Peter's journey so far...
Born November 26, 1953 in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montréal, Québec, Canada. Grew up in Montréal. My older brother, Erik Neil Weiss, was a profound influence and inspiration. From a young age, he showed enormous artistic talent and that made me want to be an artist too. I knew I could not draw as well as he could and so I decided to be something else. I started writing poetry at the age of 8 and soon began to think of myself as an aspiring writer.
I always think of writers as prolific readers, but I was a slow reader. I preferred comic books to novels and thought that meant I was stupid. I could not understand why I would be able to easily read and enjoy one Hardy Boys novel and then get bogged down in another and be unable to finish it (I hated then, as I do now, not finishing things) and it was not until I reached adulthood that I found out Franklin W. Dixon was not a real person and that the books had been written by different people, some of whom had styles I enjoyed and others did not. When I was 11 years old, my brother lent me his copy of Edward Albee's The American Dream. It was a revelation - in so many ways. It was something that I could read...quickly. It was full of ideas that excited me, that were mysterious, erotic, compelling. I began reading plays. Dozens of them. I began writing plays. I decided I wanted to be a playwright.
At the age of 12, I opened the Montreal Star to see the following headline in the Entertainment Section: "Peter Weiss has hit on Broadway." Obviously that Peter Weiss and this Peter Weiss were not the same Peter Weiss. The hit was The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates at the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, better known as Marat/Sade. It is a brilliant play, perhaps even the last truly "great" play of the 20th century. In form, it builds on Bertolt Brecht-s theories and practice. Also, Peter Brook-s signature production of it (the one that was in New York at the time) combined Weiss-s version of Brecht-s Epic Theatre, with his own brand of Antonin Artauds Theatre of Cruelty crossed with Jerzy Grotowski-s Poor Theatre, not only bringing together progressive ideas from the previous 50 years of the modern avant-garde, but bringing this revolutionary, challenging, difficult artwork to the centre of commercial theatre, Broadway, to sit side-by-side with The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof.
Plays, plays, plays: in the summer, when I was 12, my first year at Camp Wakonda, my counselor gave me a copy of The Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde to read. I read every one. By 16, I had read Martin Esslin's Theatre of the Absurd, many of the plays he regarded as "absurdist" but more importantly, plays of the late 19th and early 20th century that had contributed to the abstract expressionism Esslin called "Absurd." I was most attracted to Strindberg, Toller, Pirandello and Ionesco. I, of course, still loved Albee.
When I was sixteen, my family moved from Montréal to Vancouver (Tsawwassen, to be exact) and I had an appointment with an astrologer: Mrs. Golf-Bent. She looked at my stars and predicted that every year of my life would get better until the age of thirty-nine and then...well, she shrugged. She couldn't say. How true was her prediction? Well, given the vagueness of "after 39...shrug" not bad.
Certainly, life improved when I left home. Or, rather, when home left me. After a year in Vancouver, my family returned to the East - Toronto, to be exact - but I remained in Vancouver and entered UBC, where six years later (a year out, a couple of courses repeated) I received my BA, with a major in theatre. I had not been lazy in those years, but rather had been acting in dozens of plays and scenes. I thought that if I was going to write for actors, I had to understand what they did. I loved acting, actually. I had done it since grade school. I had done it in summer camp. I remember a boyfriend, when I was in third year, asking cruelly, during an argument, "Do you want to be an actor? Is that what you want? Do you think you're going to make it?" Actually, I didn't. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a playwright. I don't think I said anything. I think I simply wept.
But things were getting better. By time I had my BA, I had begun a relationship with the wonderful Kathleen Ziems. We married in 1977. I started working at whatever small jobs I could get and writing plays. In 1982, with Kathleen's brilliant inspiration and direction, we launched a crazy Saturday midnight series called West End - The Theatrical Soap Opera. I wrote the scenarios which were improvised weekly by a stunning cast of Vancouver's most talented young actors. The weekly show became a cult event.
In 1984, I was contacted by Susan Astley. She was directing a co-op production created by an ensemble of women who had been working for two years on a show about sex. It began when they were backstage swapping stories about their sex-lives and laughing uproariously. It got further inspiration from Cynthia Heimel's book Sex Tips for Girls. However, they now needed someone to take all their improvisations and random notes and put them together. Was I willing? I said I would give it a try. We had a two week workshop period. I decided to start from scratch and created an improvisational structure based on Linda Putnam]s concept of "hallways." Actors developed characters and could speak either as themselves or their characters. If they were themselves, they would have to sit in a chair. If they were their character, they had to stand up. If they were standing, they were either performing a monologue or, if another character felt the urge to stand, a scene. Touchstone Theatre agreed to produce. We opened in February of 1985 for a three week run that we hoped would not lose the theatre too much money. Three years later, 1000s of performances in Vancouver, productions elsewhere in Canada, the US and the world and a Jessie Richardson Award, it was clear we had not lost Touchstone any money.
