The lights go down. The audience quiets. The curtains open, revealing a magically awakened stage, and suddenly you are transported to another world — a living, breathing theatrical universe you can touch, smell and hear. Every gasp, every tear, every belly laugh was first born in the imagination of a playwright — one of those artists who examine the human soul, wrestle with what they see and then weave radiance and deep shadows into a play. Kingston is fortunate to be home to some of the best professional playwrights in the country. Their stories follow.
JOHN LAZARUS Even after 40 years, multi-award-winning playwright John Lazarus can still say that he absolutely loves his work. “One of the great joys of this art form is that you start working in solitude. You are writing stuff and you have a secret you eventually will expose to the world. But then the circle widens. You move into rehearsal, and finally you add the audience.” Audiences across the country, as well as in New York, London, Berlin and Tokyo, have now been added to his plays. For many years, his early play Babel Rap was the most frequently produced play written in Canada.
As he grew up in Montreal, one of Lazarus’ early inspirations was cartoonist Walt Kelly, who created Pogo. “He was a huge influence because he drew beautifully and had a real sense of dialogue and character. My father and brother and I would quote Pogo to each other over the breakfast table.” Along the way, Lazarus also learned the art of eavesdropping. “I have a habit of listening to people at a party, picturing the conversation and seeing it on the computer screen. Of course, sometimes they turn to me and I don’t know what they are talking about because I am focusing on their sentence structure.”
An associate professor at the Queen’s University Drama Department, Lazarus still starts the whole process with an idea gleaned from a moment, a newspaper clipping or a thought. He plants himself in front of the computer and rough drafts tumble out. With Trouble on Dibble Street, his new comedy produced at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival last summer, he arrived at rehearsal after writing seven drafts of his new play. Then the director and actors took his work even further. “Just hearing your play out loud is a revelation. Actors go deep into your work and look out at it through the eyes of one of your characters, and then come out to report on what they found there.” As his mother, a painter, once told him, “You always need two eyes to perceive depth.”
The quick-witted Lazarus points out that each new play has to be read and read again, cut and rewritten many times. “Ultimately playwrights are wrights, and essentially this is a construction job. Each cut is a gift to the audience. You finally know it works when you feel an emotional response or connection to it.”
Lazarus’ next play, Old Enough to Kill, will be produced by Kingston’s Gnu Ground next spring. And as winter approaches, you will find Lazarus in his office with his latest, and this time autobiographical, play, Sex with Feminists. More secrets are unfolding and his audience awaits.
KIM RENDERS Kim Renders is a dynamo, a colourful woman who, over the past three decades, has gained a reputation for taking stories and weaving them into unique and daring theatrical experiences. She is considered by many to be one of the originators of the collective creation process in this country. In this process, artists work collaboratively, without the aid of a playwright, to create or devise an original piece of theatre based on a common idea or theme. “I have only recently thought of myself as a playwright,” says Renders. “I have been a maker of theatre, but not in the ‘sit at your desk and write a play’ process. It has always been with other people.”
This tradition of collective creation was a mainstay of the feminist Nightwood Theatre that she co-founded in Toronto years ago. “We would start with ideas and all contribute, all shape it. At Nightwood, I once did an Alex Colville piece where my contribution was the look, the movement. I’m also an illustrator, so the visual is as important to me as the written word. I was co-author but my language wasn’t there. That’s why I call it ‘making theatre.’”
In many of these collectives, Renders says her contributions have been largely personal, and so it made sense that eventually she wrote the autobiographical play Motherhood, Madness and the Shape of the Universe. “The challenge is to allow stories to be personal and real and still be universal. If it is too precious, you can’t get in. It always has to honest.”
Renders added another title to her credentials of actor, creator, writer and designer when she spent nearly a decade as director of the Centre Wellington Children’s Drama Club in Fergus, Ont. “I wrote nine plays for the club, and created big spectacles that involved the community.” Once here in Kingston, inspired by those she was working with, Renders wrote the evocative Talking of Michelangelo for Theatre Kingston, where she is artistic director.
