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This old house

Prolific playwright pens play about packing up his parents

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Though his plays now premiere off-Broadway, local boy made good Vern Thiessen is thrilled to be unveiling his new one-man show on home turf.

"This piece called out to be performed in Winnipeg," says the Governor General's Award-winning playwright who now hangs his hat in the Big Apple.

"It's a personal story about growing up Mennonite in North Kildonan."

And he's not trusting it to any actor but himself.

Thiessen, 46, left home 22 years ago after completing his undergraduate theatre degree at the University of Winnipeg.

The youngest of four children (and lone male), he did a master's in playwriting at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He tried Toronto for a couple of years, then returned to Edmonton to write, teach and work at the Citadel, the capital city's big regional stage.

With his knack for locating human stories in historical subjects, not to mention his penchant for poetic dialogue, he has built a resumé as one of the country's most-produced playwrights.

He estimates he has penned 25 plays since the late 1980s. His best known ones -- Shakespeare's Will, Apple, Einstein's Gift (the G-G winner in 2003), Blowfish, The Resurrection of John Frum and Vimy, get productions not just in Canada but in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

His most recent effort, the historical drama Lenin's Embalmers, premiered in March off-Broadway, where the New York Times gave it a rave. It will have its Winnipeg premiere this fall at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.

About five years ago, Thiessen returned home to help his immigrant parents, Gerhard and Susan, move out of the family home on Edison Avenue.

The experience elicited a wave of memories that he has fashioned into a 45-minute drama, complete with various visual props, thanks to his director and designer, Warren Sulatycky.

Bungalow is being staged at 9 nightly (7:30 p.m. July 25 only) at a BYOV, the Rory Runnells Studio at 504 in the Artspace Building, 100 Arthur St.

"We're testing it in Winnipeg," Thiessen says. "If we get feedback saying I should expand it into something bigger, I might do it."

Can Thiessen act as well as he writes? His old U of W buddy, the playwright and WJT artistic director Michael Nathanson, recalls Thiessen as a veritable Olivier in his performance in a Bruce McManus play, Caffe, in the mid-1980s.

"I don't think Vern chose the wrong path, although he did have a flair for flower arrangements that few know about."

Thiessen has four commissions on the go. He's writing a musical with Winnipeg composer Olaf Pyttlik for Manitoba Theatre for Young People, an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage for the Shaw Festival and a drama about Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque for the Citadel.

The fourth is a play about friendship with six women over 60. American actor Leonard Nimoy and his wife, Susan, commissioned it after they staged his one-woman play about Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's Will, in Los Angeles.

"He's not just insightful to the female condition, he's actually incredibly self-aware," vouches his sweetie, Winnipeg novelist Susie Moloney, whom he reconnected with on Facebook a couple years ago.

"We can have a fight, and he gets just as pissed off at himself as I do."

morley.walker@freepress.mb.ca

Fringe preview

Bungalow

z By Vern Thiessen

z Venue 22 (Rory Runnells Studio)

z 9 nightly (7:15 p.m. July 25 only)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2010 D5

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