Christopher Morris as Jacob in The Runner, which is at Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre Jan. 24-26. (photo by Dylan Hewlett)
Since this article was published, PuSh has canceled the production. For the statement, click here.
Among the offerings of this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is Christopher Morris’s The Runner, which runs Jan. 24-26 at Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre.
The one-man play is dedicated to Jakoff Mueller, a ZAKA member in Israel who died in 2018. The main character is Jacob, an Orthodox Jew with the Israeli volunteer emergency response organization. In one of the emergencies depicted, Jacob helps an injured Arab woman before he tends to a soldier, and his choice has significant repercussions. The actor in the role – in Vancouver, it will be Morris – performs the whole 60 minutes of the play while walking/running on a treadmill.
The Jewish Independent interviewed Morris by email before the playwright stepped back from doing media after a scheduled Victoria run of the play was canceled due to pressure from protesters, who objected to the story being told “from an exclusively Israeli perspective.”
JI: Can you share more about your relationship with Jakoff Mueller, how you came to meet him, to be invited into his home, and how he contributed to writing of The Runner?
CM: I first met Jakoff in 2009 at a small get-together in the house I was staying at in Jerusalem. This was during my first research trip to Israel to write this play. The owner of the house was a friend of Jakoff and she thought it would be interesting for me to speak with him, seeing as I was doing research about ZAKA. Jakoff was an incredibly thoughtful man with a great sense of humour, and we hit it off. He invited me to come and visit him where he lived in northern Israel and I did, over many occasions during the research trips I made to Israel. Though no event or fact from Jakoff’s life is represented in the play, his compassion for valuing all human life and his spirit of questioning is in the play. The world was a better place with him in it.
JI: When did you start writing The Runner and when and where did it première?
CM: My curiosity with ZAKA began when I was a teenager in Markham, Ont., in the 1990s. I heard a media interview about the work ZAKA did and it really struck me. I kept thinking that ZAKA’s work would be an interesting premise for a play but didn’t know how to do it. So, in 2009, I made my first trip to Israel to begin researching the play. I spent nine years (on and off) writing it and it premièred at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in 2018.
JI: You’ll be playing the role of Jacob, but I see in much of the material Gord Rand as the actor. Are you stepping in for him, does the role rotate, is he no longer part of the production?
CM: Yes, I’ll be playing the role of Jacob in Vancouver. The show had critical success when it premièred in Toronto, winning three Dora Mavor Moore Awards (best script, best production and best direction for the late Daniel Brooks). We were receiving a lot of interest to tour the show, so we rehearsed in multiples of every role in the production (actor, stage managers, director, designers) in the event that one person from the original team may not be available. Daniel Brooks rehearsed me into the role so I could play it when Gord wasn’t available. Over the years, I’ve played it on and off a few times and am really looking forward to performing the role in Vancouver.
JI: You’ve written a one-pager offering guidance for venues presenting The Runner. Is there anything you’d add to that, given the Israel-Hamas war? Not only because tensions are higher, but, for example, there are direct parallels in the description of victims in the mass grave in Ukraine [where ZAKA members, including Jacob, travel in the play] and what happened to Israelis on Oct. 7, which could be triggering.
CM: It’s always been important when presenting The Runner in collaboration with theatres to give some social context when the show is being presented. I am always available to the staff at the theatre to offer any specific insight about the play in the context it’s being presented in. PuSh and I have been in constant contact about how to support the play and the audiences who will see it in January.
JI: When were the PuSh shows booked and, if there have there been other productions mounted since Oct. 7, what has reaction been overall?
CM: We’ve been discussing doing this show with PuSh for over a year and it was officially booked last May. We completed a run of the show from Nov. 2nd to the 19th, 2023, at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., and the reaction to the show was extremely positive. A few hours ago, it was publicly announced that the Belfry Theatre will not be presenting The Runner in March.
I support the conversations taking place in response to The Runner right now, I always think it’s important to discuss things. It’s hard to know how audiences will experience any play right now, let alone one set in Israel, like The Runner. But the power of this production, and why so many people have connected with it since it premièred in 2018, is that it’s a nuanced and thoughtful conversation about the preciousness of human life.
JI: Are you a member of the Jewish community? Either way, why did you choose to write a play about terrorism from the perspective of an Orthodox Jewish man?
CM: I’m not a member of the Jewish community. I was brought up Catholic but regard myself as an ex-Catholic (since the age of 13). I wrote a play about medical triage in the perspective of an Orthodox Jewish man because I wanted to write a play about ZAKA.
JI: I’m struck by what I interpret, perhaps mistakenly, as calls for humanity/morality only from Jews/Israelis, not from terrorists or people who see terrorism as a valid form of resistance. In the thinly veiled Gilad Shalit reference, for example, Jacob bemoans the un-Jewishness of Israel keeping the remains of dead terrorists in case of an exchange but he doesn’t seem to question the morality or humanity of the terrorists. Similarly, the only ones who seem to be called to account for killing in this play are Jews – presumably an Israeli shot the Arab woman in the back, an Israeli shooting an Arab protester leads to an Israeli boy being killed, a Jewish Israeli accidentally shoots another Jew when trying to shoot a terrorist, and another gunshot by a Jew, after a vehicular terrorist attack, has fatal consequences for a Jew.
CM: Because it’s a one-person show, Jacob’s view is a singular perspective, and I wrote about the unique situations he would be facing as a ZAKA member. Jacob is dismayed by all the violence that surrounds him and, throughout the play, he advocates for seeing all human life as equal. As a disempowered, isolated person, with limited interactions to people outside of his community, I believe Jacob feels his best bet to effect change is by addressing those around him.
JI: While ZAKA prioritizes victims over terrorists, other Israeli medical professionals are supposed to triage patients. In the play, an ambulance takes the Arab girl away and obviously keeps her alive. Why does no Jew in the play support Jacob or show him kindness?
CM: It is true that Israeli medical professionals give care to patients, like the ambulance described in the show that takes the Palestinian teenager away and a hospital which no doubt helped her with her wounds. When writing the complex character of Jacob, it was important to include examples in the play of how hard it was for him to connect to other people before he offers medical care to the teenager. This was important to create a complex human being and an interesting dramatic context. Jacob’s mother supports him and shows him kindness. As does the Palestinian teenager when he arrives unexpectedly at her door, and the Palestinian man who saves him by helping Jacob get to his car.
JI: There is a line in the play that has been highlighted by reviewers as powerful, and that’s [Jacob’s brother] Ari’s dictate about why he’s a settler on the land – “because it’s mine!” Again, this doesn’t come up in your play, but is relevant: the chant for Palestine to be free from the river to the sea. What hope do you see, or does Jacob see, if you’d rather – can one get off “the treadmill” alive?
CM: Though my play is set in Israel, I feel I lack the experience or expertise to offer a fully informed answer to the complexities of the overall conflict. But the biggest hope for me in the play and the only statement about life I feel I wrote (as opposed to the numerous questions I ask in the play) is Jacob’s description of how the Palestinian teenager treated him with kindness:
Her hand on my shoulder.
Are you alright.
That’s all that matters.
An act of kindness.
This is my offering for the complex world we live in.
For tickets to the PuSh Festival, which includes BLOT, co-created by Vanessa Goodman, and Pli, co-presented by Chutzpah! Festival, go to pushfestival.ca.