For her, this craft is often an unsettling but ultimately thrilling process. An assistant professor with Queen’s Drama Department, Renders often tells her students that she doesn’t see the point of doing anything unless you are afraid to do it. “Why do it if you already know what you are doing? Personally, I don’t rock climb, but I do walk into creative situations where I haven’t got a clue about what the heck I am going to do.”
Renders has won numerous awards in her career, including the Maggie Bassett Award for her contribution to the development of theatre in Ontario. As for the future, there is Theatre Kingston to run (look for her in Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones next April) and university classes to teach. In her spare time, she is thinking about writing a novel. And so it goes for this maker of theatre who continues to be, just as she describes her own theatre company, “inventive, engaging and exciting.”
DOUGLAS BOWIE Playwright and screenwriter Doug Bowie, a Queen’s grad, arrived in Kingston 30-some years ago and never left. And quite the years they have been! Now playwright-in-residence at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Bowie also has a wide range of film and TV dramas to his credit and his extensive list of accolades includes a Gemini Award for an outstanding body of work in television.
Bowie first turned his hand to playwriting while working at an ad agency. “I entered a CBC teleplay contest, and six months later I got a telegram that said I had won. There were 700 entries, but mine ended up being produced by the CBC, and I thought then maybe I can be a writer.” Eventually his TV comedy-drama Amnesty went on to be produced onstage and he was hooked.
“In TV, when the show goes on, maybe you have a few friends in to watch it, but you have no sense of how an audience will respond,” he says. “In the theatre, you sit there with 300 people around you. It can be nerve-racking but very exciting, very immediate. When things work onstage, there is an immediate buzz. I remember once there was a scene we weren’t sure was going to work. But when the audience saw it, it worked like a dream and the place exploded. You strive for that.”
These days, and many, many scripts later, Bowie writes in the converted third storey of his home. Is it romantic, slightly glamorous, this writing in a garret? With a twinkle in his eye, he admits, “Sometimes when I sit there on certain mornings in the dead of winter, and it is not going well and no one has any interest, I hate this. I know I am having a bad day when I hear the mail slot and wish I was the one delivering the mail. I figure I might be able to do that; it’s just writing the damn scene I can’t do. It is solitary. It is complex. I start with a legal pad and a pen and scribble down maybe 70 pages of ideas, just fragments. Some 93 per cent of that will be irrelevant, but then it takes some shape, and I turn on the computer and actually start writing.”
These days, in his writer-in-residence capacity, Bowie reads scripts and advises other writers. He is also working on another TV script, and this month his play Goodbye, Piccadilly is running at the Many Hats Theatre in Penticton, B.C. — all great reasons for this talent among us to continue to write, even on those snowy, aggravating, I-hate-this-damn-scene days in the middle of winter.
JIM GARRARD Jim Garrard literally changed the face of Canadian theatre 40 years ago when he founded Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. He says, “Passe Muraille created a magnet and a model for emerging theatre artists all over the country. Original work for an audience with collaboration and collective creation.” Since those early years of groundbreaking work, Garrard’s plays have been professionally produced across the country and the United Kingdom.
A Queen’s grad, Garrard has also acted, directed and written for film and TV. His oft-produced play Cold Comfort eventually was made into a movie. “After that I started to say I am a playwright. My work is highly theatrical, with effects only achievable if done live. In my play Getting Even, the wife cooks a complete breakfast onstage while the play is going on and serves it on cue. You can smell the eggs. In film this is nothing, but it is an almost impossible act onstage.”
Garrard always has many projects on the go, but when he writes, this contemplative scribe slips away to a quiet cabin by a lake. His secret? “It is about dialogue. We are trying to illuminate the human condition, and when we try to say more than one thing at the same time and we succeed, the thing becomes rich. I like drilling down deep into the psychology of two or three people in a tight situation. It is a little slice of life.”
