4 questions with Julie Tamiko Manning on Gros Morne Playwrights’ Residency

by Harris Frost

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The 2019 Gros Morne Playwrights’ Residency in Newfoundland headed by PWM and Le Centre des Auteurs Dramatiques (CEAD) wrapped up last month. Montreal-based playwright and actor Julie Tamiko Manning was one of this year’s 7 participants.

 

PWM: How exactly were the 10 days structured?

Julie Tamiko: Most of the 10 days we pretty much had to ourselves to do whatever we wanted. Then in the evenings, we had an hour-long meeting all together with all the other playwrights. We each got the chance to either do a little reading of our what we’re working on or talk about our process during one of these meetings.

PWM: Did it feel a little strange to be with so many other playwrights while you’re working individually?

Julie Tamiko: Well, even though we weren’t in the same space all day, I think the fact that we were all there to do the same thing was kind of a uniting thing. You would ask “How’s your writing going today?” and someone would answer “Terrible!” or “It’s a good day, today!” and you would know what that meant because you’d probably gone through the exact same thing the day before.

PWM: Could you speak a little about your piece, Mizushōbai?

Julie Tamiko: It’s a commission by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, the first play in what is to become an annual series called More Than a Footnote about Canadian figures who have been sort of lost to history, who don’t have as much written about them as other historical figures.

It’s called Mizushōbai, which literally translates from Japanese as “the water trade”, it’s a euphemistic term that means “night-time entertainment”, as in, the sex industry. It’s about the life of this woman Kiyoko Tanaka Goto who came from Japan to Canada as a picture bride in 1916, did years of manual labour, saved up her money and opened a restaurant with 3 other women where they would make and sell alcohol. Then later she bought a hotel and turned it into a brothel. In 1942, she was interned with other Japanese Canadians. After internment, I believe she pretended to be Chinese in order to go back to the West coast, because the Japanese weren’t allowed back to the coast until 1949. She opened up a few gambling clubs in Chinatown. She died in 1982.

When I started writing this play about her I was having trouble figuring out how I was going to write a biography without it being a straight biography, I didn’t want to just transcribe the oral interview I have been working from, so I started out with a lot of disjointed poetry because there’s not a whole lot of information about her. And it was kind of a struggle to figure out how to stick with the facts of her life as well as figure out the rest through me. I was surprised because I went to the residency with ten or fifteen pages and I ended up with almost a whole first draft. And I almost didn’t realize that I had written it while I was there.

PWM: During the residency, did find that your writing process was different from usual?

Julie Tamiko: It was so amazing to be able to have every day to write. I had really made sure that I cleared my schedule so that I could think about writing. I actually really surprised myself because in a day I would do anywhere between one and six hours of writing but by the end of the residency, I was surprised to see just how much I had written. I think it would have taken me about six months to do what I did in ten days at this residency.

It’s going to take a long time for me to actually finish the draft though, because I won’t have the time that I had while at the residency. I’m going to have to try to recreate that somehow.

 

Julie will perform her show The Tashme Project – co-created with Matt Miwa – at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa as part of the 2019 Prismatic Arts Festival in September.

Photo (Top to bottom): Royds Fuentes-Imbert, Emma Tibaldo, Robert Chafe, Paul Lefebvre, Julie Tamiko Manning, and Yolanda Bonnell

Ed Roy Speaks on New Show, Creativity and Assembly Lines

Ed Roy
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By Harris Frost

Dora Award-winning theatre practitioner Ed Roy spoke with us in July about his new one-man show The History of the World which he’s developing in collaboration with PWM.

 

PWM: To start, could you speak briefly about this new project you’re working on?

Ed Roy: I’m working on a one-man show called The History of the World, which was inspired by an investigative look into my childhood and the people who raised me. It’s a fusion of a lecture and storytelling. It’s about the correlation between the lecturers’ personal history, my personal history, and historical events. And how larger events in history affect our lives in ways we aren’t conscious of.

PWM: You call this a hybrid performance. What does that entail?

Ed Roy: Well, it’s interactive in a way. I not only propose a thesis, I also interact with the audience asking them questions about their own relationship with history and consciousness. So there’s that element to it as well as the theatrical aspects of it.

PWM: I came across a video from 2013 of you performing an early version of this piece. How much has it changed in the last five years?

Ed Roy: I was an instructor at Guelph University and that’s really where I developed my lecturing style. What I find was that my students lacked an overview of history, culture, art and how that intersects with their own creation. And then I got this inspiration to start doing a three and half minute improv called The History of the World in 3 ½ Minutes. I started expanding on that gradually over the next few years. Later, when I was at the Rubaboo festival in Edmonton, the festival organizer suggested that I do a version of it, very last minute. I performed it with no notes or anything and it ended up being four hours long.

