Saturday, November 29, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Alex Dallas

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Alex Dallas. Alex talks to us about the play about her life that would be a surreal comedy full of stories that are sadly all true; about being inspired by the sense of humour that exists in the UK and tells us where she writes (at a computer or keyboard)---hint, she is addicted to word count.

A little more on Alex Dallas

Alex Dallas is a founding member, actress and writer with Sensible Footwear for 18 years. Her first one woman show, Goddess, was directed by Tanja Jacobs and aired on DNTO. Other shows produced include Nymphomania and Drama Queen, both directed by Carolyn Hay. Her shows have also been aired on Bravo TV's The Singular Series. Alex has performed at Fringes every year since 1989 in Canada and performed at Edinburgh Fringe---1982 on, and she has received rave reviews and was named "Queen of the Fringe" in the press. So Alex has toured to every major theatre in Canada and her daughter Ruby Dallas was even conceived on a Fringe tour!
Career highlights include sharing stages with Billy Bragg, The Proclaimers, Robbie Coltrane, having Sir Ian Mackellan and Alan Cumming come to see Drama Queen in Vancouver and take her out for dinner afterwards, performing at the Adelaide Fringe and being invited to the Canadian Embassy for drinks as a visiting artist. What? Fringe performers are taken seriously in Australia?
Additional career highlights are being directed by Ron Jenkins in Greek and acting with him in Sara Kane's North American premiere of Crave, playing opposite Ryan Gladstone in Macbeth at Second City and managing to keep a straight face with Chris Hilarious Gibbs on stage, living with TJ Dawe and inspiring each other.

Umbrella Talk with Alex Dallas

What do you drink on opening night?
Usually I drink anything and anyone under the table....closing nights are usually better for me...Long Island Iced Teas have got me into a lot of trouble!

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
My dream directors would be Mary Francis Moore and Ron Jenkins...separately of course. MF because she is so detailed and has a brilliant focus on the script. Ron because he is hilarious and always has an original and amazing vision. Both because they don't have a pretentious bone in their bodies.....and they make me a better actor.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
Stand -up comedy terrifies me. Eating and drinking on stage is pretty scary. Nearly bit the dust on stage as Madam Arcati when a huge cocktail olive got stuck in my throat.
Can't write about many personal things yet as I am really scared of being self-indulgent. That would be my nightmare critique.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
I want to write about things poiltical I think. Stuff that angers me,'s just so hard to make it funny and accessible without looking worthy and didactic. On the other hand I want to write a Canadian Bridget Jones chick Lit type thing just for fun. You know so it can become a screenplay and I can make the millions I know I should be making.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
My life is a surreal comedy. A Dramedy I expect. At the end of my shows people ask if the stories are true and the sad truth is yes, they are all true. My Father drowning in Cannes, my playing Puck on a trampoline, my encounter with Jack Nicholson...all true, but sometimes I imagine that people just presume I am a pathological liar.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
Well obviously I believe all the great reviews. I was brought down to earth horribly in Ottawa. I was lying in bed listening to CBC radio giving me a rave review, a glowing review, a review I would have written , when I suddenly heard the reviewer say, " as she propels her squat little body around the stage!" That ruined the next ten years of my life!
No-one can critique me like my mother so everything else is pretty much water off a duck's back.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

I'd like my work to be produced in any theatre in Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia. I love theatres. I don't care where they are, but I want a proper run...months of going to work at the same time in the same place. 25 years of touring makes me want a comittment.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

I write at a computer but I scribble the ideas on any old bit of paper if it comes to me. The computer makes me think it's real writing and I am addicted to word count.

