
Fend PlayersFend Players, under the artistic direction of Paul Crepeau, established itself in the Station Street Arts Centre on Main Street in Vancouver in the mid-80s. According to Alex Taylor--a former actor and director familiar with the Fend story--the company got its start in Victoria with a production of True West at the Belfry in 1987, and later established a permanent presence at Station Street in 1988. (Taylor played Saul Kimmer in the production.) "Criminals in Love opened the summer, and later came True West. Both were successful productions," Taylor added. For the next eleven years the company produced 56 full-length productions, showcasing Canadian works and plays by a variety of international playwrights. Fend Players also organized a dramatic arts / employment program for street youth, and assisted many arts and community groups such as the Vancouver Conservatory, Dark Horse Theatre, the Developmental Arts Society, the Women in View Festival, and the International Jazz Festival. By and large, the company attempted to pay its own way without extensive grants.
In an attempt to gain some insight into the artistic vision of Crepeau and the Fend Players, I asked Alex Taylor what attracted the actors to Shepard's work. He was "one of the few playwrights writing that way at the time." Theatre as tool of social change seemed to have passed, and actors were going back to basics: rich dialogue, complex characters, great stories. For Taylor, Shepard provided "emotionally captivating theatre." As an actor, he felt as if he were "trying to live up to the level of the writing. There's a lot of theatricality in Shepard, and actors need to find the truth--what's real--in the dialogue. Without a strong director, there's a tendency to get campy and maudlin. The director needs to keep you on track with the truth of the performance."
On the Fend Players, Taylor explained that "Paul [Crepeau] took on the ultimate challenge and was successful for ten years. They didn't get much in the way of funding in comparison to the Arts Club and the Playhouse which were more fully subsidized." Fend focused on Canadian theatre--the "toughest row to hoe," according to Taylor. "Actors wanted to work there. Paul was a serious artist. It wasn't about the money and everyone made a lot of sacrifices. Paul was the artistic vision and energy behind the theatre, and although he deserves the bulk of the credit for what happened there, it is also worth mentioning that there were lots of great local artists and technical personnel who helped along the way." Fend provided one of the few opportunites at the time for doing "serious, intelligent, and challenging "theatre, even though it was like "swimming upstream."
I asked Taylor how Crepeau--and Fend--were perceived by the Vancouver theatre community: "He's a really, really smart guy--one of the smartest people I know. He is also one of the most driven and energetic people I have ever met. If you look at the magnitude of his achievement given the resources available, it's amazing. That said, he is not a poseur, and he is not always the most diplomatic person in the room. I think he is an outsider in the artistic community, but I also think he is quite comfortable in that role. I guess you could say he is a real Shepard character in some ways." Taylor suggested that there may have been some jealousy in the community: "Who is this person who can make theatre without funding?"
Ostensibly as a result of structural problems with the building, in 1996 the Station Street Arts Centre closed and the Fend Board continued to operate without a facility until 1999, when the Flying U Ranch (in the Cariboo) and Fend Players joined forces to create opportunities for arts programming at the ranch. Recently, Fend received approval from Human Resources Development Canada to create a 1,400 square foot studio space at the ranch, where artists can produce work, and Fend can host workshops and seminars year-round.
A somewhat different story emerged during an interview with me on August 9, 2001, when Paul Crepeau admitted to considerable frustration with funding for theatre in Vancouver. He claimed that smaller companies like Fend Players had great difficulty competing for support against the larger companies. More than anything for Crepeau, it was this lack of support which led to the exodus of the Fend Players from the Vancouver theatre scene in the mid-90s.
Postscript: On Small Theatre CompaniesOn October 11, 2002, I received the following email from Reno Dikaios, Artistic Producer & Director of Vertigo Theatre:
I recently visited your web site because I love Sam Shepard and was thinking of producing one of his shows in the near future. I noticed that you had coverage of States of Shock and also noticed some commentary regarding Paul Crepeau, Artistic Director of Fend Players Society.