The Other Side of the Table

yifIt’s always nice to give back, isn’t it?

So when I was approached a little while ago to help with Ottawa’s Youth Infringement Festival, I was delighted to agree. The Festival, which takes place at Arts Court in May, provides a forum for theatre that is “relevant and accessible to Youth.” What this means, in practice, is that it produces plays by and for youth – people between the ages of 15 and 25. These are the emerging artists who write the plays, direct them, design them, perform in them. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the festival in the past – if there was a way for me to help, I was glad to do it.

The core of the festival, of course, is the plays that are selected. Anyone in the age group is welcome to submit, and as part of the selection process playwrights are assigned dramaturgical support to help refine and improve the scripts. In my case, I was introduced to one artist who has offered two strikingly different submissions to the festival.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that sitting on the other side of the table from the playwright is quite rewarding. In some ways it’s no different from the critique and feedback that we playwrights routinely offer each other at workshops, roundtables and the like. But there’s an added dimension here – I feel as though I’m very much at the beginning of someone’s journey of artistic discovery and expression.

In particular, I’ve been impressed with the maturity my young colleague brings to the table. My friend has written to very different plays, each of which offers very specific challenges for production. In both instances, the playwright has proven to be perfectly receptive to my concerns and suggestions, accepting some, challenging others. I’ve been gratified to see how successive drafts have improved, and I’m proud to have been part of the process.

The festival will soon be announcing the six plays that will be presented in May. If the other playwrights involved are as dedicated as the one I’ve been working with, it’ll be tough to make the choices. I have no idea whether one of the two plays I’ve read will be selected, but in any case I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer at the festival – and as for “my” plays, well, if they aren’t picked I’m sure they’ll find their way to a production somewhere else in due course.

Thoughts about the Ottawa Theatre School

The sad news in Ottawa in these early days of 2014 is the demise of the Ottawa Theatre School, as reported yesterday by the CBC. (OTS was a child of the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama, which has been contributing to the theatre arts in Ottawa for over 25 years, and the CBC report notes that OSSD will continue to offer its services.)

My own connection with the school was limited. OTS and Plosive Productions were my partners in the development of my play about Marie Curie, False Assumptions, which provided OTS students with an opportunity to see how a project develops from the initial germ of an idea through script development to rehearsal and production. I was delighted to get to know the students who were involved with the project and thought their dedication to their craft was good news for the continuing health of the Ottawa theatre community.

Unfortunately, the school seems to have had a number of serious management and financial issues it was unable to overcome. I was disturbed to hear late last year that many instructors at the school – who as a rule have been drawn from the theatre community – had not been paid for their services. As is often the case, theatre professionals supplement their income through instruction and I suspect that in many cases a pay cheque that bounces can cause real hardship. Obviously, no institution would allow such a situation to develop on a whim, so I assume that the school stopped paying its instructors because it simply didn’t have the cash.

I sat in on a recent meeting of some of the instructors involved. Of course, they hoped to be paid what they were owed by the school, but what struck me in particular is the deep concern everyone shared for the welfare of the students, who now find themselves enmeshed in this terrible situation through no fault of their own. They knew what they wanted: an opportunity to learn a craft and the hope that with that learning they could go out into the community and practice it. It’s easy to say that our community is greater than any one institution and that over time things will work themselves out. This is no doubt true, and we can hope and work for a thriving Ottawa theatre scene, but we still need to pause and acknowledge the pain that many of our colleagues are now experiencing as well.