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

I'd like to think that my work with Sensible Footwear will be seen as unique and innovative. For a good ten years we were the only trio of feminist comedians in the world which I am very proud of. Also we were the same three woman for 15 years for which we all deserve a medal. For my solo work I would like people to note that I was brave enough to be myself on stage and that I told my stories and bared my soul in away that many people don't. The subject of women's sexuality is always in my work and that has still been an issue. I hope that in years to come we will be well past that being an issue but my contribution will be acknowledged.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by overheard conversation on the bus, by my childhood, by the true stories of family and friends, by terrible boyfriends and passionate love affairs, by my daughter, by the utter stupidity of mankind, by the bizarre and the trifling, by minutae and by great ideas. And by the many wonderful talents that have come before me. Luckily I was raised in the UK and I am inspired every day by the amazing sense of humour that exists there. Everyone you meet is funny, sarcastic, bitter, fantastic and truly inspiring!

Thanks again for reading Umbrella Talk with Alex Dallas. Next week we chat with playwright Mark Brownell. If you are a playwright who has been produced a few times here in Canada, or elsewhere, and would like to talk to us here too, please send us an e-mail to Also, please join our facebook group blognetwork at

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The unofficial white paper: marketing for independents

More from the SWOT analysis.

The independent community needs much better and more targeted marketing. Some are starting to leverage social networking but much more needs to be done. Collaboration between companies and creating a pool of marketing talent that could be supported by the community as a whole would strengthen this immensely.

There's probably been more discussion on this than anything else in the theatre blogisphere. There was Ian Mackenzie's guest post at The Next Stage and the discussion it generated. There's The Art of the Business. Internationally, I've seen discussions at The Director Sector and at Life's a Pitch. Australia had this great site called Fuel4Arts but has recently broken it out, moving the articles to a research hub and creating a networking site for discussion. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The question of how to promote the work the independent theatre community is doing is a burning one, as budgets generally don't have a lot of room for marketing money. Using the web is attractive as it doesn't require a lot of money. What it does require is time, which is also at a premium. The other major issue is that most theatre artists have never studied marketing. It's not their area of expertise. Nor should we expect it to be.

There are great marketing minds out there, people who keep up with the research. The problem is that they can command large salaries from the commercial arena. Workers in the non-for-profit sector don't make much more than basic living salaries (and don't let certain politicians tell you different), so there's no reason for marketers to cultivate a talent in this area. Yet it's the small companies that most need to get the word out there as they haven't had an opportunity to develop a large, loyal base yet for the most part. I'm constantly amazed at how many people I meet who have no idea there's good, affordable theatre for them to see.

The salon I was at a couple of months ago suggested a marketing pool. This would be a organization like STAF that would be a specialist in theatre marketing. It would pay competitive rates to the marketers to keep them in the industry while still making it affordable to tap into their expertise. If funders buy into this, I believe it can help to address the new directions of thought I saw during the funding debate while serving the independent theatre community. And if independent companies could raise their attendance by 20%, this would make a huge difference in terms of production viability, not to mention audience expansion.

Catherine at Play Anon and I are talking about a conference that would allow for a discussion of this marketing question. I'm thinking there would be sharing of social networking ideas that other companies have found successful, as well as looking at how we as a community can expand our marketing efforts. I truly believe that this is probably the biggest issue facing the community right now. Based on the amount of blogging being done on the subject, I'm not the only one.

Thus ends my series on Toronto theatre. I'm hoping there will still be discussion on many of these points. I don't believe I have all the answers but I certainly want to keep questioning. In the current environment, our survival depends on it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Linky Tuesday

Catherine at Play Anon passed along this link about changes in collaboration. I'm especially taken with the open space technology and I'm thinking about how to apply it.

And over at Theatre is Territory, there's a lively discussion about the types of content that is appearing on theatre blogs and how very little of it is directly addressing what is on stage. Personally, when I was writing about shows I've seen, there didn't seem to be any interest in my thoughts on the matter. I'm wondering if there's in fact any interest in this kind of discussion. Please let me know.

