Under Wraps

I’d never had the opportunity to visit Newfoundland before – it’s the last of Canada’s ten provinces for me – so I was very happy to visit St. John’s recently and get to know a city I’ve heard so many good things about – and which has been home to such a wide swath of Canada’s theatre community over the years.

As it turns out, Jillian Keiley is directing a new production of Robert Chafe’s 1997 play, Under Wraps, in St. John’s. I met Jill earlier this season upon her arrival in Ottawa as the new artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theater, and she was kind enough to invite me to sit in on an almost-dress-rehearsal over the weekend at St. John’s LSPU Hall.

Since it hasn’t opened yet, I’m not going to review this production, but I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying it’s a love story with a lot of heart – complete with a “shape-shifting” chorus who provide the music, the commentary … and the furniture. And it was a particular delight to discover that Chafe, who wrote the play and acted in the original production, is back as a member of the chorus, though you won’t get to see him until the curtain call.

Under Wraps opens at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s on May 7 and runs through May 19. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity, do try and see it – details at Artistic Fraud.

Fool for Love

concordeI had the good fortune to see a most remarkable production this week – Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” a production of Théâtre des Cybèle directed in French by Kevin Orr, a professor in the theatre department at the University of Ottawa, and it’s set in a remarkably seedy motel room on Montreal Road in Vanier. It’s a play about love, rage and jealousy and it’s set, yes, in a seedy motel room. The audience – there’s room for 12 of us – are seated on folding metal chairs lining the walls of the room, and we are thoroughly in the midst of the action of the play – audience members are asked to make sure to stay out of the actors’ way as they rush about the room. It’s claustrophobic, visceral, emotionally charged, and a thoroughly exceptional piece of theatre. Bravo to the actors, Nathaly Charrette, Yves Turbide, Paul Rainville, and Nicolas Desfossés.

Don’t understand French? Doesn’t matter. Immersed in that motel room, you can’t help but figure out what you need to know just by watching the actors, their faces, their gestures. When I was in Dublin last year I saw a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West”; the year before, I caught “The Curse of the Starving Class at the Abbey”. But in spite of being English-language performances, neither Irish production seemed to quite capture the essence of Shepard – either the despair of the characters or the idiom of the playwright’s language – the way this one did. So bravo too to the translator, Michèle Magny.

It’s a limited run to May 1 and with only 12 seats I suspect there aren’t many more tickets available – but if the opportunity presents itself, grab it!

Writers Read

Well, that was fun!

As I mentioned recently, the Playwrights Guild of Canada sponsored an evening of readings by local playwrights, which took place last night in the GCTC lobby last night. Seven playwrights offered excerpts from their work – in some instances, myself included, works in progress – including Jessica Anderson, Laurie Fyffe, Arthur Milner, Kim Renders, Drew Hayden Taylor and Darrah Teitel. There was also an open mike, and I was delighted to see quite a few members of the audience, including quite a few notable local actors, take advantage of the opportunity to share some of their work.

Kudos to Laurie for organizing the event, and many thanks to Eric Coates and Patrick Gauthier of GCTC for providing the venue and introducing the readers for the evening.

The reading attracted quite a nice turnout, I thought, and it was inspiring to get a sense of what some of my colleagues in the Ottawa area are up to. I very much hope that this will be the first of many such events in Ottawa’s theatre calendar.

Before the public event began, the Guild’s Rebecca Burton hosted an informal caucus meeting, which was an opportunity for those present to get acquainted and share suggestions about potential collective activities for us here in Ottawa. While the Guild’s focus is understandably Toronto, we in Ottawa have our own interests and concerns, and one theme that many of us around the table brought up was a call for more in the way of professional development and workshops here in Ottawa.

As to the reading itself, I am deeply indebted to the wonderfully talented Kristina Watt, who joined me in presenting an excerpt from “Ill Conceived,” one of the plays I’ve been writing at GCTC. Kristina and I worked together last year on “Late,” and I was very glad for the chance to work with her again – not only for her fine reading, but for the conversations we had beforehand, where her intelligence and actor’s eye gave me fresh insights into the characters and story arc of the play.

In the informal discussion before the readings, Kristina noted that she was very much interested in the opportunity to read new works, and I think this could make for a very fruitful collaboration among actors and playwrights in Ottawa. I hope we’ll see something like this come to pass – at the very least, I hope Kristina realizes that I’m certainly planning to share future drafts with her as well.

