Chris Craddock talks about Irma Voth: novel, theatre, and film meet onstage

Andréa Jorawsky, Chris Craddock in Irma Voth, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson

By Liz Nicholls,

Naturally playwright/ actor/ master improviser/ filmmaker/ screenwriter/ “double-dad” Chris Craddock is relaxed at pre-12-hour rehearsal breakfast in Strathcona last week. Why wouldn’t he be?

Surely, his life of late is a flat landscape of non-eventful tranquillity en route to Thursday’s opening night of his new play Irma Voth at Theatre Network, with its long history of Craddock premieres.

WAIT: Except, of course, for the Craddock feature film (It’s Not My Fault And I Don’t Care Anyway, based on his 2011 solo play Public Speaking) which is, incidentally, now available for rental on iTunes, negotiations in progress with HBO in eastern Europe. Ah yes, and except for the kooky comic TV show he writes for (and acts on); you can catch three of season 4’s episodes of Tiny Plastic Men on YouTube. 

And did I mention the new baby? He’s Dylan (“after Bob Dylan”), nine days old, thoughtful of aspect in his proud dad’s phone photo, but just a bit young to be a satisfying playmate for 4 1/2-year-old big bro Callum, by double-dad report a comic storyteller of note. Craddock and his wife Jania Teare have devised a schedule that involves sleep in two-and-a-half hour increments, which the former pronounces fine.

And there is the far-from-small matter of this new play, a swirling rebellion/ escape adventure adapted from the 2011 novel by Miriam Toews. Irma Voth locates our title heroine and her younger sister Aggie in an ultra-strict Mennonite  community in the northern Mexican desert.

Craddock is in the cast. And like three of his four cast-mates in Bradley Moss’s production — all but Andréa Jorawsky as Irma — he plays multiple characters. Not only that, but there’s a movie embedded in Toews’ story, since the catalyst for change is a famous Mexican film-maker who comes to make a film in the Mennonite community. And Craddock is shooting it, as the play’s grand finale.

The first time that award-winning playwright Craddock met award-winning novelist Toews, there was no thought of how to transpose her funny, knowing but vulnerable, characters from one medium to another. Not immediately, anyhow.

“She was married at the time to a street performer, street name Young Raoul,” says Craddock genially. “That’s how I got to know her first, as a friend of the ‘family’.” He means the family of street performers, the virtuosos of improbable skills who know how to coax a loony out of a pocket (yours) into a hat (his) — among them Craddock’s sometime writing partner Darrin Hagen (Tranne of Green Gables among others), who spent his summers on the street as an outsized mermaid with a particular affinity for the accordian.

“She was along. She was cool. She had a book,” remembers Craddock. Intrigued, he read Toews’ first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck — a road-trip serial adventure in which a couple of plucky welfare moms from a Winnipeg housing project go on the lam from the flood in that city, and in the process rediscover an exhilarating sense of possibility.

“What attracted me was Miriam’s storytelling,” Craddock muses, of that reading experience. “Her single mom (heroine), the finding joy through community despite poverty, the fighting the system. The experience of a flood and what it means to have a natural disaster run through all the personal disasters,” says Craddock. “All of that.”

Did Amazing Luck, with its eight subplots and multiple locations, cry out to be a stage play? Did that even seem possible? Craddock laughs. “You’d think this should be a 12-part mini-series! It’d be a heck of a movie!”

Instead, Craddock made theatre with it. Playful theatre for three (extremely agile) actors and an inventive director. Bradley Moss’s ingenious production, in which Craddock himself played all the male characters, premiered at Theatre Network in 2005, then toured the country after that.

Irma Voth offers similarly dizzying challenges for live theatre that doesn’t have a budget like a plastic surgeon’s annual income. “That’s where the creativity and fun comes in!” declares Craddock. Moss’s five actors play at least 30 characters. “The cast has been so brilliant,” Craddock says feelingly, “really active and engaged with the piece, a real collaboration.”

Todd Houseman, Andréa Jorawsky in Irma Voth, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson.

Craddock muses on the arc between then and now. “Back then I was a young playwright, and Miriam was a young novelist,” says the Kitchener native who moved to Spruce Grove at 13 to be with his dad. “Interesting, I think, to come together later, on our continuums…. We’ve both gotten older and more experienced….”

The theatrical lure, in both Summer of My Amazing Luck and Irma Voth, he thinks, is that “Miriam gives you this great narrator, a wonderful narrative voice, sweet and funny and vulnerable.” In the former, it’s Lucy, who hooks up with her edgier friend Lish to find themselves some fun in a stern and joyless system. In Irma Voth, it’s subversive Irma who, defying her abusive environment and father’s thundering disapproval, takes a job as a translator for the Mexican movie-maker.

“Miriam arranges her stories in a series of anecdotes that invite staging,” says Craddock of the episodic narrative that opens the eyes of the sisters to the world of art and its volatile practitioners, and flings them out into a big bad world of possibilities. The other attraction of Toews’ writing, for Craddock, is her dialogue. “It’s great!” he declares. A lot of time I use it verbatim; I can’t improve it…. At other times I take a lot of liberties. Miriam’s always been very generous with that.”

The differences between Amazing Luck, Toews’ breakthrough novel and Irma Voth, are “pretty stark,”  says Craddock, himself an artist who has tapped a darker emotional palette over the years. “But there are similarities: a young woman seeking freedom and self-expression in an oppressive environment….” In Irma Voth, that environment is an isolated sect and a fanatical, abusive father.   

“ Religious extremism, I think, has this terrible habit of killing women…. Miriam is exploring that really deftly in her own own way: humour in tragedy. That’s what draws me as a playwright to her.”

Both the playwright and the novelist draw on personal experience in original ways. Craddock’s 2001 solo show Moving Along, to take one example from his work, translated the rapid-fire zigzag of memory into the vivid theatrical image of a man in an “electric chair” pushing buttons to light a path through a troubled past, with allusions to Craddock’s own.

In a bizarre collision of cultures that found its way into Irma Voth, Toews, who grew up in the Manitoba Mennonite community of Steinbach, starred in a strange 2008 movie Silent Light, set in a Mennonite outpost in the Mexican outback. She’d been importuned by the celebrated Mexican avant-gardiste director Carlos Reygadas who’d seen her picture on the dust jacket of her novel A Complicated Kindness. Much of the script was in low German which neither Toews nor Reygadas spoke.

“There are many elements of true story in it,” as Craddock says of Irma Voth. Artistic creation works in mysterious loops. “Miriam does this movie and comes home and writes a book about it. And now I’m adapting the book into a play. And that’s necessitated that I go out and shoot a movie.”

“The other big theme is the redemptive power of art…. As the girls escape, we get to see them experiencing art for the first time. And hopefully we get to ask ourselves about that.” Craddock points to the scene where Irma finds her sister in front of a huge Diego Rivera mural in Mexico City, wonderstruck that a grown person could make such a thing.

Craddock smiles. “When you have children, and you see through  their eyes, when they experience something for the first time, it  refreshes your sense of wonder with the world.”

With a thought about wonder, he’s off to a complicated rehearsal day that will go late into the night. “The cues are adding up, I’m afraid,” he grins ruefully. “It’s going to be a technical show. But I hope it won’t feel like one, ‘cause it’s not about that….”

“Every time there’s a story of people being brave and escaping, making a change, maybe that inspires you to make that change in your own life…. I like to think so.”


Irma Voth

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Chris Craddock

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Andréa Jorawsky, Kendra Connor, Kristi Hansen, Todd Houseman, Chris Craddock

Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Thursday through May 7

Tickets: 780-453-2440, 

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