So by the time we got to that [2013] workshop you mentioned, I was starting to play with physical elements and I thought “Why am I lecturing on the history of the world?” and I started to intersperse my own personal story because I started to do investigative work to find out my personal history. And my personal history was truly clouded. So I started to infuse the lecture with that. But it was still very raw.

The mash-up between the personal stories and the historical lecture wasn’t quite melding yet, but the idea was there. And between then and now, this project has always been in the back of my mind. Now, I’ve cannibalized a lot of what was in those original versions so I really have about three plays that have congealed into one. I liken it to a painting. Any painting that we see, we’re seeing the result of many paintings that are layered beneath the painting in front of us. That’s what this is. And so is history.

PWM: What kinds of spaces do you plan on performing this piece in?

Ed Roy: I don’t know, but I did originally think about doing it in a lecture hall. Because a lecture hall is invariably theatrical. It has all the ingredients of what theatre is. So it could be interesting to do it there. [The piece] does involve a gigantic weather balloon that I use as a projection surface and for other things, so that I don’t know about that yet.

PWM: Why did you choose to work with PWM on this?

Ed Roy: A bit of it is synchronicity. But I am originally from Montreal. When Paula Danckert was here I would always be dropping in. I had a discussion with Emma a few years ago about this piece because I was looking for a dramaturg.

I think that dramaturgy works best when there’s a personal relationship as well. I am also a dramaturg myself. And to me, the best dramaturg is a knowledgeable person who can invest themselves personally in a project. So the journey becomes shared. And in the past couple of workshops that’s what Emma and I have been doing.

PWM: When will the show be premiering?

Ed Roy: How dare you!

In an ideal world: 2020 or 2021. Yesterday would be great but it needs more time. So often we rush toward that product. And in the early stages in my career as a director/dramaturg, we would do shows very, very quickly. Or I would be brought in as a director on a show with a ten- day-long rehearsal period, for a play that wasn’t finished. And I acquired the skill set to put the shows together very quickly. But on this show, I’m building relationships that’ll support how I want to work.

PWM: Does the fact that this show is so personal change your approach to writing it?

Ed Roy: It is personal. But everything we do is personal. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I’m going to spend time with an artist and we’re going to put a show on together, then the subject matter has to be something that I believe in. And it represents an aspect of me, one way or another. So if a show goes up and it’s shitty, I take that personally.

PWM: Even in the type of situation you were talking about earlier where you were brought in to a show with very little rehearsal time?

Ed Roy: I married myself completely to those shows. But here’s the thing, I died a thousand deaths when they didn’t work. I also called an end to that when I knew it wasn’t working for me. Because I decided that I’m not on an assembly line, if I had wanted to be on one I would have made that choice in my early twenties and worked at a car factory. I think that’s a trap. But that’s the challenge of this field. I can’t make this decision for anyone else but when I take on a project I take it personally.

To know something well, to come up with something original, you have to discard so much before you get to something interesting. It takes time. So with a project that has taken so long, there were projects in between and that’s also part of the process. Sometimes you pick something up off the back-burner and look at it with new eyes. And right now, all I have on my mind is this project. And then other things will reveal themselves.

Lois Brown on Genius, Paper and Microphones

PWM Interview with Lois Brown

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By Harris Frost

Interdisciplinary artist Lois Brown is currently rehearsing her new piece I Am A Genius Does Anyone Here Know Me?. The piece was developed with dramaturg and PWM artistic director Emma Tibaldo and dance dramaturg Thea Patterson. Lois spoke with us in July during her studio residency at PWM.

 

PWM: The piece you’re working on with us right now is called I Am A Genius Does Anyone Here Know Me?, could you tell us a little bit about it?

Lois Brown: It’s gone through a couple different iterations. A couple of years ago I was calling it The Papers Improvisation. And even before that, its roots go back to when I was an artist-in-residence here at PWM. I used to write my thoughts down on paper every morning. And then I started getting more interested in the qualities of the paper and playing with it. That then lead to me becoming interested in different objects and what they might do if I tried my best not to act on them. And also I wanted to play with the microphone, so it turned into a sonic relationship.

Now, at this residency, I brought in the composer whom I’ve wanted to collaborate with for a long time. This is our first time working together. And because so much of this piece is based on the sonic relationships between different objects, it’s been really exciting to have him here.

PWM: You’ve described this piece as a combination of improvised  and scripted elements.

