Skin

I’m not the kind of person who makes a lot of New Year’s resolutions (though one year I did resolve to try and be more of a New Year’s resolution kind of guy – it didn’t really work), but this time round I did spend some time on New Year’s reflections. And one of the things I reflected on was how fortunate I’ve been recently to spend time doing things I love.

In particular, being part of the GCTC family this season has meant I’ve been able to sit in on a variety of projects that are in development. Most recently, this meant being able to join my friends at Deluxe Hot Sauce for a couple of their rehearsals with director Martha Ross as they ready their latest show, Skin, for the GCTC undercurrents festival opening next week.

One of the reasons that this particular opportunity was so appealing is that I’m a text-based kind of guy, scribbling merrily away on my own in a dark corner. (Actually, you can find me by the photocopier in the GCTC office, which is quite brightly lit.) This show, in contrast, is a powerful bit of collaborative creation by the artists involved, and sitting in the room meant that I got to see some of that creation happening before my eyes.

It was glorious.

Now, I was lucky enough to have been invited to a presentation of the play as a work-in-progress some months back, and even then I found it absolutely arresting. But on the first day I dropped in earlier this month, Martha Ross wanted to introduce a new element to the work, a kind of prologue to the piece, and I was able to witness the atoms swirling, coming together and clumping into molecules, and so on. The next day I watched them run the prologue. It was new, it was raw, and it was the absolute essence of theatre.

I learned so much from just a few hours with these artists and I think I may even have a few new things for my toolkit.

And what’s the show about? Find out for yourself. Just go see it.

Fly on the Wall

Like WolvesThe last show of GCTC’s season is a new play by Toronto’s Rosa Laborde, Like Wolves. Although rehearsals for the show won’t start until well into the new year, the creative team has already been assembled and is already hard at work. As playwright-in-residence, I was given the opportunity to peek in on some of the production’s goings-on earlier this week during a workshop that brought together the playwright, director Peter Pasyk, the show’s cast, and GCTC’s artistic director, Eric Coates (who displayed some pretty impressive acting chops himself) for two days of work with the current version of the script.

The point of an exercise like this is to help the playwright with that last bit of work the script needs before handing it off to the director and actors when they begin their rehearsals. The focus here is on the words, not the acting. Rosa has been developing the script for some years, including a stint as a previous playwright-in-residence at GCTC, and she and the actors have already sat down to work through an earlier version of the script. So the starting point for this week’s exercise was an already quite well-crafted piece of writing. She already knows the story she wants to tell, the characters in the story, and the relationships that are revealed in the course of the play. Because she’s already worked with the actors involved, she even has a good senses of what they’re going to look like together on stage, and what kind of chemistry they’ll have based on what the actors are bringing to their parts.

For an outsider fly on the wall like myself, watching the process of the workshop unfold was great fun – not just as a playwright seeing how a colleague works, but as a theatre lover seeing how a play is created. For example, at one point I asked Rosa whether a certain plot twist was really necessary to her story since the ending didn’t seem to depend on it. It was, she replied, arguing that its presence made the protagonist’s final choice of action far more compelling than would otherwise be the case.

By the end of the exercise, watching Rosa’s smiling face as the actors read through the revised script one last time, I could see that she was having fun too. But the bit in between is incredibly hard work for the writer: listening to the scenes being read, figuring out what’s still not working and why, and then figuring out how to fix it. I was impressed with how Rosa applied herself to the task, which sometimes meant reorganizing an entire scene, sometimes just the addition or removal of a single word of dialogue. Shining throughout was her attention to detail and her efforts to ensure that every last bit of the play serves her purpose, which is to tell a very specific story about very specific people.

I can’t wait to see what the play looks like in June!

Listening In

One of the fun bits about being playwright in residence at GCTC is that I get to poke my head in on a number of interesting projects going on elsewhere in that nice building at Holland and Wellington.

In the present instance, this means accepting the invitation to sit in on some development work for a show called “The Ladies of the Lake,” which will be premiering at the undercurrents festival in February. LotL, as the folks doing the creating are calling it, went into a phase that they’re calling “final pre-production workshop” over the weekend and I was asked to offer my impressions as someone unfamiliar with the work that’s been done on the show to date.

The opportunity was appealing for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was a chance to work with an enormously talented group of artists – Kate Smith, Catriona Leger, John Doucet and Nicolas Alain. Second, I think I was able to make some helpful contributions as the group worked through various issues in the development of the production. Third, it was a chance to learn from someone else’s work as I move forward with my own projects.

