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.
As 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.
A 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.