Saturday, August 30, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Marcia Johnson

This week on Umbrella Talk is playwright Marcia Johnson. Marcia tells us which director from Newfoundland would direct the coolest production of one of her plays, what makes her sulk and what she wants to write about next.

A little bit about Marcia Johnson

Marcia Johnson has three world premieres in 2008. Binti’s Journey, an adaptation of the teen fiction novel, ‘The Heaven Shop’ by Deborah Ellis was produced by Theatre Direct in February and is touring in 2009. This was followed by another adaptation, Courting Johanna at Blyth Festival, based on Alice Munro’s ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’. The final play, Late, is an Obsidian Theatre Company production. This piece is based on Marcia’s final assignment when she was a member of Obsidian’s 2006/07 playwrights unit.

Marcia has participated in other playwrights’ groups at Theatre Passe Muraille, the Siminovitch Prize Playwriting Master Class with Carole Frechette; Tapestry New Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory (Lib-Lab) and an Ontario Arts Council Playwright’s Residency at Blyth Festival.

Also an actor, Marcia’s professional acting debut was in 1983 on the CBC TV series Hangin’ In. Her most recent acting role was in The Real McCoy by fellow actor/playwright, Andrew Moodie at Factory Theatre in Toronto and Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa. She was also an original cast member for the 2007 Fringe runaway hit, The Gladstone Variations.

Current projects include writing the libretto for My Mother’s Ring (Tapestry New Opera’s Opera to Go) and adapting an Ursula K. Leguin novella as a full length opera (University of Illinois) both with composer, Stephen Taylor.

Umbrella Talk with Marcia Johnson

What do you drink on opening night?

Champagne. Is that a trick question?

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

Jillian Kielly from Artistic Fraud in Newfoundland.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

That would be telling.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

That’s a long list. I think historical figures are next for me.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror) ?

All of the above with some interpretive dance.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

Praise: I look behind me to see who the person is really talking to. Criticism: I sulk.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

London. I just got back and saw two great productions in beautiful little theatres. And the audiences were so well-behaved.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

Pen for the initial ideas then keyboard the rest of the way.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

She had a huge palette and did not limit herself to any particular theme or genre.

What inspires you?

People who have their act together, especially at a young age.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. Up next, we will be chatting with Newfoundland's Robert Chafe of Artistic Fraud. If you are a playwright who has been produced here in Canada or elsewhere and would like to talk to us, please e-mail us at

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sports and Arts

During the Olympics, the Canadian federal government quietly made cuts to various arts programs. The two programs designed to assist artists in promoting their work internationally, PromArt out of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (FAITC), and Trade Routes out of the Department of Heritage, were eliminated. Also eliminated were The Stabilization Project and Capacity Building program, which provides financial and administrative support to art groups, and a new media research program. The government also stopped contributions to three valuable programs: Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, and the National Training Program (Film and Video).

In total, the cuts added up to $44.5 million dollars. At the end of the Olympics, the government announced $55 million in funding for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. So it seems pretty self-evident where that money went.

What's so frustrating about this is that there is no reason that sports and arts should be pitted against each other. They serve the same function in society - to improve the participation of the community, thus increasing the quality of life. At the elite/professional level, both are driven by a desire for excellence. Both feel the pressure of being underfunded so that they are forced to do something else to make money rather than devote themselves completely to their discipline. And both see themselves disparaged by a group of people who see what they do as a "frill" not deserving of support and themselves as a drain on society.

Other societies don't see this in opposition. China devoted a lot of money not just to their athletes but their artists. Australia, internationally known as a sports-mad country still has their international trade offices sell cultural products alongside wine, food, consumer goods, education, industrial products, mining, and technology. New Zealand chose culture as one of the industries to focus their economy on.

So why is our government doing this? Sadly, I believe it's because artists threaten their worldview of a homogeneous society subscribing to their values. There's no place for diversity of viewpoints, since that could expose the shaky foundations some of those values are built upon. This must not happen.