Actors and playwrights out there: what do you think?

Writers Reading

We playwrights like to write. At least, I hope we do, otherwise why are we doing it?

Usually, other people get to find out about what we’ve written by attending a production of one of our plays. But every now and then an alternative avenue comes along, and thanks to the efforts of Laurie Fyffe, another Ottawa playwright, the Playwrights Guild of Canada and the Great Canadian Theatre Company have teamed up to present an evening of readings by a number of local playwrights. Here’s the official announcement – hope to see you there!

Playwrights UnitE!

Great Canadian Theatre Company and the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada, Ontario East Caucus, invite you to an evening of readings hosted by GCTC featuring members of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, and many more!

Join us as playwrights established and emerging, Ottawa based and from the National Capital Region and beyond, read from exciting works in an evening devoted to celebrating the art of the playwright.

Jessica Anderson, Lawrence Aronovitch, Laurie Fyffe, Arthur Milner, Kim Renders, Drew Hayden Taylor, & Darrah Teitel will kick off the evening, followed by an open mic invitation for other playwrights to take to the stage.

Date:
Monday, April 22, 2013

Time:
7 PM

Location:
Main Lobby of the Great Canadian Theatre Company,
Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre,
1227 Wellington Street West (corner of Wellington & Holland Avenue),
Ottawa

Admission is FREE! There will be snacks, a cash bar, great writing & stimulating conversation for all!

This is event is made possible by the Great Canadian Theatre Company, the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada, & the Canada Council for the Arts.

World Theatre Day 2013

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The Gladstone Theatre team with the Rubber Chicken Award

Yesterday was World Theatre Day, and Ottawa’s Company of Fools once again organized the Ottawa Theatre Challenge to mark the occasion. I was approached by Nicholas Amott, a young actor of my acquaintance, to join him as a competitor in the challenge.

The way it works is this: each team is given 48 hours to prepare a five-minute play using three “objects of inspiration” that have been randomly assigned among the theatre companies involved. This year’s objects comprised a song, an object from someone’s house (not necessarily a household object), and a proverb. Nick and I were assigned the song “Seasons of Love” from Rent, a lucky penny, and the Russian proverb “Hope Dies Last.”

The Challenge, hosted by Teri Loretto, who has just finished directing my play False Assumptions, is great fun and gives Ottawa’s theatre community a welcome excuse to come together and celebrate our common passion to create. It’s also generally a very silly evening – which is what you might expect when it’s run by the Fools, bribes for judges Natalie Joy Quesnel, Patrick Gauthier and Eric Coates are heartily encouraged, and the prize for the winner is the coveted Rubber Chicken Award. All proceeds go to a charity chosen by the previous year’s winner – in this case, the ALS Society of Canada.

Part of the fun for me was the delight in being on stage for a change – usually I’m tucked safely away backstage somewhere – and I thought I detected a few gasps of astonishment from the audience at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage when I made my way into the spotlight. But it was also a joy to see what the other 14 companies were inspired to bring to the stage, and it was a real delight to see the Gladstone Theatre team win the rubber chicken for their inspiring Finnish homage to Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. (Their version, which I hope someone captured on video, is a truly profound complement – and compliment – to the version I saw in Ireland last year.)

So kudos to the Fools for making this happen, and congratulations to the Gladstone for their well-earned victory!

(And for those who might be wondering: Nick and I did walk away with the “Worst Presentation of Bribe” award, an achievement we are both happy to wear with pride.)

Getting Ready to Open

FA-poster-finalMarie Curie is about to come to life!

No, I am not musing about anything so metaphysical as the raising of the dead. But the cast, comprising the graduating students of the Ottawa Theatre School, have been in rehearsal for the last few weeks and are busy now with costume fittings, going over their lines, working out the finer points of their characters with director Teri Loretto, and eager discussions about ways to get word of the play out in the world of social media. It’s been great fun to watch.

Along the way, the script has evolved enormously from the days of our first reading together back in September. Among other things, for example, the title of the piece has evolved from The Notebooks of Marie Curie, which as a working title really did convey what the play was about, to False Assumptions, a title which I hope the audience will agree conveys what the play is really about as it looks at those notebooks. For me this is one of the most interesting aspects of the journey, and it’s one I highlighted in that first reading many months ago to the others around the table: the script that the actors will present to their audience at the Gladstone is very much evolved from the one they first met in September.

