knows he made the right decision
when at age 34 he chucked a promising television career to become a
full-time playwright. "One morning I started to write a play," Stetson
recalled, "and the next thing I knew, it was afternoon. I just couldn't
stop." (Background: A cautionary
Tale; How I Became a Writer)
This was around the time a CBC-Halifax producer whose name Stetson has sworn never to divulge told him that a script he was working on would have to be rewritten and reshot because it was "operating at a Grade 10 level and around here we operate at a Grade 8 level."
Starting with the trilogy of two-act dramas titled The Survivor Cycle (Warm Wind in China, Queen of the Cadillac and Sweet Magdalena) written between 1986 and 1992, Stetson has churned out a dozen plays, four of them published.
A script doctor and dramaturge for hire, an essayist and writing teacher, Stetson created the scenario for the show that opened last fall's international Climate Change confab in Montreal. In March he completed 26 short dramas for the RCMP Heritage Museum in Regina.
For the P.E.I-born Stetson, Montreal serves as a Maritime metropolis, a creative hub with easy access to work in New York, Toronto and, of course, the East Coast.
said he's adjusting his regular working regime to the demands of his
newest commission, a novel, his first, which he's writing at a
"A play just shows you the tip of the iceberg," Stetson said. "But a novel has to show the whole iceberg, and the sea that it's floating in."
The novel is called The World Above the Sky: A New World Grail Romance and Book of Miracles. The adventure/romance has a fall 2009 publishing date. "I don't know what it's about - yet," Stetson joked. "I'm only on Page 300 - and it's going to be big."
Stetson's oeuvre is epic in concept and narrative expression. The citation for the 2001 GG reads: "In The Harps of God, Kent Stetson creates a new theatrical language - both authentic to the Newfoundland idiom and as powerful and economic as poetry ... The play explores faith and meaning and pays tribute to the survival of a people and a nation. With this masterful work Kent Stetson has raised the bar to a new level in Canadian playwrighting."
Kent's master piece has a cast of 12. The three-act tragedy has been performed a total of six times since it was written in 1997 as a commission for Donna Butt, artistic director of the Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity Bay, Nfld.
The Harps of God dramatizes events that took place in late March of 1914 when a party of 132 sealers was lost in the Newfoundland ice fields for two days and two nights. Caught between two ships without radio link, no one knew they were out there in the weather. Twelve turned back and lived. Of the others, only 40 men survived, every one maimed and soul-scarred.
Like the Ocean Ranger and the cod moratorium, the 1914 Newfoundland disaster is imbedded in the collective memory of Canada's youngest province as one of the events that shaped the island's gift for survival based on its so-called "culture of tragedy." The same culture is also the subject of plays by David French, author of Leaving Home and Salt-Water Moon, who is the dean of Canadian playwrights.
The sealers in The Harps were doomed by two constants, weather and greed. Put out on the ice just as a storm was about to strike, they had no chance. A life-saving radio, along with an operator to run it, had been eliminated to save the grand sum of $7.
The ice crews' primal struggle to survive the elements, and eventually each other, is the subject of Stetson's grand tragedy that asks, "What does it take to survive?"
The Order of Canada came out of the blue. All Stetson knows is that he was nominated from Montreal and P.E.I, which gave him its top literary prize in June. "All the nice lady from Rideau Hall would tell me was, 'You'll never know because we will never tell you.'
"I think I was appointed to the OC for the same reason I won the GG in 2001," Stetson said. "The plays give voice to those who can't speak for themselves, be they Newfoundland sealers abandoned on the ice in a blizzard, an aged Prince Edward Island farmer betrayed by his son's new-found fealty to agribusiness, or a mother sharing the agony of the loss of her son to AIDS, while coming to terms with her feelings for her son's lover.
"The plays nail what it feels like to be Canadian at the instant of their completion. They capture our thoughts and yearnings, they send a message to the future: 'This is something of what we knew of the world we lived in, this is what we thought and how we felt about it. We hope it helps.'''