GCTC saddles up with Ondaatje

By Trisha Buchanan

The Great Canadian Theatre Company’s latest production focuses on a great American outlaw, but was written by a famous Canadian author.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which runs at the GCTC until Oct. 10, was written by Michael Ondaatje.

Though he has written numerous novels, books of poetry and screenplays, Ondaatje is best known as the author of The English Patient. This novel was later made into an Academy Award-winning film.

Ondaatje and director Richard Rose worked together to adapt Billy the Kid to the stage. The two have worked together in the past and Rose welcomed the chance to work with the author again.

“He’s a delight to work with,” Rose says. “There’s so much depth and feeling to his language.”

Billy the Kid relies on flashbacks to tell the life of the old west outlaw, though not in a traditional way, according to Rose.

“The play shows fragments of life,” Rose says. “It’s a bit like a puzzle that comes together by association. It asks the audience to come up with their own interpretation.”

Kate Hurman, assistant director of Billy the Kid, is another of Ondaatje’s fans. The chance to work with the famous author drew her to work on this production.

“It was really fun to meet him,” Hurman said. “Whenever you get a chance to work with a real live playwright it’s great. You can ask his permission to change things and see if he agrees with the direction you’re taking the play.”

The script for this play has been changed many times since its first staging at the Stratford Festival in 1972.

“He keeps tuning it and changing it,” Rose said of Ondaatje. “He tried to draw the play back a little bit more to the nature of the book.”

The play now follows the style of the book as a collection of stories and scenes.

Billy the Kid opened Sept. 15 and marked the opening of the theatre’s new season, entitled “Renegade Heroes.”

The new season looks to be a successful one according to Barry Caplan, the box office manager for the GCTC.

“Ticket sales are going very well for the season and are starting to pick up for the first show,” Caplan says.
He cites a late start in publicity for Billy the Kid as the reason for slower ticket sales. But having a well-known name like Ondaatje’s attached to the production may help bring people to the theatre.
“I definitely think it helps, it sure doesn’t hurt.”

Last year marked the GCTC’s most successful year with about 86 per cent of its tickets being sold.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid runs through Oct. 10 at the GCTC.