Lois Brown: Yeah, there are some things that I know that want to talk about. For example, I’m talking about the value of playing aimlessly. Being able to realize the genius in things when you’re not just focused on what their functions are. So I want to combine some of my skills in writing and structuring things in a theatrical way with my interest in the way that dance practitioners choreograph pieces. I’m improvising because I don’t really know what the paper will do when I do something to it, but I’ve worked with it so long that I have a good idea of what it might do.

PWM: How did you first become involved with PWM?

Lois Brown: I came here first for a very short time, through a grant from Canada Council, back when Paul Dankert was the Artistic Director. And then, several years later after I had had an accident, Emma, who was just taking over from Greg MacArthur offered me the opportunity to be the Artist in Residence. That came at the right time for me, because I wasn’t able to get around after my accident. I’ve become really attached to this organization because it’s helped me so much and it’s become a sort of home for me.

PWM: And is that experience part of the reason you’ve chosen to collaborate with us on this piece?

Lois Brown: Yeah, but also, strangely, in my community in Newfoundland, there are very few resources available to a small, independent artist. So for me to come to Montreal to rehearse is actually easier and less expensive than if I were to stay in my own city in Newfoundland.

PWM: How has it been working with your composer/collaborator James O’Callaghan over this week? Especially since you’re involving someone new in a project that you’ve been working on alone for so long.

Lois Brown: It’s really scary, yeah. Before James came in I had a meeting with Thea [Patterson] and we laid out some of the principles on which the piece was developed, what my ideas were and what I wanted my relationship to the things to be. And then, with James we started by just going through all the different objects and playing with them separately. So I would show him what I had been doing with a particular object and then he would get up and start playing with the object himself. What he did was quite different and much more sonically sophisticated.

PWM: Could you speak a little about the title of the piece? How does it tie into what you’re doing?

Lois Brown: Well, we all learn in grade school everything is made up of the same stuff, the same matter. So I use that fact as a jumping off point to examine the way in which I’m trying to control things that happen. So for example, I’m trying to tell a story with the plastic bags but if the plastic bags do something by themselves, then that becomes more important than whatever story I’m trying to tell.

And also my dad used to wear a pin that said “I am a genius” as joke, although maybe he thought he really was a genius. He really enjoyed that you never know what type of person actually is a genius. So I guess I just think that everybody’s a genius really. But also, I want to explore the connection between genius and memory. You can appear to be really smart just because you can remember a lot of things.

I Am A Genius Does Anyone Here Know Me? will be performed at the Festival of New Dance in St. John’s on October 4th.

Dr. Erin Hurley Reflects on English-Language Theatre in Quebec from 1930 to 2015

PWM Interview with Dr. Erin Hurley

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By Harris Frost

Dr. Erin Hurley is a professor in McGill University’s department of English whose areas of research include contemporary theatre, performance theory, and Québecois theatre. She is currently collaborating with PWM on a research project on English-language theatre in Quebec. She sat down with us in July to discuss this project and its outcomes.

PWM: Could you talk a little about this project you’re working on right now?

Dr. Hurley: The project as a whole is a five-year research project in which I’m trying to document and analyze the history of English Language Theatre in Quebec [ELTQ]. We’re starting in 1930 and it’s running until about 2015. I’m seeking to understand English-Language theatre as sector and as an entity in relation to the dominant French-language theatre sector in Quebec and also to nationally-dominant English-language theatre sector in Canada. So, where does this quirky minority language set of theatrical and dramatic practices fit in with these two other enveloping concerns?

With PWM, we’re reading all the plays that we can find that were written by English-language Quebecers or people in Quebec writing plays in English. Obviously PWM has been a major repository for those scripts. Right now, we’re creating the corpus, if you will, by gathering all these scripts. And the next step will be to read those scripts, make summaries of them, and make selections for two festivals of staged public readings, with professional actors, that we’ll be doing at McGill. Playwright and translator, Alexis Diamond, who is the literary manager of the festival is working with dramaturg and scholar, Alison Bowie, and myself to curate these plays. We’ve yet to determine all of the parameters of these festivals, but the idea is that each evening will feature one or two works from a given decade.

PWM: Why did you choose to work on this project with PWM?

Dr. Hurley: Well, PWM started out in 1963 as a space for local English-language playwrights to develop and showcase their work. So, we’re capitalizing on the fact that many early scripts, many of which are unpublished and some of which are unproduced, still exist either in PWM’s Carol Libman library or in their off-site archives at University of Guelph.

And the other way that PWM fits into this is in terms of selecting these plays for the festival. Emma Tibaldo, PWM’s Artistic Director, is directing us towards things that we might find interesting in the Carol Libman library or towards things that are important in the history of Quebec theatre in English. Emma will also be helping us find professional actors and directors for these public readings.

