Jerk It!

ILA Jerk It Undercurrents February 2014I’ve long been a fan of May Can Theatre and its three talented artists, Cory Thibert, Tony Adams and Madeleine Boyes-Manseau. They’re young and fearless, so I was quite excited to hear that they were bringing their “Jerk It” project to this year’s edition of the undercurrents festival. I was even more excited when they asked me to be one of their readers.

The idea behind the project was straightforward: to present readings of a series of anonymously crowd-sourced first-hand accounts of masturbation. Each story was given to a different reader – generally with no regard to gender. So when I received my story I discovered that mine was about a young woman. It wasn’t particularly racy, either. Rather, it was a sad and poignant tale about coming of age.

Each presentation featured different readers and stories. In my case, I shared the stage with three other readers – Cory, as well as Peter Froehlich and Catriona Leger, both of whom I’ve worked with on other projects. Each story was unique and wonderfully presented by the readers, and I’m sure many in the audience would agree that the readings were a highlight of the festival.

For myself, it was a (rare) occasion to stand on the stage rather than off to the side and to present someone else’s work rather than my own. While it was fun, it was also a reminder of how intimate the relationship is between the written words and the oral interpretation of them. I will never know who wrote the story I read, but I feel a connection to her and did my best to do her words justice.

Hearing the Words

When you’re writing a new play, you have to focus on all sorts of technical things. Somehow, you also have to weave these many different elements into something that is reasonably coherent – a piece of work that a director, designer and actors can then translate into an experience for an audience.

I find it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of that last bit when looking at the words on the page (or screen), which is why I find the opportunity for a workshop to be tremendously valuable. The workshop provides an environment in which the playwright gets to hear his or her words for the first time. And, if the participants in the workshop are reasonably skilled, the playwright also gets a teasing scent of what a performance might be like as the readers examine the words and look for the clues that would enable them to create a character who can come to life in a believable way.

I’ve been very fortunate to enjoy just such an experience thanks to Eleanor Crowder and Bear & Co., a small Ottawa theatre company that produces an admirable variety of works old and new. I started work on the new play when I was living in Ireland a few years ago but didn’t get a good first draft written until my time as playwright in residence at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. That’s when Eleanor first took an interest in the project and embarked on a quest for funding the workshop that we’ve just had.

During the workshop, Eleanor, director Joël Beddows, and actors Peter Froehlich, Tim Oberholzer and Cory Thibert read through the latest draft of my script and peppered me with questions. Questions to which I didn’t always have ready answers – which is what you want, I think, in this kind of environment, because it forces the playwright to think about what the answer should be.

Armed with these questions, I now sit down to work on the next draft of the script and the five of us will sit down once again in about ten weeks to see if I’ve come up with reasonable answers – though I suspect the next round of the workshop will also generate a host of new questions for me to address.

All this serves to strengthen the script and the project. If Bear & Co. or some other company then chooses to produce the work, I’m quite satisfied that the script they use will be vastly improved over what I might have offered without ever having had a chance to hear the words read, interpreted and digested by other artists.

An Academic Perspective

Theatre people aren’t the only ones interested in plays, I’ve discovered. Academics are as well.

There exists an academic organization in the United States called the American Council for Québec Studies (ACQS), which publishes academic papers and hosts conferences on a wide range of topics relating to Québec. At its most recent conference, held in Montreal, there were two sessions held on the subject of “Québec Jewish Theatre.” I was invited to be one of the panelists, both as someone who grew up in Montreal even though I no longer live there, and as a playwright who has now written about the early history of Jews living in the province with my play about Ezekiel Hart. I also had the chance to participate in a separate session devoted to “Queer Performances, Inspirations and Sources,” which featured a number of presentations, including a staged reading of The Book of Daniel, a short play set in Montreal in the 1970s and is arguably shaped by the attitudes to homosexuality of the time.

What was interesting to me in the context of this conference, which had countless other sessions on countless other (non-theatre) topics, was the opportunity to hear and learn from people without a theatre background. What’s their take on the work we do? What resonates with them? What connections do they make? Since most of those present for the sessions I was involved with were academics, it fell quite naturally to them to look for meaning in a very different mode from that of the theatre artist. I left the conference feeling a bit more able to take a step back and consider my work (or the work of my colleagues) from other perspectives, and I hope that this will enrich my approach to my work in the future.

On the translation of plays

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to sit in on a reading of a French text, “Sanctuaire.” As it happens, the text is a new translation of “Safe House,” the first part of my play The Lavender Railroad. A translator here in Ottawa, Hugues Beaudoin-Dumouchel, has been working with a local French company, Théâtre de la Vieille 17 and although I am only tangentially involved in the process, I’ve found the exercise to be fascinating.

I’ve always had a theoretical appreciation of the translator’s art, especially when it comes to literary texts. Living in Ottawa, where the omnipresent political debates are addressed in both French and English, I certainly understand how challenging it can be to find the right way of expressing a phrase or an idea in another language. As in politics, so in the arts: there are always subtexts and subtleties that are harder to translate than the bare words – yet the meaning of what’s being said is likelier to be found there than in the words themselves. How do translators do this? As I say, it’s an art.

What was fun for me in this instance, though, was the chance to observe Hugues and to answer the (many) questions he had about the words and phrases I’d selected. This happens to be a text with plenty of allusions that are probably quite mysterious to a non-English speaker; and there are more than a few puns that are surely impossible to translate to another language. Writers always have to make choices – here was an opportunity to revisit the choices I’d made and to explain the reasoning behind them, if only to help guide Hugues in his own work as he made his own choices.

