Jerk It!

ILA Jerk It Undercurrents February 2014I’ve long been a fan of May Can Theatre and its three talented artists, Cory Thibert, Tony Adams and Madeleine Boyes-Manseau. They’re young and fearless, so I was quite excited to hear that they were bringing their “Jerk It” project to this year’s edition of the undercurrents festival. I was even more excited when they asked me to be one of their readers.

The idea behind the project was straightforward: to present readings of a series of anonymously crowd-sourced first-hand accounts of masturbation. Each story was given to a different reader – generally with no regard to gender. So when I received my story I discovered that mine was about a young woman. It wasn’t particularly racy, either. Rather, it was a sad and poignant tale about coming of age.

Each presentation featured different readers and stories. In my case, I shared the stage with three other readers – Cory, as well as Peter Froehlich and Catriona Leger, both of whom I’ve worked with on other projects. Each story was unique and wonderfully presented by the readers, and I’m sure many in the audience would agree that the readings were a highlight of the festival.

For myself, it was a (rare) occasion to stand on the stage rather than off to the side and to present someone else’s work rather than my own. While it was fun, it was also a reminder of how intimate the relationship is between the written words and the oral interpretation of them. I will never know who wrote the story I read, but I feel a connection to her and did my best to do her words justice.

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.