John Fanning on The Pencil Salesman

John Fanning on The Pencil Salesman

Jenna Simeonov

June 25-July 3 the Westben Arts Festival Theatre presents the world premiere of Brian Finley’s new opera, The Pencil Salesman, directed by Tapestry Opera’s Michael Mori. Canadian baritone John Fanning will sing the role of Boris Ball, the inventor of the Personal Touch Typewriter, who develops a cynical relationship with the world’s technological advancements. We chat with Fanning about playing a “Luddite”, about working on a brand new opera, and about how technology dictates our own human interactions.

For more information about The Pencil Salesman, follow our box office links below.

What kind of man is Boris?

Boris is a Luddite. He’s a man clearly set in his ways who is at once a creature and a victim of habit. One description put forth at the workshop last year was “even though he’s retired, he still puts on a tie every morning”. He enjoyed his heyday in the 1960s with a revolutionary technological invention, but for various reasons, time stood still for him at that point and he never emerged from, or moved beyond that decade, technically or emotionally. Even his familial relationships are attempts to hold onto the past and any “new” element introduced into his life threatens to upset his world. In effect he has stopped developing and evolving as a person.

What do you share in common with Boris?

I think humans, in our normal march through the universe, arrive at points at which we make decisions, consciously or unconsciously, to continue to embrace something or to let developments and advancements move forward without us. I also believe we largely make the same determinations with our relationships.

Technologically for Boris, it’s the typewriter. For me, the “I can’t imagine I need or want to bother with anything more advanced” point was probably the advent of texting.

Relationships with family and friends is always a work in progress, I suppose but I’m happy to report fairly clear sailing in those waters.

What does The Pencil Salesman have to say about technology and human nature?

History teaches us that there are many points in time when the focus of humanity has moved from that of the group to that the individual. Both offer advantages and disadvantages as wall as liberties and limitations. The arrival of the Walkman in the late 1970s, for example, allowed us to fill our commutes with music and privacy while, at the same time, withdrawing from the social herd; both its benefits and annoyances. Now, earbuds are ubiquitous and the capabilities of smartphones renders any form of human interaction on the street, bus or subway unnecessary.

I believe that today we even relate stories differently, because of technological advancements. Our honoured oral tradition of story telling, in retrospect, seemed considerably more prevalent thirty years ago than it does now. Almost everyone had a repertoire of funny stories they loved to pass on to anyone who would listen. Today, one receives a joke in an email, LOLs, possibly saves it in a file if it’s a real knee-slapper and, finally, forwards it to anyone he or she thinks might enjoy reading it.

What do you enjoy about working on a premiere piece?

It is rewarding and fun to work on premieres for several reasons. With The Pencil Salesman, Brian Finley is both the composer and conductor and will be present at every moment to oversee the entire production. As one can imagine, this isn’t always ideal but Brian is very passionate, a great colleague; and it’s his baby, so it will be wonderful to collaborate so closely in the process. Also, in dealing with a new piece there are no preconceived notions of how it should be performed, and it becomes a very creative undertaking.

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