Please write your MP and the department of Heritage (who are doing consultations next week), telling them that you want both arts and sports to be properly funded. It is the artists and the athletes that are the true ambassadors of our country abroad and they need to be supported in their endeavors.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Nicolas Billon

Talking with us this week under our one big umbrella is playwright Nicolas Billon. Nicolas tells us what cheap drink he has on opening nights of his plays, which handful of Canadian directors he would want to direct the coolest productions of his plays and why he can't right about random violence and torture in his plays.

But first...
A little bit about Nicolas Billon

His first play, The Elephant Song, began as an exercise for a university class. At the urging of his teacher, he turned into a one-act play, with the intention of producing it himself in Montreal. However, a copy made it's way into the hands of Richard Monette, the artistic director of the Stratford Festival of Canada. In 2004, The Elephant Song opened at Stratford's Studio Theatre. That winter, Nicolas was invited to become the first playwright to attend Stratford's Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. In early 2005, The Elephant Song returned to Montréal for a French production at the Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui, in a translation by Nicolas and directed by René Richard Cyr.

Stratford produced Nicolas' second play, The Measure of Love, in 2005. Nicolas returned to the Birmingham Conservatory to work with his mentor, Bernard Hopkins, on a production of The Duchess of Malfi.

In June 2006, Nicolas moved to Toronto for a two-year contract with Soulpepper Theatre as a member of their inaugural Academy. During his tenure, Nicolas created a new version of Chekhov's Three Sisters, worked as the production dramaturge for Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera and William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, and co-created BLiNK with the other eight members of the Academy.

Umbrella Talk with Nicolas Billon

What do you drink on opening night?
Water only, and maybe a glass of wine once it's all done. I'm a cheap drunk.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
Well, there's no shortage of interesting directors! There's a handful of Canadian directors that I would love to work with, mostly because I've seen (and admired) their work: Francois Girard, Weyni Mengesha, David Storch, Jennifer Tarver, Chris Abraham, and Stephen Ouimette come to mind.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
Random violence and torture. I can't stomach it on film, and I've never seen it work on stage unless it's heavily stylized.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
I was never a follower of the adage of "write what you know," but I think that now I might be in a place where I would like to write a play about something more personal.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
I've been very lucky throughout my life and career, so I think the only way to make any kind of biography palatable would be to make a farce.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I ignore both, unless I completely trust the source.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Right this moment, I think New York's MCC Theatre, the Tarragon in Toronto, or the Royal Court in London.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

I work a lot in cafés, but I'm finding myself pining more and more for a space of my own. Most of my writing is done on my laptop, but I occasionally write longhand.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
Gosh, I have no idea. If academics are writing about my work in 50 years, I think that'll be a pretty good start...

What inspires you?
People, mostly. What we do, what we don't; how wonderful we can be, and how horrible. I'm obsessed with our potential to be great and our constant failure to achieve it.

As always, thanks for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. We have a handful of playwrights lined up for the upcoming weeks. Next week, we talk with playwright Marcia Johnson.

If you are a playwright that has been produced in Canada or elsewhere and want to chat with us, please send us a message at

Friday, August 15, 2008

Whither the fringe?

This post has been planned for today all week. Then I heard the news about the cancellation of the Trade Routes and Prom Art programs and I'm completely outraged. I have a lot to say about it but I'd like to gather a little more information first. I will be posting about it, believe me. But for now, I'm sticking with the original plan.

So in honour of the opening of the granddaddy of the Canadian fringe circuit, the Edmonton Fringe, I'm posting an article I wrote for the Fringe Harold in 2004. Since the Harold archives have disappeared and since I think the question is still relevant, I'm republishing it here. But feel free to share your own thoughts on the questions, or even if it's still relevant.

Six months ago I heard a question that made me pause. Is the fringe circuit doing more harm than good for Canadian theatre?