PWM: How are you going about choosing the scripts that you select for the readings? What criteria are you using?

Dr. Hurley: To be determined, haha! The first thing would be interest. Is it formally innovative? Is it about something that we don’t hear a lot about? Also, plays that are somehow representative of their moment. Since we’re organizing plays by decade at the moment, we might look for a play that makes us say “Ah! This play is very 1935.”

Another thing we’re looking for is lost gems, if you will, plays that haven’t seen the light of day, either in the form of production or publication. And we’re looking for a diversity of perspectives, not only across time, but also in terms of who is writing these plays and what the playwright is doing formally. We want a good mix, aesthetically and in terms of authors and periods.

PWM: In a recent essay of yours on ELTQ, you reference the Quebec Drama Federation’s 1991 assessment that there is “nothing distinct” about ELTQ. Do you see this project as a way of refuting that assessment?

Dr. Hurley: Well, I would like to think that there are a set of defining characteristics. I don’t know that that’s true yet. I do think that the idea of the ELTQ scene as being ill-defined arises out of that majority/minority dynamic that’s inherent in the field. So with this project, even if we can’t define ELTQ with three specific characteristics or whatever, we’ll at least know a bit more about it.

If we have a sense of the history of practice, of the people who were important in that practice, of what kinds of spaces it took place in, if we have a sense of what is then we can increase its legibility. Visibility too, we do have a somewhat activist hope around this project to help define a sector that is ill-defined and in so doing, make it a little more prominent in the public space.

The series of staged readings is expected begin in the 2019-2020 academic year and will conclude during the 2020-2021 academic year. They will be held at Moyse Hall Theatre and will be free and open to the public.

Marcus Youssef discusses his New Play for Young Audiences

Marcus Youssef

By Harris Frost

Acclaimed Canadian Playwright and 2017 Siminovitch Prize winner Marcus Youssef is currently workshopping a new play for young audiences entitled The In-Between with Geordie Theatre in collaboration with Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal. He kindly sat down with us to discuss his new play, his writing process, and how his work engages with hot-button issues (although he’d prefer you didn’t call them that).

 

PWM: Fist of all, congratulations on winning the Siminovitch Prize. So far, has this win affected your writing habits or the types of projects you gravitate towards?

Marcus Youssef: Well, the projects I have lined up have been lined up for a while. So I guess there hasn’t been any direct change. I feel fortunate in some ways that I’ve been really busy, and was going to be busy anyway. Because I haven’t had too much time to really think about it. I haven’t gone “Oh my god! Now I have to radically rethink everything I do!” Because I think that would ultimately be a mistake. I mean, there’s no question that it’s given me a kind of confidence to pursue some things that I’m thinking about.

PWM: Broadly, what do you think is the role of theatre today?

Marcus Youssef: For me personally, the importance of performance or theatre has to do with the fact that we’re, as people often say, all in a room together. And the aspect of that that feels particularly critical for me at this time is the much-discussed migration of human communication onto screens which, you know, produces exciting benefits of course. At the same time it often leaves me feeling like I’m hungering for connection that’s physical, that involves my body in the presence of other bodies.

And as someone who was raised by secular parents who disavowed their parents’ religion like so many people of my generation in kind of intelligentsia culture or whatever, I do very much feel like theatre is a place of communion for me. That’s related to being in each other’s presence and for me it’s also about it being a place where we can go to experience artists contending with some of the fundamental unknowables of being alive, of being in a society or of being a human.

PWM: The play you’re working on right now is aimed at a teenage audience, what specifically would you say is the importance of theatre to young people

Marcus Youssef: I’m interested in writing work that speaks to young people’s experience. It’s often located in schools. Because kids are compelled to be in schools, legally. So the fact that they spend most of their public time in a place where they are legally required to be, that’s a really fundamental condition. It feels to me like in addition to all their peer relations, schools are places where young people learn about systems, about power, about institutions about bureaucracy and a whole host of other things that are very important to our lives even though they’re not super fun to talk about.

Also, I think I write about schools because most of them are public institutions and public institutions are very important. They’re fundamentally important to the kind of world I want to live in. They are places, unlike many, where everybody is. And as you get older, you get very good at narrowing your social circle to people are like you and agree with you and make you feel good about being you. That’s not what happens in schools. And that’s a really important public function. It’s also really complicated. And that feels like a really rich area of exploration to me.

PWM: What are the major differences in your writing process when you’re writing for adults vs. when you’re writing for younger audiences? In the latter case, are you more likely to start with an “issue” that you want to tackle?