This can be a slightly tricky task. Kate, who is in the midst of writing the script for the show, observed at the outset how useful it would be to get feedback from someone who’s coming to the table without any preconceptions or other investments in the project, someone who listens in and says “This is how it looks to me.” Whether how it looks to me coincides at all with what she hoped to say, and whether that matters in any way, then becomes the chewy substance of a conversation that she can then digest and act on as she sees fit.

In short, I get to ask a lot of questions and she gets to worry about the answers.

Which is a wonderful process, actually, and a lot of what I get out of it is a sense of what questions to ask myself in my own writing – and to value all the more the generosity of colleagues who read my work and offer their thoughts on how to improve it.

And by the way, I’m also happy to report that I found the project to be very exciting and can’t wait to see how it develops further – I think it’s going to be a terrific show. These folks have an interesting story to tell and there was a great rapport and chemistry in the room that will help them immeasurably as they tell that story together.

Here’s how it looked to director Catriona Leger, who was sneakily taking pictures while we worked.

The Enigma of Playing Alan Turing

A friend of mine works at the Communications Security Establishment, a Canadian government agency that does a lot of Very Secret Stuff involving codes and such. Like many other workplaces, they were having a “Bring your kids to work” day, though I’m not sure how this works if you can’t show them what you actually do. The day was to start with a little sketch about two of the great heroes of the code-breaking world, William Tutte and Alan Turing. My friend invited me to play the role of Turing.

Now, many people know that my route to writing plays has been a rather circuitous one – away back in my university days I studied the history of science, and strands of the subject do creep into my plays from time to time; this is most explicitly the case in my new play about Marie Curie. But one of the figures in the history of science whom I find particularly interesting – and dramatic – is Alan Turing, so I was very eager to take the opportunity to get to know him a little better.

I do mention Turing in an earlier play, The Lavender Railroad, though he doesn’t appear as a character. Instead, two of the characters discuss Turing in the context of his breaking the code used by the German Enigma machines in World War II.

The presentation took place yesterday, and while I’m not sure the 30-odd kids in the room were terribly interested in Turing’s and Tutte’s work, I had the great treat of getting to examine and handle a real Enigma machine that happens to reside in the agency’s archives. The historian of science in me was absolutely delighted – how often does an opportunity like that come along?

Is Turing worthy of a play about him? Absolutely – but it’s been done. The play, by Hugh Whitemore, is called Breaking the Code. I had the pleasure of seeing it in the 1980s with Derek Jacobi as Turing.

Meanwhile at Arts Court…

It’s been quiet lately on the Arts Court front, but I did want to note that the City of Ottawa has now released its Request for Proposals for managing and operating the theatre space “within the current conditions, appropriate funding levels and mandate.” The term of the contract would be for the calendar year 2013 with an option to renew.

The city’s document notes that in 2011 the Arts Court Theatre was used for a total of 151 days (3,683 hours), hosting 22 productions and 5 festivals and serving audiences “in excess of 10,172.” (I’m not quite sure what that means, exactly. 10,173?)

The deadline for submitting a proposal is 3 pm on Monday, November 19.

Meanwhile, the city is continuing with its plans for the $39-million Arts Court expansion, which is expected to focus largely on new space for the Ottawa Art Gallery. As reported recently in the Ottawa Citizen, there’s talk of new theatre facilities being built by the University of Ottawa for its theatre department as part of the new complex. However, this would presumably be a U of O space to complement its Academic Hall and Léonard Beaulne Studio theatres and as such would not be run by Arts Court, the city, or the future Arts Court Theatre operator.

Residing

It’s now official, I suppose, since they’ve issued the media release … Thanks to a generous grant from the Ontario Arts Council, I am the playwright in residence at GCTC.

What does this mean, exactly?

It does not appear to mean that I can save a little rent by camping out in the green room at the theatre – which is a pity, because it’s not a bad space at all, and the theatre’s in a great neighbourhood.

What it does mean, however, is that I have the privilege of joining an inspiring community of theatre artists from whom I look forward to learning a great deal in the coming months. In particular, it means I’ll have the time and space to focus on creating some new work and to participate in the development of other new projects underway this season at GCTC.

When I sat down with GCTC last year to draft our proposal to the Ontario Arts Council, the theatre had not yet selected its new artistic director. This meant I was reduced to saying how much I looked forward to working with, um, someone … not sure who, but I know it’ll be great. I’m told this is not the ideal way to make a case for support. Happily, I’ve had the chance to sit down with the new AD, Eric Coates, who took up the reins earlier this month and I’m genuinely excited at the opportunity to share my work with him. GCTC has a history of new play development, and Eric is committed to that aspect of the company’s mission.

