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.

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.

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.

Fruition

The undercurrents festival is on at GCTC – go see the shows! – and two of the works featured are SKIN and Ladies of the Lake.

Wearing my GCTC playwright-in-residence hat, I got to sit in on some of the development for each of these and quite enjoyed the experience in each case. Both shows share a number of interesting elements in common, particularly their incorporation of music and movement into the stories that they’re telling. Since my work has been very much based on text and only text, this was an opportunity for me to expand my horizons a bit and see how other approaches to creation might work. This was all very fruitful: I learned a lot and (I think) contributed a bit to each of the shows in kind, but I was also very, very curious to find out what the shows would look like once they had, you know, developed.

So this past week I was glad finally to see the fruition of all that work for both the companies involved. Interestingly, at each performance I found myself feeling a little lump in my throat of pride that all the people involved in both shows were able to show the world what they’d done at the festival. My hat’s off to them all – it’s a tremendous investment of hard work, sweat, toil and tears to journey from the initial germ of an idea to the auditorium filled with people eager to see what you’ve created. I sometimes feel as though I spend most of my time in that “initial germ” state, so it’s good to be reminded that the purpose of the exercise is to share that creation with the world in performance.

Go see both shows if you can, as well as all the other fine stuff on offer at undercurrents.

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.

Residing

It’s now official, I suppose, since they’ve issued the media release … Thanks to a generous grant from the Ontario Arts Council, I am the playwright in residence at GCTC.

What does this mean, exactly?

It does not appear to mean that I can save a little rent by camping out in the green room at the theatre – which is a pity, because it’s not a bad space at all, and the theatre’s in a great neighbourhood.

What it does mean, however, is that I have the privilege of joining an inspiring community of theatre artists from whom I look forward to learning a great deal in the coming months. In particular, it means I’ll have the time and space to focus on creating some new work and to participate in the development of other new projects underway this season at GCTC.

When I sat down with GCTC last year to draft our proposal to the Ontario Arts Council, the theatre had not yet selected its new artistic director. This meant I was reduced to saying how much I looked forward to working with, um, someone … not sure who, but I know it’ll be great. I’m told this is not the ideal way to make a case for support. Happily, I’ve had the chance to sit down with the new AD, Eric Coates, who took up the reins earlier this month and I’m genuinely excited at the opportunity to share my work with him. GCTC has a history of new play development, and Eric is committed to that aspect of the company’s mission.

I’m also looking forward to working with the estimable Patrick Gauthier, who continues to produce the undercurrents festival at the theatre. This year’s launch is happening on November 15 at 5 pm at the theatre, and I’m very much looking forward to the chance to work with some of the artists he’s bringing in as they develop their projects for the festival in February.

But I can’t wait to get started – so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some writing to do…

The official announcement is here.