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Atlantic Fringe Fest: The Department of Common Sense by Ryan Van Horne

Ryan Van Horne
Throughout the years, you have probably read some of the news pieces reported by Ryan Van Horne, a prolific journalist, writer, editor and columnist based in Halifax. More recently Van Horne has tapped into his instinctual affinity for dramaturgy to compose The Department of Common Sense. Although a work of fiction, it is inspired by a particular story that stemmed from his four years as a governmental communications consultant. 

When I would go to parties and tell this story, people’s jaws would drop, but, as absurd as it was, they did believe it because governments and bureaucrats can do some pretty stupid things,” Van Horne describes on his websiteArts East caught up with Van Horne to learn more about the play (which begins its Atlantic Fringe run tomorrow night) and the new directions his creative juices are taking him.

Department of Common Sense: Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, as Sophia Smart,
telling Rob McIntyre, as Richard Clod, that she's going to be watching him.
Photo by 
Devaan Ingraham

Tell us a little bit about your journalism/writing background.
RVH: I started writing professionally when I was 18. I was a reporter for a community weekly in Montreal while I finished CEGEP. I moved to Halifax and started working for the student newspaper at Saint Mary's University. After two years at SMU, I got a summer job as a reporter with The Daily News and got hired full-time in 1992. For 15 years, I worked as a reporter and photographer in news, business, and sports. I also worked on the night desk as one of the copy editors and editorial writers. After the paper shut down in 2008, I didn't want to leave Halifax for family reasons, so I decided to switch careers. I worked in government communications for four years, which gave me the motivation to resume my writing career. I've been a full-time freelancer since February 2012.

Is this your first play and what inspired you to pen the script?
RVH: This is my first play and I was inspired by a passage in the Theatre Arts Guild's call for submissions for their inaugural Playwrights' Festival. Something in it reminded me of my favourite story that I tell about my days working in government. It is a mind-numbing absurdity that never fails to make peoples' jaws drop when I tell it at parties, so I decided to build a play around that.

Are some of your experiences as an inside government communicator mirrored in the play?
RVH: Yes, absolutely, but the names have been changed to protect the foolish. Much of the play is fiction and the characters are a hodgepodge of some of the people I've met in my career.

How did the Department of Common Sense's run go at the TAG's Playwrights'
RVH: It was only a two-night run, but it was well-received by the audience. It, and the other three plays, sold out both nights.

Tell us a tiny bit about the cast and director.
We have a fabulous cast. Mark Adam is back as the Minister of Common Sense and is the only actor returning from the Playwrights Festival run. He is a man of many talents and he cracks me up during rehearsals. 

Lianne Perry is Adele Courage and she and the minister will sizzle on stage. The duo, who used to be in a sketch comedy group called Pudding Room, have an on-stage chemistry that we are delighted to bottle and serve to audiences. 

Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, who has been on stage with the Bedford Players, plays Sophia Smart and has the toughest job of trying to bring some common sense to the bureaucracy and government. People won't want to mess with her. 

Rob McIntyre is a TAG veteran and a really nice guy in real life. Unfortunately, he is so good at playing Richard Clod that the Minister—and most other people—will want to punch him in the face after the show. 

Lianne Perry, as Adele Courage, Mark Adam, as Minister Frank Walker, 
and Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, as Sophia Smart, 
get cozy in the Department of Common Sense. 
Photo by Devaan Ingraham. 

My son, Neil Van Horne, just graduated from Lockview High School where he appeared in two musicals and earned the triple-threat award for his talents as an actor, singer and dancer. As a government worker, he'll give a song-and-dance, but it won't be one that will earn him an award. 

Fiona MacKinnon rounds out our cast with a tiny role that is well beneath her talents. She did very well in the theatre scene in the nation's capital, but is just dipping her toe back in the water in Halifax and we're delighted to have her. 

Nick Jupp, who directed the play at the Playwrights' Festival, is back. Nick's feedback and direction have been vital in this play taking shape. He acted as a dramaturge and I've tweaked the play a bit to polish it up a bit. He's done a fabulous job adding layers to the characters and I'm so impressed with all the work they've done. 

As for me, I will be kept behind glass and will only act in case of emergency.

What will audience members experience when they come see your play?
RVH: A theatre of the absurd that will make them laugh and maybe even a sobering realization that some of this really happened. Hopefully, that won't be too much of a buzzkill.

Any new plays on the horizon?
RVH: Yes. I've promised my six-year-old daughter that I will write a pantomime and try to get it on stage at TAG. She and her little brother went at Christmas last year and they loved it. They also love to hear me tell off-the-cuff bedtime stories in which they pick the main characters. I've never let them down at bedtime—so I have to deliver on this. I'm also deep into research for another play that will be a biography of an influential person in the Canadian music scene. I don't want to reveal many more details at this point, but I've bounced this idea off a few people and they've all loved it. I'm eager to start writing it, but I just need to make the time, which can be difficult when you need to write to pay the bills.

Anything you'd like to add?
RVH: Tickets are only $5 and our cast will do such a great job that you will get a good laugh out of this. I'd be surprised if anybody didn't.

The Department of Common Sense
SATURDAY, AUG 31 • 2pm
SUNDAY, SEPT 1 • 9:30pm
MONDAY, SEPT 2 • 7:00pm
THURSDAY, SEPT 5 • 8:30pm
SATURDAY, SEPT 7 • 9:15pm
SUNDAY, SEPT 8 • 5pm

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