That’s as it should be, of course. The whole point of the work in these last few months has been to improve and refine the story on the page, and I am deeply indebted to Teri, to producer Chris Ralph, and to the actors (among many others), whose counsel and suggestions have made a vast difference to the quality of the script and so to the story that these actors will be presenting as of next week.

My job, then, is done. All the changes to the text that will be made have been made. I leave it in the many good hands of my friends at OTS and Plosive and look forward to settling back in my seat on opening night and watch the magic of the theatre do its thing.

If you’re in the Ottawa area and would like to see the show, you can order your tickets online at the Gladstone.

Meanwhile in Gananoque

logo-300pxA friend mentioned to me some time ago that there was a new artistic director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, near Kingston. Her name is Ashlie Corcoran, and one of the things she decided to do at TIP was to set up a Playwrights Unit for 2013. So earlier this year she invited four other playwrights and myself to meet with her and Assistant Artistic Director Charlotte Gowdy at the Playhouse once a month for the next year. We’re each working on a brand new piece, and we each get allotted a couple of sessions over the year to share and discuss our work. Ashlie’s plan is to present readings of our work at the Playhouse in December 2013.

The other playwrights are all relatively local: Douglas Bowie, many of whose works have already been produced at TIP; Craig Walker, who teaches in the theatre department at Queen’s University; Sarah Dennison, a recent graduate of the theatre program at Guelph; and my fellow Ottawa playwright Jessica Anderson.

The project I decided to work on at TIP is one that’s been in the back of my idea drawer for a very long time – because it’s an interesting bit of family history. In the early nineteenth century, an ancestor of mine won election to the Lower Canada assembly for the riding of Trois Rivières, but he was prevented from taking his seat because he was Jewish. The “Hart Affair” was a significant political issue in its day, and it wasn’t until quite a few years later that the rights of Jewish subjects to hold office was established in British North America.

Our group’s March meeting was last night at the Playhouse, and it was my turn to present. I had about 20 pages of scenes that I wanted to share and I was typically nervous and worried – what would these other writers think of my work? – and busily thinking up all sorts of excuses for my failings. But I was absolutely delighted with the supportive and constructive feedback from the other people around the table. And that’s the value of a group like this. It’s energizing. I spent the drive home thinking about everyone’s comments and the wheels are spinning madly in my head as I ponder what I want to do next with the script. Writing groups sometimes work and sometimes don’t – often it’s a question of chemistry between the people in the room. This one certainly works, and I’m grateful to Ashlie for organizing it and for inviting me to participate in it.

Stay tuned for more updates on this project over the rest of 2013, and pencil in December 5 at the Playhouse – that’s when my work is scheduled to be presented.

A new Lavender Railroad

Just a short note to let readers know that there’s going to be a staged reading of The Lavender Railroad in March near New York City. The play will be presented by HRC Showcase Theatre in Hudson, which is an easy train ride north of Manhattan.

One reason I’m looking forward to this production is because I had a very detailed phone conversation with the director, Barbara Waldinger, last week. She’s clearly given the piece a great deal of thought and wants to get all the details right as she rehearses with her actors. For my part, I enjoyed the opportunity to get reacquainted with Mother Courage, Sebastian, the Commander and the Sister, not to mention the general mood and tone of the piece.

I’ve been invited down by the company to participate in a discussion of the play after the performance on the evening of Saturday, March 9, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting the cast, crew and audience. Details about the production are here. If you’re in the neighborhood, come by and say hello!

A theatre commons at Arts Court

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Natalie Joy Quesnel and Kevin Waghorn in the Arts Court Theatre

For venue rental information, click here.

I had the chance to sit down recently with Natalie Joy Quesnel and Kevin Waghorn of ithe Ottawa Fringe Festival in their new-ish offices down the hall from the theatre at Arts Court. They took over as managers of the space on January 1 and were eager to share their plans for the facility. As readers will recall, the demise last year of the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation raised concerns in the theatre community about the future of the facility. Happily, the new system seems to be working smoothly so far and theatre bookings for the year are off to a very strong start – which serves as a reminder to how much demand there is for performance space in Ottawa.

