The Other Side of the Table

yifIt’s always nice to give back, isn’t it?

So when I was approached a little while ago to help with Ottawa’s Youth Infringement Festival, I was delighted to agree. The Festival, which takes place at Arts Court in May, provides a forum for theatre that is “relevant and accessible to Youth.” What this means, in practice, is that it produces plays by and for youth – people between the ages of 15 and 25. These are the emerging artists who write the plays, direct them, design them, perform in them. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the festival in the past – if there was a way for me to help, I was glad to do it.

The core of the festival, of course, is the plays that are selected. Anyone in the age group is welcome to submit, and as part of the selection process playwrights are assigned dramaturgical support to help refine and improve the scripts. In my case, I was introduced to one artist who has offered two strikingly different submissions to the festival.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that sitting on the other side of the table from the playwright is quite rewarding. In some ways it’s no different from the critique and feedback that we playwrights routinely offer each other at workshops, roundtables and the like. But there’s an added dimension here – I feel as though I’m very much at the beginning of someone’s journey of artistic discovery and expression.

In particular, I’ve been impressed with the maturity my young colleague brings to the table. My friend has written to very different plays, each of which offers very specific challenges for production. In both instances, the playwright has proven to be perfectly receptive to my concerns and suggestions, accepting some, challenging others. I’ve been gratified to see how successive drafts have improved, and I’m proud to have been part of the process.

The festival will soon be announcing the six plays that will be presented in May. If the other playwrights involved are as dedicated as the one I’ve been working with, it’ll be tough to make the choices. I have no idea whether one of the two plays I’ve read will be selected, but in any case I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer at the festival – and as for “my” plays, well, if they aren’t picked I’m sure they’ll find their way to a production somewhere else in due course.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Cold Read

So this new play I’m writing is about Marie Curie, the scientist who discovered radium (and radioactivity) a little over a century ago.

One of the things that will make this project interesting is the team putting it together. The play is going to be presented by Plosive Productions at the Gladstone Theatre in the new year, with the wonderful team of Chris Ralph and Teri Loretto serving as producer and director, respectively. The actors are being drawn from the third-year students at the Ottawa Theatre School. OTS has been teaming with local theatre companies in recent years to give their students some “real world” experience, and OTS and Plosive approached me earlier this year to see if I could write something new for them. The fun part is that the students, together with Teri and Chris, are going to be part of the development of the project from Day 1.

Today was Day 1 – the first chance for everyone to have a look at the first draft of the script. We decided to go with a cold read – the actors didn’t get to read anything until they were in the room and knew nothing about the play beyond the basic fact that it was about the life of Marie Curie.

For the playwright this is always a fun (if nerve-wracking) moment because it’s usually the first time he gets to hear the words that have been bouncing around in his head. And because it’s a cold read, the people in the room can serve as a proxy for the audience – they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and so their interest (or boredom) is likely to match that of a potential audience member. Fortunately, the students seemed very receptive and jumped right in – and within minutes I was scribbling away with thoughts about things that were going to need fixing; scenes I could probably cut; new scenes I was going to need … all the inspiration I’m going to need to revise the script in anticipation of the actual rehearsals for production a little farther down the road.

Teri, Chris and I will be meeting with the students over the next several weeks as part of this workshop process, and I’m very eager to hear their feedback as this project evolves.