Driving lessons

Filmmaker Sam Fisher’s first play In The Backseat wraps up our post 9/11 concerns and fears in a comedic wrapper.

photo Julé Malet-Veale

It was during a get-together of familiar faces on December 31, 2006, that a trigger moment readied for Sam Fisher. That year, like every year—a tradition, really—a pal of Fisher's hosted the year-end whoop-dee-do; in his opinion, "always a great New Year's Eve bash." While others elsewhere overindulged on munchies, mistletoe and flutes of Spanish champers, Fisher's gathering differed dramatically in that it was subdued and reflective in mood. "For some reason, it just didn't feel quite the same," he says.

Fisher, who runs NSCAD University's film department, recalls the story in his office, located in the late-Victorian Academy Building, just kitty-corner to Citadel Hill. "Everybody was talking about what's going on in the world today, talking about American foreign policy, a lot of talk about the environment. There was just this sense that there'd been a social shift recently. The world had changed somehow in the space of a year." Fisher himself sensed change coming on, somewhat slowly, since 9/11. "Somebody said this is the first time in history that we, as a civilization, have accepted the possibility of the end of civilization as a genuine possibility." As it would anybody, this grim outlook took Fisher aback.

"I started to think about that a lot over the next few weeks and it began to haunt me that the world is different," says Fisher thoughtfully. The wiry, fit, English steeplechase jockey-sized man presses back in his office chair. Impossible to miss, in a corner just beyond his desk, is an unsettling male movie dummy—frozen screaming, eerily white with artificial hoar frost. It's a jarring visual that underscores Fisher's commentary on the fluttery uncertainty of present times. "It dawned on me suddenly that we're at a unique point in history. A lot of things are colliding. It's not a stable place that we live in anymore. It's like we're being pulled along by something—like we're running on a bed of marbles. Nobody knows where they stand anymore." Fisher shifts in his chair. Lifts his hands, palms-up, out to his sides. "This is so intense now, the situation we're in, as everything happening in the world feels like it's on our own doorstep now. It doesn't feel like it's over there, because all the foreign policy seems to be entwined with it. What's going to happen in Africa, we feel that, somehow, that's going to have repercussions for us. We never used to feel that way."

As a creative person in the arts, Fisher decided to make good use of the guttering turbulence he encountered. "I had all these conversations in my head that people had been having that I had embellished in my mind as to how people are grappling with the world right now." And that, basically, compelled the writing of In The Backseat, his first play, presented by Eastern Front Theatre, which opens on October 25. "I wanted to catch the moment in history. What people were thinking about, what people were talking about, what people were worrying about, what people were joking about. What people were arguing about." A snapshot of now, he says, of where we are.

"So I took that inspiration—I'm primarily a filmmaker—and I wrote it as a half-hour short film. The premise: there are a bunch of conversations in the back of a cab. Each one of these conversations gives you a slice of life, each a completely different perspective. They seem like different perspectives, but they're all living on the same planet." The cab, he says, could be a continuation of Marshall McLuhan's metaphor for the global village.

"Cram them all in the backseat of a cab. That's the metaphor right there," he says. "We're all in the same cab, all being driven we don't know where—frankly, by we don't know who. Certainly we're not driving. We're actually passengers in the backseat of our destiny."

His film found its way into the hands of Scott Burke, artistic director of Eastern Front Theatre. To Fisher's surprise, Burke wondered if it was possible for the film to be reworked into a full-length play. To fill 90 minutes, Fisher needed a structure. What worked for Shakespeare with star-crossed lovers, succeeds here too. Romeo, in Fisher's play, is Hiram, a well-educated immigrant who drives a cab in Halifax. Juliet is Sabra, in town pursuing a university degree. Both are from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), but they become romantically involved here.

Fisher says, "They obviously have some things in common, enough that, over here, they are able to feel a close connection and empathy for one another. But the story really revolves around what they don't have in common. The baggage they bring from India. Essentially, they come from different castes. There is no future for their relationship. They can't take it back to India. The struggle they're going through is how to resolve the situation, which, hopefully, resonates with the struggle we're all going through—which is how to resolve difficult, seemingly lose-lose situations. It's like environment versus economy...the reason environment versus economy seems like a lose-lose situation is that we have a lot of baggage—beliefs of the way we think the world should be. But actually, the world does not have to be that way at all. It's really just a lack of imagination and lack of courage."

Fisher plants his feet. "Religion comes into the play because religion informs choices. And it's the point where our beliefs intersect with our actions. And where do our beliefs come from? And at what point do we inherit our beliefs? At what point do we have to stand away from our beliefs? Every single character in the play realizes they're in a lose-lose situation. So the parallels are we're all trying to make tough choices now. Hiram's struggle is to make a choice. He does. In the end, it's a tough choice. The right one, I think," Fisher says directly.

Unlike the mainstream movie crowd, a play audience is looking for something challenging, Fisher feels—something that surprises them and takes them to a place outside of their mode of thinking. "This play really does that," he says. "There's no doubt about it." But brass-eyed realism, however noble, earnest and worthy the intention, can be tiring. Some wise scribe on the theatre beat once observed: "The most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work is comedy." The dark is where you make light. Shakespeare exploited it, and so does Fisher. "I've always had this belief as a writer that the only way to get people to really listen to what you have to say is to sugar the pill. In the play, the characters are all funny. Quirky. Because I believe everybody should have a good night out, it's a comedy."

Of course, these familiar problems beg solutions. "It's difficult to say, "This is what you should do.' I do stick my neck out at the end. People have commented, "Wow, that's brave,'" Fisher laughs. "Or stupid. One or the other."

In The Backseat, October 25-November 11 at Eastern Front Theatre, Alderney Landing, 8pm, $25-$15, 463-7529 Graham Pilsworth is a painter, cartoonist and freelance writer who has written two plays. Composed a la Ibsen, played like Mel Brooks.

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