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The Memo: A Satire of Bureaucracy

Interview by Madryn McCabe

I interviewed Tyler Seguin, director, and Helen Juvonen, producer and actor, of Thought for Food’s “The Memo” to talk about the show and their intriguing Kickstarter campaign.

MM: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Memo?

HJ: The Memo is a play by Vaclav Havel and we are presenting the Canadian premiere of a translation by Paul Wilson, who is also Canadian. I call it a satire of bureaucracy. What do you call it?

TS: A workplace comedy.

HJ: A workplace comedy! Plot wise, it’s in this nameless organization, which is probably a government agency of some kind, but we never actually find out what they do or what their function is. The main character, Andrew Gross, receives this memo, written in Ptydepe, which is an artificial language that has been introduced into the organization to streamline office communication and he spends the rest of the show trying to get it translated because he doesn’t understand it.

MM: And that’s the irony of the situation and he can’t read the memo and it’s supposed to streamline communication. 

TS: Exactly! And very few people in the organization know the language, and those who do know it are under mounds of red tape, so that they can’t actually do any translations for anyone.

MM: What was it about this play that made you want to produce it?

HJ: I produced a previous translation in 1999. Then, when CanStage was doing Rock and Roll, Paul Wilson was consulting on it.

TS: Rock and Roll was partially about a Czech rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe. Paul Wilson was the lead singer and guitarist for this rock band for a number of years during the 70s. Because he’s Canadian, he was deported for being seditious. This rock band became sort of a focal movement, and focal point of the dissident movement of the anti-Communist uprising. And that’s how he met Havel.

HJ: So Paul Wilson was a consultant on the production at CanStage, and in his bio, it said that he was currently working on a translation of this play. And went “Gasp! I have to do this play! I have to get my hands on this play!” And Tyler tracked down an email and said that we’d like to do the translation and he put us in touch with Havel’s literary agent in the Czech Republic and we got a copy of the new translation.

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MM: Do you know if this play has been produced anywhere? I know you said it was the Canadian premiere.

TS: It’s been done once before that we know of, that Paul knows of, and that was as part of a Havel festival in New York.

MM: That’s an exciting thing, that you are one of the first to produce this play. Do you feel like there’s any responsibility to that?

(They pause.)

TS: Yes.

(They laugh.)

HJ: It’s a little nerve wracking. This is the first time we’ve worked on a published play where we’re actually in contact with the translator. I feel like we owe him something. We owe him a good production at the end of the day.

TS: We’ve been in touch with Paul quite a lot. He’s been very supportive. We’ve talked to him about issues in the play, and ways we want to approach it and things like that, and he’s been great, he’s been really on board. But it does put a bit of pressure on us to do justice.

MM: So you’ve been getting some extra insight from the translator then?

HJ: It’s really interesting because he was friends with Havel. So we feel like we have an inside track.

TS: There was one thing we really had to talk to him about. We were like, “Well, we really want to make this little change…”

HJ: Ha! Little change!

TS: And he said, “Hmm. Well, I think Havel would approve!”

HJ: And that was the stamp of approval we needed. And the other reason that we wanted to do this play was a place we were working for… I don’t think we should say where. (She laughs)

TS: Shall we say a branch of the Ontario government?

HJ: Yes, a branch of the Ontario government. And we were going through some rather grotesque bureaucratic nightmares with them and at that time I told Tyler he should read the previous translation. “You’ll love this, this will totally make sense” and he read it and was like, “This is what’s going on in my life right now!” so when we had the opportunity to work on this new translation, we now have an inside track on what it’s trying to say because we’ve gone through something emotionally similar. There’s an emotional resonance in this play that we actually lived through ourselves. And we wanted to do this play several years ago now. As we were trying to get the script and figure out if we had the money to do it, Havel passed away. He passed away in 2011. And all the rights were put on hold. They froze his estate. So we couldn’t perform the play. And it was about a year ago that the agent called and said “You can do it now!”

MM: That’s ironic that just as you’re getting ready to do this play, you end up with bureaucratic red tape in your way.

HJ: Exactly! It’s thematic at least. And now we’ve got the time and we were able to pay the up front costs.

MM: How long ago was the play first written?

HJ: It was first performed in 1965.

MM: Do you think something that isn’t modern or a new play still has a resonance for an audience today?

HJ: It’s kind of creepy that the play was written about Communist Czechoslovakia and it’s like it could have been written today. Part of that is the translation, because Paul is Canadian. But the language doesn’t feel old, and he uses Canadian idioms as well, so it feels modern.

TS: It feels very “of the now”, but what’s fascinating is that the themes of the play, the characters, and bureaucracy hasn’t changed in at least fifty years, probably longer. So, when I read it, I recognized the characters, I’ve worked with these people, and I’ve had to go through these weird situations. Corporate culture is corporate culture. And apparently it’s always been like that. There are arbitrary rules and people who adapt to strange social norms without really thinking about it. Trying to do anything you can to appear busy without actually doing any work is such a running theme in this show, and is very much a theme of the place where I was working at the time. It definitely says something to a modern audience.

HJ: Any time I explain the show to someone, they go “Oh I get that”. I talk about this new language that’s supposed to make things more efficient, and they go “Oh yeah I get that!” I talk to people that were at their place of business when things moved over into computers, and it sounds like the exact same thing. “This is supposed to make your life more efficient” but it ends up causing more problems.