My knee-jerk reaction was, “the fringe is a great thing!”, and I wondered why it was even being asked. Then I heard the argument. Instead of developing under a guided structure in established theatres, where training and financial remuneration were available, artists are now developing in the fringe where there is neither of the two things. And so, at least as far as I understand the question, is doing the fringe in the best interests of the artists? After considering the argument, my answer is still that the fringe is a great thing, but for a surprising reason.

I look forward to the fringe for two reasons. One is that wonderful chance to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a while and find out what they are doing. This truly is a rare and wonderful thing as we have too few opportunities to come together as a community. The networking aspect of the fringe tent cannot be overstated. The other is being able to see the touring shows and meeting the artists from other parts of this country and around the world. (Yes, it is mostly text-based stuff that we are seeing but I happen to like that kind of work.) I firmly believe that our one weakness is that we see so little of what other communities are developing and we need to see more of it. I believe both of these reasons have a strong intrinsic value for the artistic development of our community.

But I’ve come to believe that the greatest importance the fringe has is that it is a safe place to fail. Yes, I know, that’s the dirty secret we don’t like to talk about. We don’t want to talk about the bad shows because it scares audiences away from the fringe. But it’s vital that we acknowledge the value these shows have.

I can best explain this by my own experience. In 2000, I directed a show by storyteller Jean Bubba called Serendipity at Fifty. (If you can’t remember it, I don’t blame you.) The show was an experiment – Jean had never told in a theatre environment before and we wanted to explore the mixing of a traditional style of storytelling with theatre. It was rough but both of us learned a huge amount doing it. And in the end, despite our one-star review (at least Kevin Connelly had the decency to say up front he hated storytelling and he did catch the disasterous first show - just for the record), Jean got her money back and enough to buy us drinks at the tent. In a city where it costs $2000+ /wk for an established space that has a chance of drawing an audience, this is not something to be taken lightly.

The point is that isn’t the wild and wooly 70s in Toronto. Financial considerations are trumping art everywhere we turn. The fringe is the only place I can think of where unknown artists can plunge in and try something without being in debt for the next five years. And yes, a lot of the time it doesn’t work or isn’t as good as it could be, and it can be painful to sit through – but I’d hate to think where we would be without it.

MK Piatkowski is the artistic director of One Big Umbrella (, whose mandate is to produce and promote plays from other parts of Canada and the world in Canada and to produce and promote Canadian playwrights abroad. The company produced The Kabbalistic Psychoanalysis of Adam R. Tzaddik at the Adelaide Fringe, Australia, in 2002.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Andrew Moodie

This week on Umbrella Talk, we chat with Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie. Andrew tells us which dead director IS the coolest; which play he would consider to be crappy bad self indulgent theatre; and why he doesn't understand playwrights who don't know what to write about.

A bit about Andrew Moodie

Actor, playwright and director Andrew Moodie’s plays include the ground-shattering works Riot, which won the Chalmers Award; Oui; Wilbur County Blues; A Common Man's Guide to Loving Women; The Lady Smith; and the most recent 2006 hit The REAL McCoy. Andrew is a pioneer-in-the-making in our theatre community and he continues to promote diversity and equality within the community. He recently formed the organization, Share the Stage to promote the limitless possibilities of a more diverse theatre community in Canada. More ammunition has been building to promote this organization with the recent decision from The Shaw Festival to pass on producing one of his works due to the number of ethnic actors that would be cast in the play. For more on Andrew Moodie’s Share the Stage visit

Umbrella Talk with Andrew Moodie

What do you drink on opening night?

Double rum and coke. And I have about five. After that, I'm good.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

Whenever I've asked the coolest person to direct my play they're either busy, or not interested. But to answer your question, Orson Welles. He's kind of dead, so I guess I understand why he hasn't returned my emails.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

Creating bad theatre scares the hell out of me. There is nothing you can't write about, you just have to figure out HOW to write about it.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

Too many things. I really don't get someone who wants to write, but doesn't know what to write about. Are you kidding me? There are people in your life, people in your family, there are historical events from the distant past, historical events from the recent past, there are legends, and fairy tales, there's a hundred million feelings and ideas in your own imagination, you just have to pick one and then get to work.