Marcus Youssef: To me the fundamental difference is that, because of the way my writing for teenagers is disseminated – it’s sold to high schools and goes into high schools – to me, the style and genre is already set. So this work is actually more traditional than much of the work I make, which is often much more experimental. These feel more like plays than a lot of my work.

In terms of writing for them, I don’t think the process is very different from the process that I  usually employ. I have a question I want to explore or I’ll hit on characters or some sort of conflict. All my work deals with what some people might call issues. And I resist the use of that word because I feel that it’s sometimes unconsciously used as a way of compartmentalizing and making safe what is actually a site of real contention and conflict. And that’s how I would generally describe it, as work that’s about a site of real contention and conflict.

What I love about writing for teenagers and writing work that goes into schools is that it forces me not to be nihilistic. There has to be hope in the work. You can’t leave a bunch of young people going “it’s all fucked, we’re all fucked.” That’s just wouldn’t be fair. Some of my other work is a bit dark so I actually really like the challenge of going: “No, this is not going to end bleakly. It just can’t.” And I really like that, it’s informed my other work.

Another thing I like about writing for teenages is that I’m going to be held to a very clear standard. If they don’t like it, they won’t pay attention, they will undermine it, they will heckle, they will make it clear that it’s not working. I find being held to that standard useful.

PWM: And because this show will be touring schools, in most cases the audience is not electing to see the show, it’s just being put in front of them.

Marcus Youssef: Yeah, I think I’m always considering the fact that half or more of the audience will be coming in having no idea what they’re going to see and with a very legitimate reason to not want to engage with it at all. Then it becomes my job to acknowledge that somehow in the writing and also to offer some reasons why it might be worth engaging with. And actually, I should do that more in my other work. Because what that implies is a deep respect for my audience and I think that’s really important.

PWM: And do you find it difficult navigate these (for lack of a better word) issues without coming off as didactic?

Marcus Youssef: If there’s one thing I think I’m pretty good at, it’s that. It’s figuring out ways to get inside contentious social or personal questions, and to do that in a way that is not didactic. And really that just means being willing to surrender having the right answer. The word “issue” gets employed when authority has decided that they know the correct response and the correct behaviour. A point of contention is experienced by multiple people with multiple perspectives any one of which has legitimate and illegitimate reasons behind it. And to me that’s what it’s about, recognizing the complexity behind anybody’s experience of a point of contention.

And then humour. Humour is a way of manifesting complexity in a way that allows us to experience a moment of relief and recognition at the fundamental irresolvability of the conflicts that we have in our lives. Cause that’s the illusion, right? The illusion is peddled that if we just figure out all the answers, then everything will be perfect. And it’s art’s function I would say to hold a mirror up to that lie.

PWM: How much do your plays tend to change from the first table read to the final performance?

Marcus Youssef: Oh, a lot. I’m a writer who likes to work collaboratively. At the first table read we did with this play I brought what I called a first draft. But it wasn’t really a first draft, it was really just collections of scenes and scene fragments. They rarely have a throughline. The plot is something that evolves over time. For me, that almost always happens in workshops and almost always when working with Emma Tibaldo because she’s extremely good at plot.

PWM: And you’ve worked with Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal a few times before, correct?

Marcus Youssef: Yeah, I think is my third time working with PWM. And Emma is a dramaturg I deeply respect and admire so much. When I was dramaturging a piece out West that my company was commissioned and I asked her to send me her bullet notes to being a good dramaturg. And they were five of the smartest, clearest instructions that I could imagine. Things like “Don’t settle on what you think until the third read.” Just really practical and excellent suggestions.

A place like PWM has been a tremendously important resource to me. Besides all the terrific people who work here, it’s important to have another voice in the room that’s the writer’s and that’s not the commissioner. These have been among my most successful commissions.

I often find as the writer that I get as much from the commissioner and the dramaturg disagreeing as I do when they agree. Because it’s all conflict, right? It’s all about how conflict manifests because drama is conflict, essentially. And in a way, they’re unconsciously representing the conflict that exists in the play.

The other part of play development centers that’s really important is the resources that they put into the development of new work. That’s critical a to playwright like me. I wouldn’t be flying out here if it wasn’t for PWM and this just wouldn’t be happening.

 

The In-Between will tour High Schools and CEGEPs across the province as a part of Geordie Theatre’s 2018-2019 season. The scripts for Peter Panties and King Arthur’s Night, both co-written with Niall McNeil, will be published this month. The latter show is also being prepped for an international tour. Marcus is currently writing Theatre Replacement’s annual Christmas Pantomime show. Jabber, another Geordie production developed with PWM, is touring Saskatchewan with the Persephone Theatre next year. The show is also being produced in German at the Grips Theatre in Berlin in the Fall.