ETA: Aaron at Tracking Righteousness passed along this great link: Twelve tips for aspiring playwrights.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Marjorie Chan

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with Dora Mavor Moore Award winning actor and nominated playwright Marjorie Chan. This week Marjorie talks to us on our blog and tells us why she doesn't really drink anything on opening night; which random things she hasn't written about, but wants to write about next (eg. infanticide, Shanghai divas, ex-pat reporters, long-lost mothers and sexual voyeurs); and why academics 50 years from now would be writing about the other Marjorie Chan, an infamous paleo-geologist who could correctly answer questions about her recent dinosaur discovery in Utah.

A little more on Marjorie Chan
Marjorie is an award-winning theatre artist based in Toronto. Trained as an actor at George Brown Theatre School, Marjorie garnered a nomination for the Dora Mavor Prize in her first appearance onstage. She is the recipient of a Dora Mavor Moore Award in performance as well as the prestigious K.M. Hunter Artists’ Award. As a playwright, her acclaimed drama China Doll was nominated for several Doras, including Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Production as well as the Governor General’s Literary Award. China Doll was also performed overseas as a part of Festival Canada Hong Kong. Other full-length plays include a nanking winter, and The Madness of the Square. Along with playwright Damien Atkins, she adapted Hisashi Inoue’s celebrated play about Hiroshima, in the garden, two suns which was commissioned and performed to coincide with 60th Anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs. As a librettist, Marjorie wrote the short opera Mother Everest for which also aired nationally on CBC Radio as well as Sanctuary Song, both with composer Abigail Richardson. She has also provided text for the multidisciplinary dance piece Nanking Monologue. Invitations to festivals and retreats include: Playwrights’ Colony (Banff), Cahoots Playwriting Retreat @ Shaw, CrossCurrents Festival (Factory), Groundswell Festival (Nightwood Theatre), International Festival of Authors (Harbourfront), Dim Sum Festival (fu-Gen Theatre), Seedling Festival (Theatre Direct Canada), Hysteria Festival (Buddies in Bad Times), RED Festival, and the inaugural Stratford Writers’ Retreat. Marjorie has also been Playwright-in-Residence for Theatre Direct Canada as well as Playwright-in-Residence and Associate Artistic Director for Cahoots Theatre Projects.

Umbrella Talk with Marjorie Chan

What do you drink on opening night?
I don't really drink, so nothing really. I can't drink water, or I will have to pee every ten seconds. I can't drink coffee or I will spazz out. Some gum?

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I'm not that sure that I think about 'dream' directors. They would have to still be well-matched with the piece. For instance, I would be interested in someone with a movement-imagistic background directing 'China Doll' which I feel would be result in a very different interpretation. 'Coolest' huh? Maybe someone from Scandinavia or the Yukon.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
I tend to gravitate towards the things that already scare me. That's the thrill and the drive for me. I'm not sure what I cannot write about. I know that I am not too interested in writing about myself. Which might explain why it has taken me so long to answer these interview questions.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
Random things being rattled around: pro basketball, whales, water, trees, rituals, infanticide, time travel, salmon canning, Shanghai divas, ex-pat reporters, meetings at gates, long-lost mothers and sexual voyeurs.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
Oh, I would hope to live a life uninteresting enough to warrant a play. A life without too much conflict or drama. No tragic endings please.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
The same way. I am distrustful and yet curious if there is truth. Then I discard what is not useful.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Yes, I would like to see my plays produced. Sorry - what was the question?

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
Both. I do a lot of pen revisions with a pair of scissors in hand. Sometimes my cat chases the spare parts around my office, until I assume it is cut as I did not go looking for it. In my house, we call this 'cat-aturgy.' Sometimes I take old drafts and run them through a shredder and put them in my guinea pigs' cage. They play, chew and poop on my old scripts. We don't call this anything - maybe 'recycling'.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
Academics will probably write about Marjorie Chan, the paleo-geologist. And also, if anyone has her email, can you send it to me? I keep receiving questions about her recent dinosaur discovery in Utah which I am woefully unequipped to answer. (Hmm, that's an idea!)

What inspires you?
So many things. I am curious about Chinese history, but also how our world works, how people behave in different many things. My favourite work and inspiration comes when I care, when my heart yearns to tell the story. So things that do that.