The chilling fact, that I had to come to terms with a little while ago, was that I won't live long enough to write everything I want to. There are too many stories in my head, and not enough time to tell them. I don't want to die with a great story in my head.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

It would be in the genre of crappy bad self indulgent theatre.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

I ignore both.

Where would you like your work to be produced?


Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

I used to like restaurants, but it gets expensive, and when you have kids, they want you to be around for some stupid reason, so I usually write in my house. And I start off with pencil, then keyboard. I never use a pen unless I'm really hard up.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

If anyone is actually interested in my work in 50 years, then they can write whatever the hell they want.

What inspires you?

Everything and everyone.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Charles Ross

There's a new show premiering at next week's Edmonton Fringe called Sev (and the Rise of the Wizard of Bong). It's a new one-man show by Charles Ross, who I talked about briefly when he was touring in Sydney. On the occasion of his upcoming opening, I'd like to talk about he ties into us here at one big umbrella and to me personally.

I happened to attend the first public performance of One Man Star Wars, which was a side-note to a radio play that he, TJ Dawe (who I also will be talking about at some point) and Michael Rinaldi (who is currently in town with Cosy Catastrophe at the Factory Studio as part of Summerworks) were workshopping. It ended up being the hit of the night and was spun off into its own show and premiered at the Toronto Fringe. I was at the first performance of that too, and during that fringe Charles and I got to know each other by having interesting discussions in the fringe tent until the wee hours.

The next couple of years he came here with two other one-man shows. I also spent a weekend in Vancouver at the fringe there, where he graciously introduced me around to people, including his girlfriend. He became a very cherished friend.

The last time he had a show in the fringe, we ended up by chance at another show. He had been very busy and I had barely seen him. He looked exhausted. I asked him how his body was holding up and he said it wasn't his body but his mind he was worried about. I told him that when he was ready, look me up and we'd do a project together. Then the lights went down and the show started. He took off right after to get ready to do a show of his own.

When I read Bare for the first time, I knew I had found the project. It plays to his strengths as a solo performer yet does have opportunities for him to cover a wide range of emotions and characters. There is some interaction with another performer, which is something I believe he needs after all these years of solo work. And the writing is stunning. When he read the script, he told me it was "crazy", but in the good way. He seemed interested in it.

Over four years ago, I was in Australia, broke and believing that my return ticket had been cancelled. I wasn't sure that I would see anyone I loved ever again. I couldn't think of anyone without a huge sense of loss. There was one exception, one person I knew would make their way to Australia at some point, and that was Charles. I could think of him and it brought me joy, not sadness. It gave me some desperately needed peace.

The reason I even mention this is that in a very real way, he saved me and I've wanted to do the same for him. Bare was my way of doing that. But it has been extremely rare to see him or talk to him since my return from Australia as he's been touring internationally almost constantly since then and has spent almost no time in Toronto. It's also been a big challenge to get the money together for the production.

Late last year, he did an interview which tore at my heart:
Ross’ unexpected fame for “One-Man 'Star Wars’ Trilogy” hasn’t been without its Dark Side, the actor admits. He has had to put his regular acting on the back burner.

He has become the “One-Man Epic” guy, tapping into that rich vein of dork nostalgia: A solo “Lord of the Rings” trilogy came and went a few years ago. (Owners of the rights to “LOTR” have been less forgiving than George Lucas.) And a “One-Man ’80s Blank Tape” — a mash-up of John Hughes movies, MTV videos and pro wrestling — is available for booking at a theater near you.

Lately, Ross has been pondering “One-Man 'Indiana Jones.’”

“I’ve gotten very philosophical about the whole thing,” Ross says. “I went through a bitter period. But it’s just too damn fun.”

I tried to reach him after that. I basically said to hell with it, we'll do the show anywhere, anyway, just to make it happen for him. I never received a response. And then a few months ago I found out about this new show.