This past summer his latest project was a celebration of Canada’s first Prime Minister in the musical Sir John A Macdonald Back-from-the-Dead Concert Tour as part of The Macdonald Festival. One of these days he also plans to coax Florence Nightingale back to life in a play. And as artistic director of Salon Theatre Productions, he hopes to develop a professional arts industry based in Kingston. “How can this community that I love be enriched by the best artists out there if they can’t make a living here? There are lots of talented, trained, performing artists who would love to live and work in Kingston, but it is too small a market to provide them a living. If we could create vital new work for ‘export’ to other communities, we might be able to make art we can be proud of, that pays. Not easy. Not impossible.”
And so he keeps working on the craft he loves. “Theatre is about seeing the same thing, at the same time. It is a sacramental exchange between living people in the same space, and when it is really great, all those people onstage and off see the same thing at the same time. There is a sense of being completely unified. It is so focused and powerful that it is worth going to the theatre just for that possibility.”
DANIEL DAVID MOSES Daniel David Moses is a true poet of the theatre. A writer of plays, poems, essays and fiction, and an assistant professor at Queen’s Drama Department, Moses says that his love of theatre came early. “I was interested in things written to be spoken aloud, the oral part of the art form. I probably had my basic ideas formed about how to use the language just by going to church. It was a different way of using language, a formalized use with hymns and stories — making language clear and powerful.”
This aboriginal poet and playwright grew up on a farm near Six Nations lands on the Grand River near Brantford, Ont. Inspired by the telling and retelling of family stories, he began to write, and by 1974 he’d had his first poems published. His first professional play, Coyote City, was eventually produced 10 years later and went on to be nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award in Drama.
He says, “Because I started in poetry, I think I write things that are more challenging for actors. I ask them to do things that aren’t coming out of naturalism, or out of the accepted conventions of theatre. I’m interested in using whatever strength poetry can give to a play — getting to the emotional and moral weight of a piece more quickly. I also leap at the opportunity to use music in a piece because it tends to embody an emotional response more than our everyday language can.”
Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Moses admits he likes his alone time to create his haunting images and memorable words. And like other playwrights, he loves when directors take his scripts to extraordinary places. “I trust the art form and my collaborators in that art form. Once I stopped off to see a student production of my work. It was the time when computers were first making a big splash, so the director thought that since people were now getting information quickly, he would speed up the play. It normally ran two-and-a-half hours with an intermission, but he shortened it to a 90-minute, one-act play. Some of the humour evaporated, but the emotional weight of the piece was still there. It worked stunningly.”
This fall, his show Almighty Voice and His Wife will be touring in Manitoba after playing in Kingston. As for some final words of wisdom to aspiring playwrights? “Read plays. If you can’t see them, read them. They are literature, too — very rich. Then when you realize that you too have a story and characters, write them down. Come from your own story and then just get to work.”
NED DICKENS Ned Dickens, author of 16 plays and a writer with Show Communications in Kingston, came to playwriting after a 10-year detour into architecture. “I was always intrigued by architecture — the way it’s a symbiotic relationship between the rational and the creative. It engages both [brain] hemispheres simultaneously, which is also true of playwriting.”
Dickens eventually became the director for the Kids and Youth Theatre and Employment Skills program (KYTES) in Toronto, which used theatre as a training tool for street kids. He says, “I learned how to conjure a script from a group of people without imposing my own ideas on it. It was also a remarkably good education in the architecture of dramaturgy.”
After leaving KYTES, Dickens became involved with Die in Debt Theatre when they first began and had decided to do big, politically charged productions. The company mounted Romeo and Juliet under the Bathurst Street Bridge in Toronto. “It was addictive. So the next year when they wanted me to write a new version of Oedipus for them, we ended up with a cast of more than 100 under the Gardiner Expressway. That was my first experience writing a play with my name on it.” It won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards.
But ever enthralled with grand archetypal stories, this passionate writer began to mull over the epic story of the Greek city of Thebes. His resulting play, City of Wine, began as a humble trilogy. “I liked the motivational analysis of classical characters. I looked for unaccountable behaviours, asking just how exactly is someone capable of such monstrous things? Then when I realized that the Greek Thebes of mythology only existed for seven generations, I decided the story had to be seven plays, not three.”
