A peek behind the curtain

hart-ezekiel-4337As readers know, for much of 2013 I’ve had the good fortune to be a member of the Playwrights Unit at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, near Kingston. Meeting once a month, five playwrights have been working with Artistic Director Ashlie Corcoran and Assistant Artistic Director Charlotte Gowdy to develop new scripts.

The goal of this exercise has been to present these scripts in a series of staged readings in December. For those who might like to attend, here are the details:

2013 PlayReading Week

My own contribution, which will be presented on Thursday, December 5, is a play called The Jew from Three Rivers about a man who was my first cousin five times removed. In 1807, the citizens of Trois-Rivières made history: theirs was the first community in Lower Canada – and the British Empire – to choose someone professing the Jewish faith as their political representative. But Ezekiel Hart (pictured here) was never allowed to take his seat in the House of Assembly, in spite of being re-elected by his constituents. The Jew from Three Rivers tells his story, which resonates in our own day as governments grapple with how to accommodate religious and cultural differences in our society.

The readings actually provide an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see a bit of how a script is developed. These are staged readings, not performances. Though each project has a director and actors, their objective isn’t so much to perform as it is to inform – in particular, to give the playwright feedback on what works and what doesn’t work at this stage of the project’s development.

If you can join us in Gananoque, you get to be a part of that process as well. After each reading there will be a discussion with the audience and the artists, and I know that this conversation will be invaluable to me as I decide how to improve the script in the next round of writing.

Admission to the readings are free – I hope to see you there!

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.

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.

Meanwhile in Gananoque

logo-300pxA 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.