Daniel and his friends

APA_TES_019_2013-10-29_19-30-38

Maureen Smith, Eric Craig and Brian K. Stewart in The Book of Daniel. Photo credit: Andrew Alexander.

If you haven’t had the chance to do so yet, I hope you’ll try and make it to the Extremely Short New Play Festival, which runs through November 10 at Arts Court. I joined the company for opening night and thought that director John Koensgen and the New Theatre of Ottawa did a terrific job with all the ten plays on offer.

Of course, I’m very proud of my own play, The Book of Daniel, which is one of the ten plays, but I have to say that I was mightily impressed with what my fellow Ottawa playwrights have created and with the magic that John and his stellar cast of Eric Craig, Maureen Smith, Brian K. Stewart and Colleen Sutton have imparted to each of the scripts. Kudos too to the design team – from the handwritten dialogue that preceded each play to the costumes covered in letters of the alphabet to the music and the lighting, the festival was very well done.

Equally astonishing is the capacity of the actors to switch characters on a dime. It’s one thing to figure out a character in rehearsal – but half a dozen or more? To take but one example, Eric Craig manages to transform himself from a menacing truck driver to my own young Daniel to dimwitted trailer trash and more – and that’s just in the second half of the show.

It’s always satisfying to see the words I’ve written come to life in production, and I’m sure the other playwrights will agree that our artistic collaborators have done justice to our words. So do try and get out to the festival – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did. You can buy your tickets here or at the door at Arts Court.

The Lavender Rose

1377619_10151946715857177_1745512476_nThe Rose was a theatre in Elizabethan London. Built in 1587, it was the fifth such in the city and the first to be built on Bankside, not the most reputable part of town at the time. It was joined in the neighborhood a few years later by the Globe, which continues to get a lot of press because of that Shakespeare fellow. The remains of the theatre’s foundations were discovered during an excavation in 1989 and a trust has been established with plans to complete excavations of the foundations and to develop the site as an educational and historical resource.

My good friend Jessica Ruano, who moved to London from Ottawa a couple of years ago, has been involved in a number of projects at the Rose, which is being used as a venue once again for various theatrical productions, including Jessica’s excellent adaptation of As You Like It. When Jessica brought a show to the Ottawa Fringe Festival last year, we got to talking about the Rose and we agreed it would be an interesting venue in which to stage a reading of my play The Lavender Railroad with some of the actors she’s been working with in London.

Ross Mullan as Mother Courage

Ross Mullan as Mother Courage

In many ways, the setting was perfect for the play. It’s underground. It’s dark and murky. In the background you hear an unsteady drip-drip-drip of water. There’s a damp chill in the air. What better environment in which to present a chilling and claustrophobic story about terrible choices in an amoral world?

Sarita Plowman as the Sister

Sarita Plowman as the Sister

I was very pleased with how the evening went and am grateful to Jessica and her actors, Ross Mullan, Ben Warwick and Sarita Plowman, for bringing the play to life in so dismally perfect an environment. I know that the folks who are managing the Rose have great plans for the future and will be quite eager to see what kinds of productions will be seen in this unique space in the future.

Extremely Short Play Festival – 2nd ed.

backgroundRehearsals started this week for the 2013 edition of the Extremely Short Play Festival. John Koensgen brought the first edition of this festival to the Arts Court Theatre in the spring of 2012 and I’m very glad to have been invited back this year. My contribution to the festival is called The Book of Daniel.

The rules are the same as last time: a play that tells a full story from beginning to end in 10 minutes or less. Writing these can be quite challenging – after all, you have to cram a full story into 10 minutes rather than the 100 or more that a full-length play can run. This means the playwright has to be extremely economical with words – but as in many kinds of art, constraints like this are actually a good thing, forcing the artist to scrape away absolutely all the encrusted stuff that can accumulate on a script, leaving only the essence of the play itself.

So I think festivals like these are good for the audiences, yes – you’re sure to find at least one of the shows appealing, if not all of them, in the course of the evening – but good for the playwright as well, who must excel at his or her craft.

And yes, I’m happy to report that the very popular Extremely Short Story Contest returns as well – watch for details on this next week!

So mark your calendars – the festival of 10 plays runs October 31 (yes, Halloween) through November 10 at Arts Court Theatre. Details on tickets and prices may be found here.

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.

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!

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.

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…