Maritime love letters: STU grad Ryan Griffith writes plays for and from his home

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St. Thomas graduate Ryan Griffith wanted to be a cop when he grew up. He never saw himself working in the theatre, let alone writing and directing his own plays. Now, nearly 20 years and at least as many plays later, Griffith is working with Theatre New Brunswick to produce The Boat, a play he adapted from Alistair MacLeod’s short story of the same name.

The Boat tells the story of a father who realizes he has become trapped in life and wants to give his children a chance to choose their own path.

“The play looks at issues of identity, and what it means to be a prisoner in your own life, or of your own culture, and how do you escape that?” said Griffith. “But I also think it is a huge love letter to the Maritimes as well.”

Griffith, a 39-year-old New Brunswick native, grew up in Lower Woodstock on the banks of the St. John River. His great-great-great-great-great grandfather settled the land with a group of Loyalists fleeing to the north after America’s War of Independence, and his family has lived there ever since. Griffith says that the Maritimes feel like home to him, and when he writes his plays he writes for the people who live there.

“For me, I like the people here, the way of life,” said Griffith. “I like how the distances are smaller. From Woodstock, from Fredericton too, you travel two hours in any direction and it’s almost a completely different regional community. We have everything here.

“I like potatoes from Carleton County. Fiddleheads are alright. I love our rivers; I love the river valley. That kind of landscape, when I see it it’s just…” Griffith said as he placed his right hand on his heart. “I just think I’m from here.”

When Griffith was younger, he performed in his high school’s plays, but he wasn’t passionate about theatre. He viewed it as an extracurricular, not a potential career path.

“I was never planning on doing a ton of theatre,” said Griffith. “I just did a play a year because it was fun, and my friends were involved.”

After high school, Griffith came to St. Thomas University where he studied criminology, in preparation for what he thought would be his career as a police officer. He spent his free time playing rugby, but after injuring his leg he says he found himself with nothing to do, so he decided to attend a theatre festival put on by the school.

“Memorial University did this beautiful production of [Judith Thompson’s] Lion in the Streets,” said Griffith. “I remember watching it, and I loved how emotional it was, and how beautiful all the tech stuff was. But I was still in my second year of university, just out of high school, kind of, and I didn’t understand a thing about the play. I didn’t get it; I didn’t have that kind of patience for it.”

Griffith said he remembers stepping out of the Black Box theatre during the intermission and thinking to himself how he would like to write a play that the average New Brunswicker would be able to appreciate. He said that idea has become clearer in his mind in the almost 20 years since that moment.

After that, Griffith wrote and directed his first play, Tug, which premièred in St Thomas’ Black Box. He only had one word to describe the feeling of seeing his work performed live.

“Amazing. It felt pretty amazing. It was fun, because when you start writing, everything you write is just the most awesome thing you’ve ever written in your entire life, kind of. And so that play was just scene after scene of just the most awesome thing I could think of. That play had like, knights of the round table in it, and ghosts, and stuff from Woodstock. It was just a super fun play.”

Since Tug, Griffith said he has written at least one play a year. After St. Thomas, he attended the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal, where he studied in the playwright program. One of his classes asked students to adapt a short story into a play, and Griffith chose Alistair MacLeod’s The Boat.

“I wanted to pick a really cool short story, and I remember The Boat had a really cool twist of the knife at the end, a sudden emotional punch.”

“The second thing, which I realize now was going on, is that while I was in Montreal I missed the Maritimes quite a bit. I think I really wanted to do something from the Maritimes, just to be in that world.”

More than 10 years after writing The Boat, it’s getting its première performance. Theatre New Brunswick will be giving the play a two-week run at their Open Space Theatre (Mar. 9-18) before entering a three-week run at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre and a week of touring to New Brunswick communities.

TNB’s Artistic Director Thomas Morgan Jones said in a press release they are excited to be working with Griffith on this play.

“Ryan’s voice is brilliantly, accessibly, human,” said Jones. “His ability to write so honestly from each character’s perspective is astonishing, and the depth that he has brought to his own take on the MacLeod short story is profound. We feel so fortunate to have Ryan in our community, to have the privilege of giving his voice a stage and to be able to share his voice with audiences in New Brunswick and beyond.”

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