Interview by Ryan Quinn
I spoke to Jesse Nerenberg and Andrew Petker about The Empty Room Collective’s production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End. We sat in the living room of my apartment, sipping coffee as the sun shone warmly through the windows. It could not have been more antithetical to the topic of the show.
Journey’s End is a war drama, but there’s something skewed about it: “It’s not really about the action,” Jesse tells me, “it’s about what happens in between. It’s about a group of men that are waiting for orders at the bottom of a foxhole. Most of the violence happens offstage. This is about the mental toll that war takes on these men.” Petker sums it up by calling it “a kind of limbo where death hasn’t happened yet, but you know it’s on the horizon.” The action of the play happens in the officer’s dugout of the British infantry over four days in 1918. Sherriff himself was a serving captain in the war, and he sought to share his experiences with the show.
Petker plays Captain Stanhope, the highest ranking officer in the foxhole, a role originated by Sir Laurence Olivier. “He’s numbing himself and coping with the war in a way that’s really unhealthy.” Andrew explains, “He’s been down there for a long time, and he’s a different person than he was when he was deployed.”
Nerenberg plays Raleigh, a younger soldier who has always revered Stanhope. “In the town they’re from, Stanhope was the equivalent of the high school quarterback, you know, he was incredibly popular, and they still think of him that way back home. So, Raleigh goes to serve, and Stanhope has completely changed. The war has really taken something away from him.” It’s the shocking discrepancy between how the war is being portrayed at home and the reality that drives the show, they tell me.
“They say that in war, everybody loses a brother, and that’s so true. These people you’re stationed with, they really do become your brothers, and not all of you are going home. So when the higher-ups call a raid ‘successful’ because there was a minimum number of casualties, that’s still a loss. Someone still lost a brother.”
This is the first big production for The Empty Room Collective, and everyone on board is contributing in any way they can. Nerenberg, for example, has taken on the duties of producer. “You don’t realize how many jobs there are to do because it’s so easy to overlook the little ones. If you need to get a certain kind of pencils for the show, that’s a real job that someone has to do. If you need to get food to eat onstage, that’s a real job that someone has to do.”
Beyond the production itself, the team is also working on outreach efforts. Nerenberg explained why the proceeds of one performance of the show (November 10th) are going to the Poppy Appeal: “We wanted to give back in a way that wasn’t just symbolic, we wanted to contribute to something, and we’ve been working with the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 344: The Queen’s Own Rifles. In fact,” he says, “Andrew’s a member of the Legion now.”
“Yeah, you can find me down there quite a bit, volunteering. It’s amazing because it’s something I never would have thought to do before this show. It’s a completely new experience and I have Journey’s End to thank for it.”
I ask them what they hope people will be considering and talking about when they leave the show, and Petker answers that he hopes it snaps people into realizing that “war isn’t just this far-away conflict, it’s full of real people, and these are their real lives.” In much the same way that Raleigh comes to see the reality of Stanhope’s condition beyond how he’s being romanticized in his hometown, Petker really hopes we can look past the symbolism and see the humanity in those who have fought and will fight.
Nerenberg shares a similar thought: “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and if I was born in, say, 1890, this would have been me and my friends; and I would have lost some of them to it. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in the time and place that we do.”
by R. C. Sherriff, presented by The Empty Room Collective
When: November 7th-24th
Where: Artisan Factory, 116 Geary Ave. north of Bloorcourt Village.
Tickets: Can be bought at https://journeysend.eventbrite.ca/