City of Wine became the epic story of the citizens and city of Thebes and, with Toronto-based Nightswimming Theatre’s encouragement and devotion to play development in Canada, eventually seven theatre schools across Canada became involved, each producing one of the plays. Last May, 165 students performed the seven-play cycle twice in Toronto at Theatre Passe Muraille. The seven plays, more than 1,000 pages of script, took 15-and-a-half hours to watch. Dickens says, “It is like a historical novel that walks and talks.” His hope is to have City of Wine produced by seven different theatre companies in sequence in 2012.
In this case, Dickens didn’t just go from writing alone to working with a few people; he worked with hundreds. “As a playwright, you own the script, but you don’t own the show. You are just starting a snowball down a hill, and you create opportunity for other creative people to contribute. After all, theatre is a collective art form.”
JULIE SALVERSON Playwright and associate professor in Queen’s Drama Department, Julie Salverson has written most of her life. “Journalist Ian Brown says, ‘When you are writing you are free.’ I think that I had a sense back then that you can control everything on the page. It certainly was where I could be myself, poke my mind out into the world and make meaning. There is something peaceful in writing that lets you listen to yourself and the world around you.”
Early in her career she helped people make plays, scenes or songs about their own experiences. “For a while I migrated to the stories of others, stories that never got told but were so interesting. Everything I write is still about the witness. What is it to be the other person who encounters situations that aren’t yours, but are next door? What is my connection to anyone else? This has fascinated me my whole life.”
In the late ’90s she wrote Boom, a play about land mines. Her play Are the Birds in Canada the Same? is about refugee artists and their experiences in Canada. It later became a film. She then moved slowly from collaborative work to her own personal projects. Articulate and intelligent, Salverson challenges her audiences with words, music and even clown (low comedy) in her craft. Her play Shelter, a fable about the atomic bomb, is actually a clown opera. “Not a stereotypical circus clown,” she explains, “but an approach to life that risks failure, risks being foolish, risks difficult friendship. Clown is low comedy, so you are invited in. Everything is for the audience. I want to challenge and shake up and still be affirming. I am still so darn curious about the world.” Next May, Shelter will have a full workshop (sung, staged and played without costumes, sets and lighting) in Toronto by Tapestry New Opera Works.
Salverson’s recent essay An Atomic Elegy, about Canada’s involvement with the atomic bomb, will be the cover feature for Maisonneuve magazine next summer, and she is also working on the book Games Playwrights Play with colleague and fellow playwright John Lazarus. As well, she, along with Royal Military College and Queen’s students, is exploring a long-term community play project called A Military Town that explores the role of the military and its relationship to Kingston.
Ever stretching herself as an artist, Salverson reminds her students to learn the mechanics of play structure first. “I tell them to think of it like having a kitchen full of things. You might have a great, creative idea of what a dish tastes like, but it doesn’t hurt to be told how to actually put flour and oil together.” Beyond that she says, “Go to the theatre, meet people who aren’t yourself, learn about the world and get curious. You have to live to be a playwright.”
An Honourable Mention
JUDITH THOMPSON “I write plays because I relish the music of voice and the dance that is human interactive movement…every gesture weighted with meaning, every word saturated with subtext.”
Although she is no longer lives in Kingston, a nod must be given to the distinguished and unique playwright Judith Thompson, described as “One of Canada’s foremost women of letters” by the Toronto Star. “Growing up in Kingston certainly inspired me as a theatre artist,” says Thompson. “Domino Theatre had some of the best actors in the country working there, and Valerie and Gord [Robertson] of Theatre Five believed in me. I always felt I belonged in the theatre, mainly because of their wonderful teaching and encouragement.”
Thompson used some of the voices of Kingston in her play Crackwalker, which catapulted her onto the Canadian theatre scene 30 years ago. Since then her work has received more critical attention than that of any other Canadian playwright and she is an Officer of the Order of Canada. Today she lives in Toronto and teaches acting and playwriting at the University of Guelph. She, of course, continues to write and says, “It is only in writing for the theatre that one weaves together the gorgeous, ever evolving, musical language of human speech, eros, dance and sculpture into one lasting text.”
For more information on these and other professional playwrights, visit www.playwrightsguild.ca