Thanks for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. Next week we chat with playwright Alex Dallas. If you are a playwright who has been produced a few times here in Canada, or elsewhere, and would like to talk to us too, please send us an e-mail to Also, please join our facebook blog network at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The unofficial white paper: venue crunch

The next part of the SWOT analysis:

Lack of resources – especially venues. Condo development has made it almost impossible to run a small-size independent venue.

I see the venue problem as having two components and tying in to the PR problem. We need to get more voices out there, by giving our emerging artists more opportunities to develop and our homeless independent companies more stability. And we need to develop a wider audience, not just for ongoing financial stability but to more widely integrate theatre as an essential component of a thriving society.

Development of a multi-theatre venue that provide space for small independent companies and mid-size companies/transfers.

I personally would love to see the old Mono Lino Typesetting factory just south of Tarragon on Dupont be converted to that purpose.

I was asked what a transfer house is. It's a venue that doesn't have a resident company. It allows for a successful production to quickly move once its initial scheduled run is completed and it can no longer stay in its original venue. Off-Broadway has venues that do exactly this, allowing something that has developed in a small venue to reach out to a wider audience.

Now these types of venues have to be managed carefully. It was once hoped that the Elgin/Winter Garden would serve this function but it turned out to be too large and expensive for this purpose. Ideally, I see it as a two theatre venue: 300 - 500 seat house to move something that's a hit on the mainstages of the mid-size theatres, and a 150 seat black-box for the shows that have been in smaller spaces. (Diesel's larger space is 200, but it has a wide stage and a cabaret feel that wouldn't work for some shows.) The trick is to have great marketing (building up TO Tix's profile could assist this in a major way like TKTS does for Off-Broadway in NY), and venue management that can skillfully manage the times when there isn't a big hit.

Imagine if we had this venue last year when East of Berlin and Scorched took off. Instead of Tarragon trying to squeeze them in where it could this season, they could have moved right away when buzz was at its highest and ran for months. Tarragon would have to split money with the venue, but they wouldn't have had to go through a repeat rehearsal process and would have had more money coming to them in the long run by being in a larger venue, even if they only ran for as long as the remounts are now.

Now, I'm not sure if it could be a total transfer house but it could be set up for that kind of flexibility. Maybe the large house has that aspect while the smaller houses are rental spaces like the ones we currently have. At the very least, it would make more venues available to the independent companies.

As for who could build it and manage it, why not Luminato? Luminato has the business contacts who could raise the money to do the conversion, as well as the know-how to run the venue successfully. It could be designed with an art gallery attachment and with one of the spaces having a sprung floor for dance.The venue could serve as a home for the work it is currently incubating with local artists in all disciplines during the festival, and with the rest of the year it would be a way to stay in contact with the community and show its commitment to them. The Adelaide Festival Centre functions in a similar manner. The Young Centre demonstrates that a warehouse can be successfully converted to a multi-theatre function.

Now, I realize that this is a very ambitious project that may never get off the ground. But I believe it's worth exploring. However, the venue crunch is very real and needs to be addressed. We've had one theatre recently come online after years of losing spaces, the Lower Ossignton Theatre. And we have a new rehearsal space, Fraser Studios. But there are still very few spaces that are within the budget of independent companies - The Young Centre, despite its protestations to the contrary, is relatively expensive.

Philip over at Obsidian has been commenting here with a couple of different suggestions. First he posted this comment:
Why not make it a part of any condo development in certain sections of town to have a low cost space as a required part of getting developed. ie rehearsal spaces or 100 - 200 seat theatre etc. If that happened we would be creating our own new areas of theatre density, relieving the terrible shortage of space getting the indies out from under the thumb of the venued theatres.

He also provided a link to this Washington Post story about Big Box conversions.