I’m also looking forward to working with the estimable Patrick Gauthier, who continues to produce the undercurrents festival at the theatre. This year’s launch is happening on November 15 at 5 pm at the theatre, and I’m very much looking forward to the chance to work with some of the artists he’s bringing in as they develop their projects for the festival in February.

But I can’t wait to get started – so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some writing to do…

The official announcement is here.

Cold Read

So this new play I’m writing is about Marie Curie, the scientist who discovered radium (and radioactivity) a little over a century ago.

One of the things that will make this project interesting is the team putting it together. The play is going to be presented by Plosive Productions at the Gladstone Theatre in the new year, with the wonderful team of Chris Ralph and Teri Loretto serving as producer and director, respectively. The actors are being drawn from the third-year students at the Ottawa Theatre School. OTS has been teaming with local theatre companies in recent years to give their students some “real world” experience, and OTS and Plosive approached me earlier this year to see if I could write something new for them. The fun part is that the students, together with Teri and Chris, are going to be part of the development of the project from Day 1.

Today was Day 1 – the first chance for everyone to have a look at the first draft of the script. We decided to go with a cold read – the actors didn’t get to read anything until they were in the room and knew nothing about the play beyond the basic fact that it was about the life of Marie Curie.

For the playwright this is always a fun (if nerve-wracking) moment because it’s usually the first time he gets to hear the words that have been bouncing around in his head. And because it’s a cold read, the people in the room can serve as a proxy for the audience – they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and so their interest (or boredom) is likely to match that of a potential audience member. Fortunately, the students seemed very receptive and jumped right in – and within minutes I was scribbling away with thoughts about things that were going to need fixing; scenes I could probably cut; new scenes I was going to need … all the inspiration I’m going to need to revise the script in anticipation of the actual rehearsals for production a little farther down the road.

Teri, Chris and I will be meeting with the students over the next several weeks as part of this workshop process, and I’m very eager to hear their feedback as this project evolves.

First Draft

I’m writing a new play.

(Okay, I think that statement is in a state of constantly being true: if I’m not actually writing at this moment I’m certainly thinking about it, or revising something I’ve written, or worrying about the fact that I’m not writing. This is how I spend my days.)

But this particular new play is on my mind at the moment, of course, and I’ll be writing a bit more about it in the weeks to come as well. It’s still very much in its earliest draft – I’m not even sure it’s a first draft. More like a zero-th draft, if you will.

When I was in Ireland last month I had the chance to spend an afternoon with my old writing group at the Derry Playhouse, which is where a good bit of the writing and re-writing of Lavender Railroad took place. It was fun, of course, to see old friends and to make the acquaintance of new writers as well. Someone asked me what I was working on these days, and so I took the bait and explained that I had a new play in its earliest stages.

Without telling anyone present anything more, I proceeded to read the first couple of scenes of the play. This is by nature a terrifying thing to do: it’s the first time anyone outside of my head gets to hear the words. Will it make sense to anyone? Will it amuse? Entertain? Provoke?

To my relief (and delight), the people around the table liked what they heard – and very much “got” what I was trying to do with the piece. And they wanted to know what happened next in the story! This was incredibly reassuring; they were very much a proxy for an audience that will likewise not know what to expect and will likewise (I hope) want to know what happens next.

Of course, I still have a tremendous amount of work to do in making sure that the entire work is reasonably coherent in telling its story, but at least I have some reason to be confident that I’m on the right track. More on this project anon…

Meetings about Arts Court

It’s September now and the Ottawa Arts Court Foundation is officially defunct. Its tombstone, for those who care to look, is a sad and lonely logo on the old website at www.artscourt.ca. [Update: the old web address now redirects automatically to the new one.]

So the world moves on, and two public meetings took place this week to offer glimpses into what comes next.

Earlier today, the City of Ottawa staff who are managing the facility on an interim basis through the end of the year hosted a session in the Library at Arts Court. They offered information about what their activities will be for the next few months, including the particulars about things like booking the theatre, as well as a new website (www.artscourtottawa.ca), but declined to discuss any longer term issues, either concerning future management options or the fate of the planned new building. In short, while we now know who to talk to about bookings, we really don’t know where things go from here.