TS: Even the idea of a new language. Havel was in a lot of ways pointing at the Communist party’s corporation of language into propaganda at the time. But you see it today, you see it in corporate culture all the time. I can’t say the word “innovation” anymore without irony to it.

MM: My favourite one is “connectitude”.

TS: And does that mean anything?

MM: It does not!

TS: Exactly! Corporate speak and jargon.

HJ: We’re also seeing it in our government right now with the Fair Elections Act. Is it really about fair elections? And that twist of language.

TS: Or any time a Conservative minister gets up and says, “I’d like to provide some clarity” and you know they’re going to talk about something else. Words don’t mean what they mean anymore. They just use them as noise to confuse everyone and obfuscate and that’s very much in the play. They literally bring in a whole new language that they say is supposed to be more efficient but actually just confuses everyone and causes total chaos.

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MM: Why don’t you tell me about your Kickstarter project? 

HJ: We call it the “Give Us an Hour of Your Time” campaign because we’re asking people to donate the equivalent of one hour of their wages. That actually came about as an idea related to a Pay What You Can Performance. People are always confused about how much to pay for PWYC. “I don’t know how much to give you. Is $10 okay?” And now there are signs that state a recommended donation, and I thought, well what is a fair amount to pay? I suppose an hour of my time. I’m going to see a show for an hour or two, so an hour of my time for an hour of entertainment. And then I started joking that it would be great if a CEO came to the show and gave us an hour of his time, because then he’d pay for the whole show. We thought it was an appropriate theme because it’s set in a workplace, so a great thematic tie-in.

TS: Also Havel was a very political author, and there’s a lot of talk right now about the income gap and wage equality and the whole minimum wage debate that went on and is still going on. And we thought, we’re doing a show about workers that is inherently political at a time when that is a resonant thing, so we might as well make a statement with it, in a way that I think Havel would have liked.

MM: I thought your reward levels on your Kickstarter campaign were interesting.

TS: As part of the “Give Us an Hour of Your Time”, we looked at what an hour of different people’s time is worth using some Stats Canada and other publicly available information.

HJ: We had to do some massaging a little bit because there’s no clear hourly wage for say, a lawyer, but it’s all pretty accurate. We started at $10, which is as close to our minimum wage as Kickstarter would let us get (they don’t like decimal points), and then the next step up is average Canadian, who apparently makes $23/hr and then senator at $65, and the 1% threshold, which is shockingly low. Yes, $92/hr is still impressive…

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MM: But to think that the people who run our country are making less than $100/hr. makes you think.

HJ: And maybe that’s just in Canada. We don’t have a super wide disparity of wealth and non-wealth.

TS: I think it’s amazing just how big the swath of the 1% is in Canada. ‘Because you do have people who are making like, 30 billion dollars a year, some really obscene figures like that, but you could be one of the top income earners in Canada with less than $100/hr.

HJ: And we have Prime Minister, who makes $154/hr. All these are averaged on a 40 hour work week and a 52 week year, but I know that people work more or less than that.

TS: There’s average lawyer, $301/hr and average CEO who apparently makes $631/hr and the top CEO is something like $7200/hr.

HJ: An hour! AN HOUR! So if just one of those top earner CEOs were to give us an hour of their time, they would give us our Kickstarter goal twice over.

TS: When we were setting our target, we thought, well what do we need to put the show up? And we decided it was about $3500. And when we saw that the top CEO was $7281, we thought, close enough; we’ll just make it half of that, so 30 minutes of a CEOs time will pay for our goal.

HJ: We’re doing this show as an Equity collective, which means that no one is getting paid up front. People only get paid if we cover our expenses and make a profit. And with all the actors and the people behind the scenes, there are 17 people involved. We haven’t done it yet, but I really want to sit down and find out how many hours work hours have gone into this show, so that people can see how much people have already donated of their time to make the show happen. It’s going to be astronomical because we’re looking at over 100 rehearsal hours, multiple people per rehearsal, and then all the time that’s already been put into it. So it’s not unreasonable to ask for an hour of your time considering everything that goes into it.

TS: People seem to be overwhelmed by all the different things that are going on. There are some great projects and ideas on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and GoFundMe and people don’t know what to donate to or don’t know what an appropriate amount is. So we’ve tried to make it simple and maybe fun. If you make $14/hr, then $14 is an appropriate donation.

HJ: It’s funny to see how literally some people are taking it. Some odd dollar amounts are being given to us, and I love it! I love that somebody actually figured out how much they made and decided to contribute. And someone was like, “Well, I’m not a senator, but I like the title, so I’m going to donate at that level”. People are having fun with it, and that’s great.

TS: This is an exciting opportunity to bring to a Toronto stage an author who is so rarely done and in a fresh new translation by a Canadian, so we’re really enthusiastic about the production and hope that people can donate.

The Memo

Written by Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson, presented by Thought for Food Productions

The Memo3
When: April 23rd-May 10th
Where: Unit 102 Theatre
Facebook Page
Kickstarter Campaign Reference (Unfortunately the Kickstarter Campaign has is past its end date but fortunately they exceeded their goal in a 24 hour challenge! BUT… Of course you can still contribute to Thought for Food Productions by BUYING YOUR TICKETS to The Memo IN ADVANCE!)

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