Syphilis Spreads like Wildfire: Peter Jickling’s Play Syphilis: A Love Story wins comedy award

It’s difficult to resist making puns about the title of the award-winning play Syphilis: A Love Story by Whitehorse playwright, and What’s Up Yukon assistant editor, Peter Jickling. Jokes like, “I caught syphilis at the Guild Hall last week,” or, “I caught syphilis with your mom.” Or how about, “I wanted to catch syphilis, but the line-up was too long.” Okay, I have the venereal disease out of my system now. Ahem.

Seriously, Syphilis: A Love Story met with great success on tour this summer at the Fifth Annual Gabriola Theatre Festival and the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival. Playing to sold-out audiences, the play won Best Comedy Award in Victoria.

Critics took notice of the all-Yukon cast: George Maratos, Justine Davidson, Mary Sloan, and Phillip Nugent (currently living in Edmonton). Theatre writer Erin Anderson wrote for the BC online publication CVV Magazine about the Victoria performances that, “Not every show with a great title and original premise delivers on its promise, but Syphilis: A Love Story definitely does. Sharply drawn characters, talented actors and a supremely polished script make an entertaining and intelligent piece of theatre.”

For those who haven’t yet caught the bug, here’s a brief synopsis of the play. The main character is Vaughn Fischer, described in the script as, “A struggling writer. Idealistic. Talented, but pretentious. Once well-adjusted, now anti-social.” Fischer is contracted to write a public health pamphlet about syphilis. Obsessed with turning the pamphlet into a masterpiece while slipping into misanthropic solitude, Fischer gets tough love from his friend, fellow writer Howard Gunn. Gunn encourages cunningly sweet Lynn Flynn to pretend to have syphilis to attract Fischer’s affections. Through a series of unexpected plot twists, real romance ensues.

It takes an inventive mind to create a play such as Syphilis: A Love Story. A mind like Jickling’s.

I spoke with Jickling about his sharply funny play upon his return from the BC tour. Turns out he wrote the first draft during the 2009 Nakai Theatre’s 24-Hour Playwriting Competition.

“I took a playwriting class when I was at University of Lethbridge,” Jickling says. “I wrote a similar plotline about a struggling writer writing a health pamphlet and it was well received by my classmates. Five years later, I remembered that idea at the 24-Hour Playwriting Competition.”

After the 24-Hour experience, and further developing the play in 2009, the play was given a staged reading at Nakai Theatre’s 2010 Homegrown festival. In the spring of 2011, Whitehorse audiences saw the first full-scale production at the Guild Hall, and a further edited version in the summer of 2012.

“There are moments when I pinch myself,” Jickling says. “In Victoria, from inside the dark tech booth, I saw 80 people who I don’t know filing into the theatre to see the show. I realized I’ve come a long way in the journey.”

A humble guy, Jickling is quick to give credit to the creative team who has been with Syphilis since the beginning. He worked with dramaturges, who are people who foster play development by asking creative questions about the work, Nakai Theatre Artistic Director David Skelton, and Vancouver-based theatre artist DD Kugler. Jickling also spoke highly of the play’s original director, Whitehorse’s Ramshackle Theatre Artistic Director Brian Fiddler, and praised each cast member for bringing “commitment, enthusiasm, and energy to the play”.

Surely these qualities and dedication are reflected by Jickling’s own approach to creating theatre.

“One of the things I have learned is that you don’t need anything special to write a play, you just have to keep working at it,” Jickling says. “There is not necessarily a trick to writing something. It’s a lot of grunt work, not just flashes of light and epiphanies. Woody Allen once said that 90 per cent of success is just showing up. I say just keep working at it and you will get where you need to go.”

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