The other news this week was the announcement of a “Request for Expressions of Interest” to manage the facility for the 2013 calendar year. Responses for the REOI are due on October 3 and will “inform and or validate a future Request for Proposal (RFP) phase,” which presumably will need to be completed quickly if the selected manager is to be up and running by January 1. What’s not addressed is what happens after December 31, 2013 – in other words, the long-term options for Arts Court remain as murky as ever. The city has scheduled an information session to discuss the REOI on Thursday, September 13 in the Arts Court Theatre from 5 to 7 pm.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Fringe Festival, which has been considering putting in a bid to run Arts Court, held a community meeting on Wednesday evening at a local pub to explain its interest and to respond to questions. The format of this meeting was decidedly informal, with those present gathered round tables in the pub as Fringe board members fanned out to chat. Given the general level of uncertainty, confusion and rumor about Arts Court that’s out there, I noted at the outset that having half a dozen separate conversations going on at the same time might not help address the unease, so the Fringe folks allowed for a bit of general Q&A at the outset.

I can only speak to the conversation at the table I was at, which raised a variety of substantive concerns both about the challenges facing Arts Court and the risks surrounding the specifics of the Fringe bid. Some of these include technical issues about the theatre space, needed capital upgrades, the state of the box office systems for ticketing, and the expertise that Fringe can bring to the table in managing the facility in addition to its festival, among others. I’m sorry to say that I found few answers to these kinds of questions beyond an acknowledgement that Fringe would have to address them in either their Expression of Interest or their subsequent Proposal.

It may be that the Fringe folks are reserving their answers for their bid rather than sharing them at the pub, and that the utility of the meeting for them was to help craft that bid based on what they heard. But after talking with some of the others who were there, my sense is that the meeting did little to ease the concerns of those who came out, beyond perhaps the comfort of knowing that Fringe might get to run the facility for a year instead of the city. (No one was aware of other potential bidders, beyond the odd rumor.) I’ve heard that Fringe will be circulating a summary of what they heard and will look forward to reading it.

It seems to me that there remains a crying need for some arena in which all interested parties (including independent artists with no direct formal tie to Arts Court at the moment) can both hear what’s going on and air their concerns, and I’m hopeful after talking to some of the participants at both meetings that something along these lines will be organized. In the interim, the best forum for information seems to be the Phoenix Project on Facebook.

Comments, anyone? I’m very interested to know what might have been discussed at other tables at the Fringe event, as well as others’ perspectives on these two meetings and what needs to happen next.

Galatea Coda

Although my reason for being in Ireland this month was to join the tour of “Galatea,” I was hoping I might also have the opportunity to see a bit of someone else’s theatre as well. So after my show closed in Derry, I made my way to the town of Enniskillen, not too far from Sligo, home to the new “Happy Days” Samuel Beckett festival. (The playwright went to school in the town.) There I saw Robert Wilson‘s production of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which he has been touring for the last few years; this was his only Irish appearance.

Idiosyncratic and brilliant, it draws its audience in with a stupendously loud crash of thunder and an extended rainstorm on a monochromatic set that tells you this performance will not be a brief one. Krapp appears in whiteface. He moves about the stage slowly. He eats a banana, and then another one. And then, after an eternity of moments has passed, he speaks.

This is theatre that is unabashedly theatrical, and it is remarkable to watch Wilson, who is now 70 years old – about Krapp’s age, come to think of it – carry it with such aplomb. The enthusiastic applause from the audience suggests that he hit his mark perfectly, and on emerging from his black and white world into the wildly green Irish countryside all I could do was try and process what I’d seen.

Wilson’s website offers additional images from the production. Of course, they don’t do justice to the show, but they do give a small sense of what it’s like. If it should be playing somewhere nearby, go see it!

From Enniskillen I made my way to Dublin, where I paid a visit to the Smock Alley Theatre, tucked in a tiny road on the edge of Temple Bar off the river Liffey. The Smock Alley prides itself on being one of the oldest theatres  in the English-speaking world, having been established in 1662 after the restoration of Charles II,like the Drury Lane in London.

I had seen shows there in years past, but this was my first chance to see what the place looked like since a major refurbishment that was completed earlier this year. As it happens, a young new company called Ramblinman was offering a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” which I thought would be fun to see. (Last year, I saw a production of “The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Abbey.)  It seems that in Dublin as in Ottawa recent graduates from acting programs find that the most opportune way to get on stage is to produce. In this instance the actors brought great enthusiasm, talent and energy to the play, and though one could quibble about certain choices they or the director made I found myself excited that they were having a go, and if I were living in Dublin I’d be very interested to see what they come up with next.

Finally, a friend suggested that I indulge in a midday excursion to the National Concert Hall – largely because the first item on the program was The Beautiful Galathea by Suppé.  The concert was delightful – a fitting coda for the tour.