Mort Ransen has the relaxed smiles and tranquil tones of a man who has finally found his way back home.
The writer, director and actor lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and is best known for his critically-acclaimed feature film Margaret’s Museum, staring Helena Bonham Carter and Clive Russell.
After a 40-year-career in film, which has included a long partnership with the National Film Board and more than 20 films and 15 international awards, Ransen has decided to slow down and return to the more familiar, more rewarding territory of theatre.
And he’s chosen the Yukon as the place to make the leap back to directing actors on stage.
“In a way this is a first for me and it’s a preview of what’s to come,” Ransen says, as we meet for coffee on a dull grey afternoon in Whitehorse.
Ransen is here directing Problem Child, a play by Canadian playwright George F. Walker, for the Guild Hall.
His partner Libby Mason is also here, directing Criminal Genius — another Walker play — which will use the same set and show as a double-bill with Problem Child at the Guild.
Mason has directed plays at the Guild many times before, but Ransen hasn’t.
“It’s our first chance to work together, and a chance to be up here together, which is wonderful,” he says, peering out the window, contemplating his words.
“There’s great people here — they’re not that different than people in Salt Spring.”
Anyone who has visited Salt Spring Island — a community of about 10,000 people connected to nearby Vancouver and Victoria by floatplane and ferry — will see the similarities between that community and the Yukon.
Many in the isolated town are artists and eccentrics who would be lost in the work-a-day life of Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal.
“It attracts a certain type of people, more independent than practical,” Ransen says, “so, I feel very much at home here.”
Ransen is very much a Canadian director. He has only directed one film in the United States. His career is tied to the NFB.
But more tellingly, the Canadian realities of space, isolation and nature create a sense of wonderment in him.
Ransen discovered his love of being lost while in the North during a trip to Iqaluit to teach actors there in the 1990s.
Travelling behind a guide on the Barrens, Ransen’s snowmobile broke down, while his guide continued on unaware.
“There was nothing but white,” he says, as a smile comes to his face.
“There was nothing I could do, and I’ve never felt as exhilarated. There’s something about being swallowed up by nature and feeling strangely secure.”
Yes, he’s a Canadian.
And yes, his guide returned to help him.
Ransen began his career as an actor in Montreal then quickly moved into directing theatre, before being offered a six-month post in 1961 in the writing and directing department of the NFB.
The job extended for more than 23 years and 17 films.
“One film led to another and I’ve been doing it for some time,” Ransen says.
Once out of the NFB in 1984, Ransen began making feature films, including Margaret’s Museum, and documentaries, most recently one titled Ah … the money, the money, the money — a biting exploration of the impacts of development on Salt Spring Island.
But like many artists, there remained a niggling itch taunting him to get back to the art form that he first fell in love with.
“All of the time, in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking of getting back into theatre,” Ransen says.
“Film is nowhere near as much fun as theatre.”
The itch grew stronger as Ransen realized he never got to know many of the people working on his films. He often communicated with them using memos, because that’s the way the industry works, he says.
The alienation from his crew mirrored an alienation from audiences: Margaret’s Museum, a film that many people know him for, took six years to take from writing to release.
“For six years you have no contact with an audience, you never get that great charge from the interaction,” he says.
“That’s why theatre is more exciting than film.”
His desire to work in theatre with a small group of people was a natural fit when he was asked by the Guild to direct Problem Child. And he’s reveling in it.
“This is a challenge for me — some actors here have no experience at all, and some do. I have to find a way of working with people. It’s a challenge, and it’s fun.
“Everything you do, you try to do your best. I try to get good performances out of everyone,” he says.
“When you think about it, you act in a different way with your mother, with your boss, but they’re all you. We all act differently; we know how to do it. I just help an actor discover their natural abilities.”
Problem Child is a dark, morally wrenching play set in a dingy hotel room, featuring a couple with a troubled past trying to regain custody of their child from the justice department.
“It’s a wonderful script; it’s a dramatic comedy with something to say,” Ransen says.
“It takes place in the underclass of society and is about people who fall through the cracks, yet it’s also very funny.”
The play will resonate in Whitehorse, he says, as the community is made up of hardworking, unpretentious people who still know how to laugh at themselves.
“I love this crowd, it’s home to me. Everyone looks you in the eye and tells you what they think.”
Problem Child and Criminal Genius “make very good companion pieces, so it should be a very fun evening,” Ransen says.
Criminal Genius opens on September 8th, while Problem Child opens on the 14th. Both run until September 30th.