When acclaimed writer and playwright Robert Chafe was a child, his family would jokingly refer to him as “Dr. Robert” because he earned good grades — they figured he’d go on to be a doctor, or perhaps a lawyer.
Chafe comes from a large family who mostly earned their living in fields such as construction, or what Chafe calls “body work” using “practical knowledge” — the kind of thing he “failed at.”
He recalls telling his parents that he wanted to quit working for the family construction business (which paid for his philosophy degree) and become an artist.
“I may as well have told them I was going to walk on the moon — no one we knew did it. We didn’t even know if it was possible. So, I know Mom and Dad have, over their life, worried about me.”
Sipping from a latte at Fixed Coffee and Baking on Duckworth Street Monday afternoon, Chafe spoke with The Telegram about his impressive body of work that is now earning him an honorary doctorate at Memorial University’s spring convocation on Wednesday.
He figures that doctorate might finally mean his parents will stop worrying about him.
“But they’re very supportive — they come to see everything, and they’re very proud, but I know that they still worry,” he says.
“(The honorary degree) is meaningful in that regard, to kind of have that affirmation that … the choice I made and the life I lived in this career are OK.”
Indeed, Chafe’s career could be described as far more than just “OK.”
In Memorial University’s statement about this year’s honorary graduates, it says Chafe will be awarded the degree of doctor of letters honoris causa “for his major contribution to Newfoundland theatre and culture.”
Over the past 25 years, Chafe has distinguished himself as a writer in theatre, dance, opera, radio, fiction and film. His plays have graced stages across Canada, the U.K., Australia and the U.S.
He was shortlisted for the Winterset Award for his first book of fiction, “Two Man Tent,” and he won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for “Afterimage” in 2010.
Still, to be recognized with an honorary doctorate and have his whole body of work highlighted in this way is particularly special for Chafe.
“To think that somehow everything I’ve done has added up to something is…,” he pauses, and notes he might get emotional. “I just put that into words for the first time.
“That’s pretty meaningful.”
Chafe is a giant in the province’s cultural landscape, yet he still battles that nagging voice inside his head that has plagued creative minds likely since the dawn of time.
“An award or an outside affirmation is always a nice, needed boost to your ego to kind of fight back against your lack of self-esteem. That’s always welcome,” he said, adding with a laugh, “But that horrible little self-esteem killer voice is still there, kind of going, ‘You don’t deserve it!’”
Looking back over his 25-year career so far, Chafe says what stands out most is the people he’s felt privileged to meet by telling their stories.
He recalls meeting Lanier Phillips for a dinner after “Oil and Water” had been onstage for a couple of years. At that point, Phillips was too ill to travel to see the show, so Chafe had sent him a video of it.
During dinner, the conversation shifted to the other end of the table, and Phillips leaned over to Chafe.
“He said, ‘I got a chance to watch your video, and I watched it six times. I loved it.’ And I just remember him saying that.”
Chafe takes a sip of his latte.
“You know, those moments that kind of take what we do, which is, we get so in our heads in terms of creating an engaging piece of theatre that we sometimes forget that when the work is good or you’re telling the right story, it actually is touching people, and affecting people in a way that is profound.
“The few times in my life where I’ve been reminded of that stand as the absolute highlight for sure.”
Chafe said making a career in the arts in Newfoundland and Labrador has its challenges, notably the geographic distance people sometimes have to travel to make it happen, and also the lack of funding compared to larger centres such as Toronto and Vancouver.
But in his speech to the business graduates on Wednesday, he plans to speak about how allowing for possibility in his life has been a game-changer.
“My life has been completely changed by these huge winds of possibility that I didn’t see coming, and I think that oftentimes society tells us that clarity is really important, and from a really young age, like, in high school you’re supposed to pick courses for what you want to do for the rest of your life.
“I just think my life is so affected by these massive shifts in luck and fortune and opportunity. In terms of working hard, and choosing your path and all of that, also just remember to keep the door open a crack so that a big gust of wind of opportunity can blow that door open and change your life in a way you never (expected), because I think sometimes we can be really closed and miss out on really exciting things.”
Chafe may be busy planning a musical at the moment, but he’ll also now live up to that old family nickname on Wednesday when he officially becomes “Dr. Robert” Chafe.