Extremely Short Story Contest, 2d. ed.

background*** PLEASE NOTE ***

The Contest is now closed.

And the winner is…

Once again, to celebrate this year’s edition of the Extremely Short Play Festival, New Theatre of Ottawa is sponsoring an Extremely Short Story Contest!

Our inspiration is Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”

Here are the Extremely Short Rules:

  • In the comments to this post, enter your name, email address and SIX WORD STORY. (Your email address will not be posted publicly.) Longer entries will be disqualified.
  • All entries must have a time stamp no later than 11:59 pm, Sunday, October 27, 2013 (Ottawa time).

At the Festival preview on October 30, director John Koensgen will announce the winning entry. The winner will receive two complimentary tickets to the festival performance of his or her choice (October 31 through November 10).

Ladies and gentlemen, sharpen those quills!

Antisemitism in Quebec

hart-ezekiel-4337As faithful readers know, I’ve been working on a new play about a Quebec ancestor of mine, Ezekiel Hart, at the Thousand Island Playhouse. The topic is certainly interesting to me (obviously) but because it’s a historical piece I’ve had no reason to think it would enjoy any unusual contemporary resonance besides being (I hope) a good play.

It seems I was mistaken.

The Quebec government’s recent proposal for a “Charter of Values” has been in the news lately, not least because it would forbid employees in the public sector from wearing anything expressing their religious beliefs, including for example the kippah that observant Jewish men customarily wear.

The proposal is controversial for any number of reasons and has fueled charges of a Québécois intolerance of an “other” that is different from the traditional roots of the province’s culture (which includes, among other things, the crucifix that continues to be displayed in the legislature).

I noticed an op-ed piece in today’s National Post that argues for a history of antisemitic intolerance in Quebec and was intrigued to see that the author makes a point of referring to Hart, who in 1807 became the first Jew elected to public office in the British Empire – but who was denied his seat because he was Jewish and would not take his oath on the New Testament. I then learned that another op-ed about Quebec a week ago in the same paper also cites the Hart case as an early example of how the local population treated their Jewish neighbors some two hundred years ago.

It’s debatable whether Hart was prevented from taking his seat because of antisemitic prejudice on the part of the English ruling class or on the part of the French politicians who were trying to maintain what we now call a “distinct society,” and indeed this is one of the points my play explores at some length. But as a historian of my acquaintance points out to me, the proposed Charter is going to generate a lot of debate about how open Quebec society is to the “other,” and Hart provides a good early historical example for each side of the debate to lay claim to.

And a play of mine about a nineteenth-century first cousin five times removed is suddenly very relevant.

Auntie Mame

cheersauntiemameI’ve got a reunion coming up in a few weeks at Harvard, where I spent my undergraduate years, and I’m looking forward with some curiosity to seeing what my classmates from that long-ago time are up to these days. I’m not aware of others who’ve undergone quite the same transition as my own from physics to play writing, but I am nonetheless astonished at the breadth of accomplishment that I read about in the class notes.

One of the more interesting elements of the reunion that the organizers have planned is a “literary coffeehouse” featuring readings from some of the work our class has produced – fiction, non-fiction and poetry, as well as some play excerpts. As I have a handy 10-minute play available from last year’s Extremely Short Play Festival, my contribution to the event will be Late. With its characters’ focus on middle age and their reminiscences – albeit unhappy ones – about younger days, it seems a fitting choice for the occasion. Two classmates, working actors both, will be doing the piece and I’m very excited to see what they and the director come up with.

I don’t know much about the rest of the program, but I was quite tickled to discover that one of the other participating writers, the talented novelist Lewis DeSimone, wrote a lovely essay a few years back about Auntie Mame – both the 1958 film with Rosalind Russell and the character herself. What it would have been like, he wonders, to have been raised by her as young Patrick is in the story. In many ways it’s a very corny story, but I was happy to discover a comrade in Lewis who shared the fascination of my younger self for a character who dared to live unconventionally and damn the consequences. I’m secretly hoping he and I might find some time at the reunion to sneak off and watch the DVD together.

There’s one line of Mame’s that struck a chord with Lewis and the funny thing is that it clearly struck a chord with me back when I first saw the movie as well, because I quote it in Galatea: “Your Auntie Mame is going to open doors for you, Patrick — doors you never even dreamed existed!”

Opening doors, of course, is a powerful motif. It’s really why writers do what they do, whatever their medium or genre. Show the reader (or the audience) something new, move them, inspire them. I can’t wait to see what doors Lewis and my other classmates will open for me at the coffeehouse later this month.

A Roomful of Playwrights

Earlier this week PrintI got back from an exhilarating and stimulating few days in Chicago, where the Dramatists Guild of America – the U.S. counterpart to our own Playwrights Guild here in Canada – held its second annual conference.

When I first heard about the conference, I wondered whether it would be worth the time and expense to go, and posted a query to that effect in an online forum. The replies from other playwrights who had attended the first conference two years ago in Washington was uniformly positive and excited – a dozen variations on “It was great and I can’t wait to go.” That struck me as a fairly positive endorsement…

And now I find myself sitting – no, standing and jumping! – with the cheerleaders with nothing but praise for the hardworking DG staff. Why?

First of all, there’s the irrefutable fact that sitting in a hotel conference with some 500 other playwrights is enormously affirming and inspiring. I met colleagues who were just starting out and others who’ve been wildly successful on Broadway for decades.

Second, there were countless sessions that addressed our needs as playwrights both in terms of the craft (how to create character) and in terms of the business (how to protect intellectual property), as well as panels and keynotes featuring a wide array of successful theatrical creators. (Theresa Rebeck dishing on her experience with the TV show Smash and Stephen Schwartz dissecting the songs he created for Wicked and leading a singalong of “Day by Day” from Godspell.)

Finally, there were practical and hands-on workshops that I found to be very useful (using improv techniques to write, a clinic on how to write a good play synopsis) and a somewhat frenzied speed-dating evening with an array of Chicago-area theatre companies.

With all this going on, over and above the corridor and cocktail opportunities to meet my fellow writers, I was more astonished than I should have been when I discovered at the end of the conference that I’d barely stepped foot outside of the hotel.

In short, nothing like a roomful of playwrights to recharge the batteries and make me excited about what I do.

Addendum – here‘s a synopsis before-and-after from someone else who was in the clinic.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Friends of mine who are teachers are either busily preparing for the new school year or, in some cases, already well into it. (The idea of going back to school while it’s still August puzzles and depresses me.) For myself, I actually cannot recall writing an essay about how I spent my summer vacation away back in my own school days, but I suppose this might just be a suppressed memory.

Now, observant readers may have noticed a dearth of postings lately. (The crowds of those who didn’t notice I try not to think about.) This was a conscious choice, coming after a busy season with plays both old and new, and in anticipation of what promises to be another busy year ahead. On the one hand, I needed to focus my attention on a number of things that are not related to theatre or writing; on the other, my principal activity that was related to theatre and writing over the summer has been, well, writing. Writing new work (chiefly my new play at Thousand Islands Playhouse), and writing proposals for some new projects.

Writing about this kind of writing is probably not very interesting to read, but as my teacher friends prepare their lesson plans I’m realizing there are a few choice bits to share from the summer, and I’ll be posting these over the next little while as a way of ramping up to the new season ahead.

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.)

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 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!