My career was launched. Because of the other Peter Weiss, I was Peter Eliot Weiss. I was 32 years old - only 7 more years to 39. And then...
There were a lot of productions in those 7 years and Sex Tips was not the only one that had gotten interest and exposure. The Haunted House Hamlet has had a number of productions. So too have FairyBlood and Remembering Shanghai, my only two one-acts and both rather modest. But there were other plays, only done in Vancouver, some more successful, some less. All had wonderful moments and really wonderful casts. Except for Going Down for the Count, a play I had begun just after getting my BA, and which was produced almost ten years later and published ten years after that, most of the plays were commissions. By 1989, I had massive writer's block.
I was 36 years old. I had a four year old child. My career had never stabilized: artistic or commercial successes had not come together to give me a dependable foundation of financial security. Worse, when I looked back at the work itself, it did not seem to reflect me, who I was, what I was or believed in. I had not chosen what to write. I wrote what I could make money writing. And now, I did not know what to do about it, how to go about writing plays that were more personal to me, how to get such plays produced. Would anybody ever even be interested in what I wanted to write?
The crisis had a personal dimension. Writing always does. I was in a heterosexual marriage to a woman who I loved and we had a son that we loved. But I also knew that I was gay and I felt isolated and alienated from a community and issues that I also felt were mine and worth my writing about. When I was out, before I was married, I had felt isolated and alienated, and marrying a wonderful woman seemed to resolve that. I didn't need to be gay. But "gay" is not something you choose. It is what you are. By the age of 39 I felt, at best, like an imposter.
By the age of 39, things had also begun to change. I was doing more directing and decided that actors would trust me more, as a director, if I had a masters degree rather than just my experience as a playwright. I returned to UBC, hoping to study under Klaus Strassman, the professor who most inspired me when I was an undergraduate. Unfortunately, he had just retired. But I did get my masters in directing. More than that, and a complete surprise to me, I fell in love with school, in particular the academic courses I was taking from Professor Errol Durbach, who was also Chair of the Theatre Department. And so, I went to see him and I said, "I want to get a PhD." "But an MFA is a terminal degree," he replied. Well, it was feeling a little terminal, but I decided to do an extra academic credit in my second year, apply for PhD in the two places in Canada that offered one, and see what happened.
What happened was that I was accepted both at UBC and at the University of Toronto. Given that I had two degrees from UBC, I thought it would improve my academic credibility if I had a degree from a different university. Also, frankly, my home life was falling apart as I was coming out for the second time in my life. And so, literally with nothing but my suitcases and a $10,000 scholarship that was supposed to cover tuition as well as living expenses for the year, I moved to Toronto.
By 1998, I was in a new committed relationship with Michael Sweeney, principal bassoonist at the Toronto Symphony. He and my son, Joey, got along well. I was working on my dissertation and looking at the prospect of teaching theatre somewhere, anywhere, in Canada or the US and I thought, is that really what I have to do. What if I took my communication knowledge and skill and worked as a consultant in industry? I mentioned this possibility to my friend Jane Freeman and she said, "Well, if you want to try out that kind of constituency, I know there are positions open for graduate students in the Writing Centre in Engineering. Why don't you work there for a bit?" Armed with her recommendation, I approached Robert Irish, then director of what was known as Language Across the Curriculum in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering and he hired me. By 2000, I had my PhD and was hired, permanently, in the relatively new faculty category of "lecturer."
Well, Mrs. Golf-Bent was right to shrug. There have been some ups and downs along the way. By 2002, it would seem that if my motivation for everything I had done from 1989 on was to overcome playwright's block, then clearly I had failed. A permanent position, with the work that it entailed, both diminished the economic motivation to write (why would I write plays if I don't have to in order to make money?) and reduced the time and mental energy to do it. But in the winter term of 2002, I had one of the worst teaching experiences of my life: a class that quite simply hated me and made no secret of their contempt. The kindest of them would come to my office and try to make me feel better by saying things like, "You know I don't get it. I really don't think you are as terrible as everyone says you are." One day, after one of these kinds of meetings, feeling totally desolate, I went to the washroom and, standing at the urinal, I thought, "You know, if you aren't writing plays, then all you are is what they say you are."
And so, I began again.
2010 - Senior Lecturer in the Engineering Communication Program. A textbook, with Robert Irish, entitled Engineering Communication: From Principles to Practice (Oxford University Press). Two new plays in development with Kathleen Weiss (University of Alberta) as dramaturge and director. Married to Michael Sweeney. Son, Joseph Julian Ziems Weiss is currently working on his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.
I don't go to astrologers any more.