Vancouver Sun, January 10, 2014: TJ Dawe seems like an easy person to share your secrets with. Maybe it’s the way he speaks the day we meet in the bowels of the historic Firehall Arts Centre — softly and with a gentle urgency.
Or maybe it’s his willingness to reach into his own soul and bare it on stage. Medicine, which is returning by popular demand to the Firehall this month, is his 12th one-man play. In each outing Dawe has pealed back a layer of himself, baring more than he ever thought was possible and drawing critical praise in the process.
However he does it, the writer/performer/director has made a career out of presenting incredibly personal material in a way that draws the audience in to his most painful memories without alienating them.
The key, he says, is to make it specific while always keeping the audience in mind.
“Something that’s been part of my development process is the strange bisection of standing outside of myself while I read the script,” he says. “While I rehearse, I try to receive it as if it were coming to me the first time. If I didn’t know this story, if I didn’t know this person, would this story make sense?”
This was particularly tricky while developing Medicine because the show centres on two of the most personal experiences imaginable: therapy and a psychedelic drug trip.
In the play, he tells the story of his time at a retreat organized by Vancouver author and physician Gabor Maté where attendees use a drug called ayahuasca to gain deeper insight into psychological issues.
As a therapeutic practice, the use of ayahuasca is hugely controversial. The active agent in the drug, DMT, has been banned in Canada. In 2011 Maté received a letter from Health Canada threatening prosecution if he continued his retreats. Yet Maté, who is known for his work in the Downtown Eastside, has found the psychedelic to be an invaluable tool in the treatment of trauma and addiction.
For Dawe, who has suffered from a lifetime of what he calls “social alienation,” the retreat was a life-changing experience. His primary goal with the play is to tell that story, but he also hopes that his work might have an impact on the way authorities approaches these kinds of alternative therapies.
And he’s not finished. His next one-man play concerns his second experience with ceremonial psychedelics — this time with an African plant called iboga.
“That was actually a much longer ceremony,” he says. “That was 36 hours and it was intense. I’m still feeling the good effects of it.”
Dawe has also recently begun to apply that skill with personal stories to those of others. His current project is a collaboration with Frank Warren, founder of the blog PostSecret. In 2005 Warren began collecting anonymous postcards people had inscribed with their deepest secrets. He has since received more than 500,000 postcards and turned the blog into a number of books. Some of the confessions are funny, many are heartbreaking, but all provide a window into the secret core of human existence.
Dawe is turning that wealth of material into a live show in the vein of the Vagina Monologues. Three performers — two women and one man — read the cards, breathing life into the enigmatic, yet deeply evocative, words of anonymous strangers.
As if that weren’t enough, he and writing partner Michael Rinaldi have begun seeking outlets in television and film after their play Toothpaste and Cigars was adapted into the film The F Word, starring Daniel Radcliff and Zoe Kazan.
Last year Dawe and Rinaldi travelled to Toronto to visit the set. There they met Radcliff and even acted as extras for a couple of scenes. “Everyone was so nice to us,” he remembers. “Everyone knew who we were. Radcliff introduced himself to us — he was so friendly.”
They returned for the screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, which attracted thousands. Elan Mastai’s treatment of the script goes in many different directions than the original play, so Dawe didn’t get the feeling of seeing himself on screen. But the whole experience left him with a taste for the business.
Over their long partnership, Dawe and Rinaldi have worked on both personal and commissioned pieces. No matter the format or the constraints, Dawe believes they’ve been able to maintain their commitment to creating work they love.
“Never write something where you’re cringing and just doing it for the paycheque,” he says. “Our model for that was always Pixar, because we love Pixar. We don’t love it in a condescending way. I’m moved to tears by Toy Story and Wall-E.”
For Dawe, being able to write films for Pixar, a company that consistently draws on deeply personal experiences but still appeals to such a wide audience, would be an absolute dream. “That would be about the top,” he says, an uncontrollable grin on his face.