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Billy Bishop: A Preview Interview with Director Max Reimer

October 11, 2012

It’s odd to hear Max Reimer say directing Globe Theatre’s production of Billy Bishop Goes To War has brought him “full circle.” The term implies closure, and closure suggests The End. Which is hardly the case. Reimer has a lot of good work ahead of him before he calls it a day.

Better to think of it as “appropriate,” because the Eric Peterson/John Gray collaboration is responsible for getting Reimer into the theatre profession in the first place. He saw an early production of this now-classic Canadian musical in Vancouver as a teenager some 30 years ago, and it was game over as far as any other line of work was concerned. Sure, he has an honours degree in sociology and economics from Simon Fraser University, but with respect to a career, after Billy Bishop, it was hardly a fair fight.

This play about the First World War fighter pilot and Canadian hero made a huge and lasting impression on Reimer, for many reasons, chief among them, he says, the way it “engages Canadian society” and “the energy of youth” that it generates. Who could resist?

Now that he finally has a chance to direct the show, with Jacob James in the title role as “the punk from Owen Sound,” and pianist Zachary Flis supplying musical accompaniment onstage, Reimer has finally been able to stamp his own mark on it. “We decided to emphasize the political,” he says, “the relationship at that time between Canada and the British Empire.”

I know what you’re thinking. “Uh-oh. Politics, eh? Hm.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a second that Reimer has gone and drained all the fun out of this show. As he puts it, “the two hours in the theatre are full of laughter. The thoughtful stuff comes on the drive home.”

The political theme is dead-serious, of course. But in our country pretty much everything serious is approached, handled, and resolved with humour, “in the Canadian way,” Reimer says, and the show itself plays true to this national trait.

Billy Bishop is about a country coming of age, and it is timeless in the sense that, even as we speak, there is an often-heated debate raging around us that concerns Canada’s place on the international stage and how large (or small) a role our country should play. That debate won’t be going away anytime soon. Certainly not before the end of the run.

“Our knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Reimer says, and the play is one of many voices we probably should listen to for the sake of making ourselves better informed, ideally before the debate reaches crunch time.

The Canadian identity plays a significant part in all of this. Canadians have been searching for an identity since 1867, perhaps even earlier than that, if you count the gestation period that preceded the birth of this country, and each time we thought we had it, something comes along that suggests we keep looking. And so we do.

“That’s always a question, everywhere,” Reimer says, “but in Canada especially it’s great to have a play like this to explore what it means to be Canadian.”

The play isn’t merely about a young country. It’s about a young man, as well. The word “journey” is over-used in theatre. Indeed, it’s the equivalent to “giving it 110 per cent” in sports. But sometimes it’s the only word that suits, and if Reimer is even more passionate about this Globe Theatre production than he was when he first saw Billy Bishop at the Vancouver Playhouse, I’m sure it has to do with everything that’s happened in between.

Reimer has done television work in Canada and in the United States, but his heart is in live performance as an actor, choreographer and director. He has been a resident director at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, not to mention artistic director and general manager of the Huron County Playhouse in Grand Bend, and managing artistic director at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton.

Reimer has directed at regional theatres from coast to coast, and until this past spring, he was artistic managing director of the Vancouver Playhouse, which, alas, has folded for financial reasons. “I knew what I was getting into,” he says, but he stresses that “it was tragic, but no indication of regional theatre’s health in Canada. What happened in Vancouver was specific to the Playhouse.”

If there’s a silver lining here, Reimer suggests “it is still to come.” This much we know for sure: What happened in Vancouver last spring is the reason he’s in Regina this fall. He found himself a free agent again, “and Ruth (Smillie) was the first one who called.”

Max Reimer is reunited at last with Billy Bishop, the show that got the ball rolling. “It’s a small world,” he says. “It really is.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Globe Theatre website at www.globetheatrelive.com.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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