Both of these are viable things to be looked at. The big box conversion is similar to what I propose above and I think would be a great opportunity to get theatre out to the farthest reaches of the city, where most of the big boxes reside. Imagine if you will an opportunity to do a Toronto touring circuit - playing downtown first where you'd get the reviews, then move around to Scarbourough, Rexdale, Etobicoke, East Toronto, then maybe expand out to Mississauga, Brampton, Richmond Hill, Markham, and Ajax. Again, the work gets a longer life and can grow, longer contracts for the people involved, and yet many of the costs of touring wouldn't happen because you'd still be able to go home every night.

Anyway, I'm throwing these ideas out there. It would require a large push from the community to make any of this happen so I'm really interested in what you, the readers, have to say about all this. Let's get the discussion started.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Linda Griffiths

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Linda Griffiths. Linda, a five-time Dora Mavor Moore award winner and two-time Chalmer's award winner, tells us which directors might have a combination of ruthless attention to detail and fabulous imagination to direct the coolest production of one of her plays; who she is scared of, can't write about, but wants to write about next; and who might call her work a fusion of political provocativeness and fantasy 50 years from now.

A little more on Linda Griffiths

As playwright and actor, Griffiths is the winner of five Dora Mavor Moore awards, a Gemini award, two Chalmer’s awards, the Quizanne International Festival Award for Jessica, the Betty Mitchel Award for Age of Arousal and Los Angeles’ A.G.A. Award for her performance in John Sayles’ film Liana. She has twice been nominated for the Governor General’s Award (The Darling Family, 1992 Alien Creature, 2000). Her plays include Maggie & Pierre, The Darling Family, Alien Creature: a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen, Age of Arousal. As co-author of The Book of Jessica (written with native author and activist Maria Campbell), Griffiths and Campbell created a new hybrid of theatre book, one which included the play Jessica, as well as the personal and political process of it’s creation. Through her company Duchess Productions Griffiths produces a unique theatre class “Visceral Playwrighting”, which has inspired many young theatre artists. Her latest play, Age of Arousal will receive five productions in 08/09 in Canada and the U.S. New projects include a new one-person-show, The Last Dog of War and Boys in the Basement. A short story based on her play, A Game of Inches, will appear in Exile magazine in January, 09.

For more information on Linda Griffiths, please visit her website and blog at and her facebook group page at

Umbrella Talk with Linda Griffiths

What do you drink on opening night?

Tea with caffeine. Unfortunately or fortunately, I am a teetotaler, but I can usually find something or someone to get me high.

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

I want to say Julie Taymor but David Copelin already picked her. Karen Hines, Peter Hinton, Katrina Dunn, Sarah Stanely, Leah Cherniak, Allysa Palmer…there are more. They have to have a combination of ruthless attention to detail and a fabulous imagination.

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

My parents.

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

My parents. Work that has to do with my father is coming, in a one-person play, The Last Dog of War. Am I scared? Yes.

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

All of the above, especially melodrama. There would be ridiculous highs and messy lows, there would be cackling laughter, accidents, farcical doors, frightening spirits and kind faeries, there would be exuberance and danger, juxtaposed with long perhaps boring scenes of me lolling in front of a fire, ignoring the world.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I like praise and I hate criticism. That’s not to say I haven’t learned from criticism and gotten fried by praise.

Where would you like your work to be produced?


Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I write on keyboard, I seem hot wired into those little plastic thingees, but like many writers, also have dog eared note books, stained napkins, unsticked stickies, with ideas and phrases that occur.

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

First it would be amazing if they were writing about me. If they were, I’d like them to talk about a fusion of political provocativeness and fantasy.

What inspires you?

Courage. People rising up in the face of terrible odds. I’m a sucker for cheesy movies on this subject. Sometimes I cry. Whenever someone is shit on and doesn’t go down the tubes, that is inspiring.

