April 24, 2013 by Jason Schreurs, managing editor

Mark Leiren-Young had his life changed when he moved to Williams Lake, BC in 1985 for a job as a newspaper reporter. Leiren-Young’s award-winning 2009 book Never Shoot a Stampede Queen has now been adapted to the stage, so his adventures from that time are flooding back again.

“The wildest part is this is like reliving the memories,” says Leiren-Young, who adapted his book for a play that runs in Kamloops, Vancouver and Duncan through April and May. “On opening night one of my best friends from Williams Lake was there, and she’s the photographer I work with in the book, and we were talking about what it was like seeing some of those characters re-created. And flashing back to some of the scarier moments in the book, not just the funny ones, but some of the more life-changing moments, and seeing those on stage, was pretty wild.”

Zachary Stevenson plays Mark Leiren-Young in Never Shoot a Stampede Queen (photo provided).

Zachary Stevenson plays Mark Leiren-Young in Never Shoot a Stampede Queen (photo: David Cooper).

Leiren-Young, now an established screenwriter, journalist, filmmaker, and playwright, got his career started as a cub reporter in Williams Lake and was immediately thrown into a small town beat that included its share of crime and controversy.

The one-man play, starring Zachary Stevenson in Vancouver and Duncan and Ryan Biel in Kamloops and directed by Vancouver theatre mainstay TJ Dawe, combines scenes from the book with new material that Leiren-Young was able to collect after the book was published.

“All of my favourite lines in the play are not in the book, and I lot of them I didn’t know about when I wrote it,” says Leiren-Young. “So, suddenly, we have these new little anecdotes that weren’t in the book.”

Dawe, now a veteran of the stage with over 100 productions under his belt, found the process of taking Leiren-Young’s book to the stage to be a “huge learning experience.”

“In many ways it’s been an education in the difference between literature and the stage. Some lines work great as punchlines in the book, but not on stage,” explains Dawe. “Even after a full house with a standing ovation on opening night in Kamloops, we’re still meeting to see what we can tweak to make it even better, and usually that hinges on the difference between what works in the book and what’s coming across to a live audience.”

Another realization for the crew has been that the story still resonates with so many people in the Williams Lake area. Now that Leiren-Young is detailing the lives of small town folk onstage, the audience has included some familiar faces, especially in Kamloops where it’s just a short trip down the highway from Williams Lake.

“One example is the parents of the woman who was robbed at the Mohawk at knifepoint in the book were there on opening night. That freaked me out,” says Leiren-Young. “And they came up and said, ‘Hi, it was our daughter who was robbed by the guy with the paper bag over his head,’ and I’m just bracing myself. Turns out they loved the book and the play.”

Dawe says he immediately identified with the story when he read it. He knew early on what parts of the book he wanted Leiren-Young to include, as well as his desire to focus the story on Leiren-Young putting himself on the line to form a union at the newspaper. “TJ is astonishing,” says Leiren-Young. “I can’t stress how much this play comes from him beating me up. He just said, ‘Look, I’ve read the book. This is the storyline I think we should go with. Here’s the ending I think we should look at.’”

“It’s a story about a guy who comes to a small community that he’d never heard of, he has big-city disdain for the place, and has no intention of staying. And, in spite of himself, becomes so attached to the people and the place, that he puts himself on the line for his coworkers,” says Dawe. “I told Mark that that seemed to be the heart of the story. And it hit home with me, because that’s a long-standing journey in my life: the resistance, even resentment, toward any sense of community, and the gradual embracing of that exact need in myself.”

Stevenson, who stars as Leiren-Young in the Vancouver and Duncan runs and spent a lot of time mirroring the author’s mannerisms while learning the story, says working with Dawe and Leiren-Young was a thrill for him. “I’ve been a fan of TJ since I was a student at UVic. And I have such respect for Mark as a writer. It really is a dream team and great mentorship experience for me,” he says.

Watching Stevenson and Biel bring his experiences to life has been “kind of mind-boggling” for Leiren-Young. One particular scene where he has a panic attack due to the stress of being a cub reporter in a extremely quirky and sometimes dangerous small town became all too real for him while watching the play.

“I had a flashback to that moment, pretty heavily,” explains Leiren-Young, “and I’d forgotten how intense that was until I watched it being acted out on opening night.”

Despite still having many friends in the area, and living close to Williams Lake for about six months after the book was written, Leiren-Young says he’s not exactly aching for another long-term residency in the town that has given him so many great stories.

“Let’s just put it this way,” he says, “I don’t think I’m born to be there, but I’m really happy to visit.”

April 24, 2013 by Jason Schreurs, managing editor

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