Kevin has primary responsibility for looking after the theatre, as well as related Arts Court spaces (the studio next door, as well as the multi-use Library and the Courtroom), which includes taking care of bookings as well as whatever maintenance and upgrades the facilities need. Funding for operations comes from the City as part of its contract with Fringe, but Kevin says that for any major capital upgrades Fringe will have to seek funding in the same manner as any other venue operator. That said, the City was able to provide Fringe with a one-time grant of $11,000, and after an assessment of current deficiencies Fringe decided to invest principally in new sound equipment for the theatre. According to Kevin, this was the best way to make a noticeable improvement for users of the space with the funds available. (Upgrades to lighting equipment, while also necessary, will need significantly greater funding. This is one of the things Fringe is looking at for the future.)

One thing explicitly excluded from the contract between Fringe and the city is the proposed addition to the Arts Court building to be constructed on the Waller Street side of the property. It looks like the new space will be devoted primarily to the Ottawa Art Gallery, with performance, rehearsal and studio space attached to the University of Ottawa theatre department.

From the client’s perspective, using the venue should be a seamless experience. Fringe does not have responsibility for other facilities within the Arts Court building, however, so there could be a few problems that the city managers involved with the venue would have to solve. A current example is the elevator leading to the theatre, which hasn’t been working recently – it’s a city responsibility, but it’s still unavailable to anyone who’s booked the theatre and needs to move large items. It does look like Fringe and the city are working well to fix these kinds of issues as they arise. Similarly, box office services are provided directly by the city, though users are not obliged to use them.

The Festival is about to announce three new full-time hires (general manager, technical director, and marketing and communications coordinator), all of whom will be spending much of their time on Arts Court business as well as the festival. In particular, the marketing coordinator will be tasked with making Arts Court a go-to destination and with helping clients booking the theatre in their own efforts at marketing and media attention. These activities will be directed at both the anglophone and francophone theatre communities.

The contract between Fringe and the city runs for the current calendar year with an option to renew for two years. This will give Fringe the time both to manage the venues on a day-to-day basis and to use their experience to plan for the longer term health of the theatre and its associated spaces. The Festival and the city are also committed to working together to ensure that the venue management and festival management functions run smoothly together.

Over the longer term, Fringe wants to develop Arts Court as a kind of theatre commons – not just a venue to be rented for performances but a place where theatre artists can regularly run into each other, trade “water-cooler chat,” and develop a genuine sense of community. GCTC offers a bit of this in the west end of town, especially during a festival like undercurrents, but the gap downtown is palpable. One way to make this happen that’s under consideration could be a revival of the concept of resident theatre companies. As Kevin pointed out, when the opportunity to manage the Arts Court facilities came up last year, the Fringe realized how well it would mesh with their own strategic vision to help theatre artists with year-round mentorship and support.

Both Kevin and Natalie Joy acknowledge that there’s been a bit of an information gap about Arts Court in recent months. For their part, they wanted to make sure they had everything in order before speaking publicly about their activities, so with the hiring process now almost complete they’re looking forward to making their official announcements by the end of the month and holding a launch event in March. Something to look forward to!

Fruition

The undercurrents festival is on at GCTC – go see the shows! – and two of the works featured are SKIN and Ladies of the Lake.

Wearing my GCTC playwright-in-residence hat, I got to sit in on some of the development for each of these and quite enjoyed the experience in each case. Both shows share a number of interesting elements in common, particularly their incorporation of music and movement into the stories that they’re telling. Since my work has been very much based on text and only text, this was an opportunity for me to expand my horizons a bit and see how other approaches to creation might work. This was all very fruitful: I learned a lot and (I think) contributed a bit to each of the shows in kind, but I was also very, very curious to find out what the shows would look like once they had, you know, developed.

So this past week I was glad finally to see the fruition of all that work for both the companies involved. Interestingly, at each performance I found myself feeling a little lump in my throat of pride that all the people involved in both shows were able to show the world what they’d done at the festival. My hat’s off to them all – it’s a tremendous investment of hard work, sweat, toil and tears to journey from the initial germ of an idea to the auditorium filled with people eager to see what you’ve created. I sometimes feel as though I spend most of my time in that “initial germ” state, so it’s good to be reminded that the purpose of the exercise is to share that creation with the world in performance.

Go see both shows if you can, as well as all the other fine stuff on offer at undercurrents.