I'm coming around to recognizing that Bare has to go on without him. He's made his choice in continuing on the solo road and I hope it brings him the artistic fulfillment I know he craves. But it's so hard because everytime I read the script, I hear his voice. I can see him on the stage. I've imagined what our rehearsal process would be like. And yes, I've thought about how we could market with a known commodity like him in the show.

The hardest thought is that I wasn't able to keep the promise I made in the dark so many years ago. That I failed him. It's been pointed out to me quite recently that I did all I could, that he knew where he could find me, he knew I had a project for him, and he could have taken a more active part in making it happen. I'm seeing the wisdom of that. Maybe separating him from the project will be the thing that breaks the logjam and makes it happen.

I just wish it didn't feel like a betrayal.

I hope this new show is a roaring success. He's such a wonderful person and deserves all the good things that have come to him. He's also very talented and deserves more than being pigeon-holed as "that Star Wars guy". If you have a chance to support the show in Edmonton, Victoria or Vancouver, please do so.

So it looks like we're going forward without him. Having him in mind has given me an idea of what type of actor we need and how to shape the different roles in the play. It's also helped us with ideas on how to get the project going. And for that, I am truly grateful.

But I am saddened that I won't get to work with my talented friend.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Mark Leiren-Young

Welcome to our second Umbrella Talk with Canadian playwright Mark Leiren-Young. In the past five years, we've been pursuing to produce Mark's extraordinary play Shylock, which deals with the questions surrounding the perceived anti-semetic themes in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. This week, Mark talks to us here on our blog. He tells us what he's addicted to at the bar on opening night; what charcoal, crayons and lipstick might have in common with his plays; and how his experience as a reviewer helps him deal with praise and criticism.

A little bit about Mark Leiren-Young

Mark Leiren-Young has written for theatre, film and tv and leading magazines such as Time and Maclean's. Selected plays include Shylock, Articles of Faith, Easy Money and Dim Sum Diaries. Mark recently wrote and directed the feature film The Green Chain, which will be coming to a theatre near you this fall.

His new Local Anxiety comedy CD - Greenpieces -- is also being released this Fall.

Mark’s humourous memoir, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen -- Adventures of a Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo is being released by Heritage House this Fall.

For more on Mark and his work, visit his website at .

Umbrella Talk with Mark Leiren-Young

What do you drink on opening night?

My addiction is Coca Cola. The real thing... and when it's time for an opening I'm not goin' near none of that Coke Zero, Diet Coke stuff.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

My dream director? Orson Welles... Living director... If I wrote the right piece I think it'd be a blast to play with Blake Brooker. Heck, if I wrote the wrong piece I think it'd be cool to work with Blake. I'm always inspired by his work. All time favourite director/mentor, John Juliani.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

I'm not a big fan of heights :)

I'm not sure there's anything I can't write about, just stuff I haven't written about yet.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

Too many things to mention and I worry that if I do mention them in an interview I'll never write them. I've got a "to do" list that includes at least a half dozen plays I'd love to write.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

I hope it'd be a comedy.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

Having been a reviewer it's tough to take reviews seriously except in terms of how they're going to impact on ticket sales. I used to think anyone who said they didn't read their reviews was full of it. So I'm sure some people will assume I'm full of it when I say that I no longer read every review of my work.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Everywhere! Okay... If you want me to be more specific I'd love to see Shylock done in New York and at the two Stratfords... But only with the right actor. Ditto my new play Yorick...

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

When inspiration hits I'll write with charcoal, lipstick or crayon if I have to. But to seriously work on a project its gotta be my laptop...

What would you like academics to write about your work/play in 50 years?

How much they enjoyed the production of it they saw the night before...

What inspires you?

Life. People. The news. A lot of my writing tends to be inspired by something that really pisses me off or stories I think people should be talking/thinking about... But I write different pieces for all sorts of different reasons.

Thanks for reading this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Mark Leiren-Young. On our next Umbrella Talk, we chat with Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie. If you are a playwright and want to talk with us, please e-mail us at