Preview: Eye doc turned playwright draws inspiration from Ocean's 11

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Calgary playwright Arun Lakra admits to being a bit of a thief.

When pressed, Lakra, who wrote Vertigo’s new thriller Heist, concedes he may have stolen a page or two from Ocean’s 11, the granddaddy of heist thrillers, whether it be the 1960 Rat Pack version, or the 2001 George Clooney remake, its sequels and all its imitators.

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“After the darkness of the pandemic, I figured what we all need when we go to the theatre is some great twisty fun like you get from plays like The Mousetrap, Sleuth and Deathtrap. That’s why I decided to try my hand at writing a fun, edge-of-your-seat, twisty, mystery thriller,” says Lakra whose Heist runs at Vertigo until Feb. 25.

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“Ocean’s 11, in all its incarnations, is one of my favourite cinema thrillers. When we have a movie night, if my wife, son and daughter and I can’t agree on a new film, we’ll watch one of the Ocean’s. I’m pretty certain we’re not the only fans of that franchise, so that was my starting point for Heist. I wanted to see if we could actually pull off a heist on stage.”

Lakra insists the less audience members know about his play before heading down to Vertigo, the more fun they will have, so he refuses to reveal anything about the plot beyond saying, “My gang are jewel thieves and they only steal really expensive, really flashy jewels.

“Mystery audiences are really savvy. They’ve seen so much that my job as a writer was to try to stay one step ahead of them. So there really will be twists and turns they don’t see coming.”

Arun Lakra
Arun Lakra gave up his ophthalmology clinic to focus on playwriting full time. Courtesy, Mike Tan Photo Photo by Mike Tan /cal

As a writer, Lakra’s real passion has been screenwriting.

In 2022, Lakra was a quarterfinalist for the Academy of Motion Picture’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting with his Fortunato Heist, the film version of Heist. The following year, with Fortunato Heist, he was the winner of the Blacklist/Warby Parker $20,000 Vision Grant.

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“I actually wrote the stage and screenplay versions of Heist simultaneously. When Vertigo invited me to attend rehearsals of Heist, I thought I would just be sitting back watching it all happen. From the first day, all these incredible artists (Vertigo’s artistic director) Jack Grinhaus had assembled showed me there was still work to be done. I became part of the evolution of the script. Now I have to go back to my screenplay and incorporate what I learned, and all that they have brought to it.”

The backstage Heist team includes director Haysam Kadri, set and projection designer Scott Reid, costume designer Rebecca Toon, lighting designer Anton deGroot, and sound designer and composer Darren Young. The on-stage team consists of Griffin Cork, Praneet Akilla, Anna Dalgleish, Charlie Gould, Alexander Ariate and Elinor Holt.

Lakra first made his mark on the Calgary theatre scene in 2013 with his mind-bending romantic thriller Sequence. At the time, he was better known as one of the city’s foremost ophthalmologists.

“From the time I was in junior high school, I knew I wanted to go into medicine. One day in my fourth year of med school, I noticed an ad for a short story contest. I wrote one, submitted it and won the contest. To this day I have a feeling I was the only entrant, but it spurred me on. I started to indulge that other side of me and took a writing course at Ryerson College.”

Lakra has been juggling his two passions for more than 20 years, but, two years ago, he closed his clinic and has been pursuing his writing full time.

“I’m in a heist mode. I have various heist-related projects in various stages of development. About five years ago, I saw the comedy The Play That Goes Wrong in New York and immediately started envisioning what would happen if that one collided with Ocean’s 11. I call it Broadway Heist and it could end up being my next stage play. I’ll be heisting a little from two completely different sources for that one.”

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