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SCENE SETTER: Thiessen hopes audiences warm up to Icemen

Ahead of upcoming world premiere, columnist talks to director Vern Thiessen about story set on the icy banks of Barrie in the 1930s
Vern Thiessen is the director of Icemen.

A chilling wind blows throughout our city, the sun sets sooner and creates the perfect atmosphere for a thrilling theatrical experience written by one of our country’s most lauded playwrights.

Vern Thiessen, Dora Award winner for outstanding play, recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award, and one of Canada’s most produced playwrights, has penned a thrilling new work that questions if blood is thicker than ice.

Set on the icy banks of Barrie in the 1930s, Icemen plunges the audience into a riveting, life-altering moment in time that will keep you on the edge of your seats.

Evidenced by his work to date, including five of his plays produced off-Broadway, Thiessen is a master storyteller whose plays tackle moral conundrums that span beyond any specific time or location. Regardless of what decade or century his plays are set, the struggle within them feels almost too familiar for comfort.

This world-premiere production is presented by Barrie’s Theatre by the Bay with the company’s artistic director, Iain Moggach, at the helm as the director of Icemen.

When asked about the upcoming premiere, Moggach replied, "I am so excited for this one. The script is bold yet beautifully written and is unlike anything we have done before. And while set in a really interesting moment in Barrie's past, speaks to today in ways that are going to be quite surprising to audiences. Plus we have an incredible team assembled including Vern, who is one of Canada's greatest playwrights. There is no doubt in my mind that Icemen will go down as one of TBTB's greatest hits."

I had the opportunity to ask Vern a few questions before Icemen opens next month.

Richard: What drew you to Barrie and what is it about our city that made for an ideal setting for Icemen?

Vern: I was commissioned by TBTB directly to write a play that took place in Simcoe County. Iain pitched me a few ideas, and I immediately loved the idea of this thriving ice industry in the area and all the drama around that. It really spoke to me.

Richard: While set during the economic depression in 1936, the issues faced by the working class brothers Joe and Rennie are still an all too familiar reality for many people today. Was there a particular event or moment in recent history that inspired you to create this parallel?

Vern: Indeed. Income inequality is at an all time high in our world. According to Stats Canada, the wealthiest households (top 20 per cent) accounted for more than two-thirds (67.9 per cent) of net worth at the end of 2022. In particular, I was struck by how wealthy the ice barons were compared to the workers. Certainly today's gig economy workers might recognize themselves in the play.

Richard: Icemen opens and plunges the audience into a very uncomfortable scenario but also offers many moments that are heartwarming and humorous. How do you find the proper balance?

Vern: Any good play should have a laugh or a scream or something in the first 10 minutes that draws the audience member into the world of the play.

Richard: What do you hope audiences walk away with after experiencing Icemen?

Vern: It's a thriller, so I hope the final 10 minutes has them on the edge of their seats. I hope they come out feeling like they got their entertainment value. And, of course, I hope they look at Barrie and ask themselves: "Huh. How is this city still the same as what happened in this play? Who are the 'icemen' of the city now?"

Richard: As one of Canada’s most-produced playwrights, and have had your work produced around the world - what do you think it is about your style that has led to this success?

Vern: My "style" varies from play to play. Shakespeare's Will and Icemen couldn't be further apart, for example. The answer is, I don't know. But I am happy people enjoy them.

Richard: And as a recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award and as a past president of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada, what do you hope to see in the future of Canadian live theatre?

Vern: This is a serious question that demands a lot of time to answer. But if I have to boil it down? More Canadian plays telling our stories …this is why TBTB's mandate is so critical. Support the best playwrights to write about something local, but make it universal. Icemen will not only reflect Barrie back to itself, it will also bring a truly Barrie story to the world.

The world premiere production of Icemen runs Nov. 1 to 12 at the Five Points Theatre, located downtown Barrie. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

What else is happening?

ON DISPLAY NOW UNTIL JAN. 14 — HOUSE FOR SALE: Award-winning Innisfil-based artist duo Dmitry Gretsky and Eugenia Kats latest exhibition explores the housing crisis in Ontario and related questions about migration, belonging, and concepts of home. Sharing stories from their changing community, the Exhibition is comprised of five installations that are spread throughout the MacLaren Art Centre. For more information, click here.

OCT. 26 — RUCKUS! ON THE ROAD: AN OPERA REVUE: Combining classic arias, duets, and ensemble pieces with irreverent fun, this non-traditional tour is a great way to introduce new audiences to opera, and for opera lovers to experience the art form! Strict no-shushing policy in effect. Please leave your monocle at home! For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

OCT. 27 — THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW SCREENING: Let's do the time warp AGAIN! The kinky rock 'n' roll science-fiction cult classic film invades the Five Points Theatre for a night of costumes, singing, dancing, callbacks, and more! For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

OCT. 28 — COMIC STRIPPERS: The award-winning male stripper parody and improv comedy show comes to Barrie with a new show, more moves, and quicker wits. Semi-undressed and completely unscripted, The Comic Strippers take off their shirts and take on your suggestions to create a whole new genre of comedy. To buy tickets, click here.

OCT. 28 — NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ZOMBIE TRAIL: Immerse yourself in a world of brain-eating zombies for a good cause. You won’t be racing against a clock – but you MIGHT BE running from brain-eating, virus spreading, bloody zombies! This interactive experience is in support of Barrie Families Unite. For more information and to reserve your spot, click here.

NOV. 4 — POUND OF FLESH: Born from the ashes of other projects, Pound of Flesh brings their brand of hard rock to Barrie as part of their Air B’N’Breakdown Tour across Ontario. They share the bill with Tangents and Fall of Earth. To buy tickets, click here.

NOV. 4 — HIP-HOP PERFORMANCE: A night of hip-hop performances featuring Jv, The kid called nate, Sam Spice, Vost, Antha lee, Connoisseur Ghost, and music by djRayru. To buy tickets, click here.