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 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!

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.

Universal Shakespeare

A visit to London is never complete unless I get to spend some time with my good friend Jessica Ruano. Last time I was here, we got to meet Simon Callow after a performance of Being Shakespeare. This time it was to stop in at the Globe Theatre where a group of 21 actors from around the world had gathered for three weeks of intensive work on Shakespeare as International Fellows of the theatre.

We got to see the culmination of their work – a kind of mash-up of scenes from a variety of plays presented in a variety of languages – for these actors have come from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Macedonia, Italy, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Georgia, Serbia and Greece – as well as a couple from Canada and the U.S.

The presentation was an opportunity for the actors to showcase what they studied during their time in London, so there were plenty of styles and techniques on offer for those present to enjoy and admire. It was a pleasure to watch the company at work – for they had clearly become a company – and if I have any criticism it is that they eagerly presented us with too much at once. Because they worked through diverse scenes from Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and many more, the event ran for over two hours; while I appreciate their interest in showing us everything they’d done, I think an hour would have been fine from the audience’s perspective.

This was my first visit to the Globe, and while I’m certainly interested in seeing one of Shakespeare’s plays performed here during my visit the opportunity to see these fine actors strut their stuff made for a great first impression.

Meanwhile, Jessica and I plan to have a little fun with The Lavender Railroad. More on this anon.

Yes, Prime Minister

GCTC-2013-14-posterloop-ProudLong, long ago when I first arrived in Ottawa as a young public servant I discovered a tremendously valuable guidebook to the byways of the nation’s capital and the political specimens to be found therein. My bible was the British satirical series Yes, Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister. Political science treatises were offered to viewers disguised as witty banter, but the simple truth was that the show did indeed show how politics worked.

So it is with the opening show of the season for the Great Canadian Theatre Company with Proud by Michael Healey. For the political junkie in me, the characters’ explanations of sometimes savage political truths is like mother’s milk – and I suspect this is true for quite a large number of audience members at GCTC as well. The piece is clearly fiction and clearly satire, so I’m frankly puzzled by the tempest in Toronto last year in which the Tarragon Theatre declined to produce the show. If anything, in many respects the play offers a sympathetic portrayal of an all-controlling but unnamed Prime Minister Stephen Harper (played by Healey himself).

Unlike Yes, Prime Minister, in which the crafty bureaucrats run rings around the slightly dotty PM, in Healey’s play it’s the PM who lectures to a newly elected backbencher. Jenny Young offers a tour-de-force performance as the dotty Jisbella Lyth who echoes George W. Bush in challenging and surprising those who “misunderestimate” her.

There are plenty of winking nods to contemporary Canadian politics that earned hoots of laughter from the audience, but these will become obscure as time goes by. But the characters’ analyses of why they do the things they do are timeless and I’d heartily recommend them as a worthy complement to Yes, Prime Minister to the next generation of public servants for study.

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.