The title – “Safe House” – was a relatively easy task, and Hugue’s choice of “Sanctuaire” as the French version was in my view probably better than the original English. “Sanctuary” conveys certain concepts that “Safe House” doesn’t (and vice versa) – in particular, a religious connotation that ties in nicely with the themes of the “Ex Cathedra” part of the play. Things get tougher, though, once we get to the text itself. What do you do with an allusion to the movie Casablanca? Do you keep it in, assuming that a French audience is familiar with the film? Or do you find a comparable French work – a film, a play, a novel – that will resonate in the same way? Harder still was a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” – it seems there is no French equivalent that really works.

And what about the characters themselves? Sebastian is from the American South, which among other things connects the titular Lavender Railroad with the historical Underground Railroad. Does he remain so in the French version? Or does the translation require a “translation” of the character to a different social background? What happens then to the Lavender Railroad? (And how do you translate that in a meaningful way?)

These are the kind of tasks that the translator faces, and for me the fun was to read Hugue’s choices, and then to hear them read by actors earlier this summer. The story was familiar, as were the characters, but once a piece has been translated it is very much a new “interpretation” – simply because the translator has had to interpret the playwright’s text, just as directors and designers and actors do. And so the delight I felt was very much akin to what I enjoy when a new group of artists mount one of my plays – I get to rediscover the piece through their senses, and often I learn new things about the piece.

I very much hope Hugues goes on to translate the rest of the play, and I’ll be very interested to see a French production of it. I’m sure it will very much hold its own!

Fatherhood

Friends and colleagues who read this blog know that I was fortunate enough to become a father – a brand new production with a decidedly extended run!

The birth of a child means many things, of course, but in the context of this website it means that the posts will be few and far between for the next little while as my focus lies elsewhere.

Early Memories

Hello, DollyI am fond of telling people that I got my start in playwriting by wandering into it after working in the space program for many years. This is true, as far as it goes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I was certainly a happy theatre addict for many years before that.

I was reminded of this recently when I was participating in a workshop given by Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal. I had a free evening and decided to go to Place des Arts for a performance of “Porgy and Bess,” which I’d never seen. (It was magnificent.) I grew up in Montreal but haven’t lived there in decades, and this was my first time there since high school days. And while my memory may be overlooking some other performance, one of the first shows I recall seeing was “Hello, Dolly!” in that same space, with the incomparable Pearl Bailey in the lead. It was magical, and part of the magic was undoubtedly her rapport with her audience, with whom she happily chatted whenever it took her fancy – discussing plot elements, recalling her earlier visits to Montreal, and enthusiastically diving into a second round of the show’s signature number, her entrance and welcome at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.

(Was my memory faulty? Did I really recall all that banter correctly? Thanks to the good people at Google, it seems I had it right: July 1975.)

The Gin GameLikewise, I was in New York last week to work on a new show (more on this in due course), and as I had a free evening I took up a friend’s recommendation and went to see the new Terrence McNally play, “Mothers and Sons,” with Tyne Daly. I was delighted to discover that it was playing in the same theatre where I saw my very first Broadway play – The Gin Game – only two years after my introduction to Pearl Bailey. It was a simple story, a two-hander with husband and wife Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and it was a delight to watch. There was simply no question: I was hooked by the magic of the theatre.

I never conceived back in the 1970s that I might one day have the opportunity to explore that magic firsthand – and even, in some cases, help to create it. Today, as I scramble with whatever writing project happens to occupy me at the moment – whether I wrestle with a problem of plot or character or simply sail through pages of dialogue – I get a little lift and smile a little more broadly to think back at that much younger self sitting on the edge of his seat in the darkened theatre. And I wonder what piece of theatre might bring joy to some other young person out there today, and what that person will be inspired to create tomorrow.

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.

A peek behind the curtain

hart-ezekiel-4337As readers know, for much of 2013 I’ve had the good fortune to be a member of the Playwrights Unit at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, near Kingston. Meeting once a month, five playwrights have been working with Artistic Director Ashlie Corcoran and Assistant Artistic Director Charlotte Gowdy to develop new scripts.

The goal of this exercise has been to present these scripts in a series of staged readings in December. For those who might like to attend, here are the details:

2013 PlayReading Week

My own contribution, which will be presented on Thursday, December 5, is a play called The Jew from Three Rivers about a man who was my first cousin five times removed. In 1807, the citizens of Trois-Rivières made history: theirs was the first community in Lower Canada – and the British Empire – to choose someone professing the Jewish faith as their political representative. But Ezekiel Hart (pictured here) was never allowed to take his seat in the House of Assembly, in spite of being re-elected by his constituents. The Jew from Three Rivers tells his story, which resonates in our own day as governments grapple with how to accommodate religious and cultural differences in our society.

The readings actually provide an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see a bit of how a script is developed. These are staged readings, not performances. Though each project has a director and actors, their objective isn’t so much to perform as it is to inform – in particular, to give the playwright feedback on what works and what doesn’t work at this stage of the project’s development.

If you can join us in Gananoque, you get to be a part of that process as well. After each reading there will be a discussion with the audience and the artists, and I know that this conversation will be invaluable to me as I decide how to improve the script in the next round of writing.

Admission to the readings are free – I hope to see you there!