Thanks for reading this week's Umbrella Talk, next week we talk with playwright Marjorie Chan. If you are a playwright who has been produced several times here in Canada or elsewhere and would like to talk to us too, please send us an e-mail to

The unofficial white paper: International connections

Continuing on from the SWOT analysis of the Toronto theatre industry, here's Mary Vingoe again in CanPlay:

We have our head in the sand artistically. We have, in the past, done excellent work in supporting the development of new Canadian work at home but it is now virtually impossible for a young company to receive funding to mount a brilliant piece of writing from anywhere else (or bring in a brilliant small scale production from somewhere else). It is also, thanks to the new round of vicious cuts by the Harper government, impossible to take Canadian work abroad. Since most things in this world work reciprocally, this effectively means we have slammed the door on the rest of the world. The larger regional and commercial theatres will produce Broadway, West End and Off Broadway hits but who is doing the best work from the cutting edge European companies, let alone plays or productions from Asia, Africa, or South America. And now who will do Canadian work abroad when all the touring subsidies as well as money for international presenters has been cut. Companies work for ten years perfecting a piece of theatre that is 'export-ready' only to find our own government has decided our culture isn't worth exporting. This is a nightmare.

And here is where the arts funding posts and the white paper converge. My initial response is a hearty "Amen". And my next is trying to find a way to the light.

Because it is absolutely true that it is very difficult to get any kind of funding for foreign scripts. From the Toronto Arts Council website:
The Theatre Program is strongly committed to the development and performance of works by Canadian writers.

The Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council say similar things. What this means in practical terms is that Canadian scripts get priority, irregardless of the quality of the script or the artists involved.

And as for exporting Canadian work, well, I've talked about it here. I'll just sum up by saying that it's important to get our work touring, both because it deepens the development of it and because it provides stable income for the companies and individuals involved.

So there are a couple of challenges. With funding as tight as it is, how can we get more international work done here without shortchanging the development work we're doing with our resident artists? And how do we impress upon those who are involved in international trade that our industry is a good investment of their time and money?

Does anyone know of a way to get to Stockwell Day?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Theatre and War

On Remembrance Day, I feel like I should say something profound about the role theatre has played during times of war. However, I'm sure someone will take up the mantle.

Instead, follow this link to a interesting piece of Canadian theatrical history that's being remounted this week in Fergus.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Janet Munsil

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Janet Munsil from BC. While her new play Influence opens tonight at Performance Works on Granville Island, Janet talks to us here on Umbrella Talk. She tells us what she drinks on opening night to cope with lobby-shyness; what she stores up verbatim in the dungeon of her heart and unchains in her next play and why she needs a Waterproof Rite-in-Rain notebook and a pencil to write her plays.

A little more on Janet Munsil

Janet Munsil didn't start playwriting until after completing her theatre degree (directing and design) at UVic, when she came across The Ugly Duchess portrait in the National Gallery in London. Her play about Margaret Maultasch, medieval ruler of Tyrol reputed to be the ugliest woman in history, was written as a monologue for a man (specifically her husband, actor Paul Terry), and has been performed at festivals across Canada and around the world.

In 1994, she self-produced Emphysema (a love story), about silent film star Louise Brooks and theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, which has been staged by theatres such as the Tarragon, ATP, West Yorkshire Playhouse (Leeds), The Citz in Glasgow and the Soho Theatre in London's West End. (UK title Smoking with Lulu). Other plays include Be Still, about Victorian multiple-exposure photographer Hannah Maynard (and her double); Circus Fire, a text for physical theatre about the 1944 Hartford, Connecticut big-top fire; and that elusive spark, based on the story of brain injury victim Phineas Gage, aka "the rod through the head guy." spark premiered in 2008 at ATP's Enbridge playRites Festival. Influence, her new play for Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver, is about John Keats, painter Benjamin Haydon, Greek Gods and the Elgin Marbles. It opens in November 08 at Performance Works on Granville Island.

Munsil lives in Victoria, BC, where since 1992 she's been the Producer/AD of Intrepid Theatre - a presenting company that runs two small venues and produces the annual Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival and Uno Fest, a juried festival of one-person shows.

Umbrella Talk with Janet Munsil

What do you drink on opening night?
Scotch before and red wine during - to cope with lobby-shyness more than show-nerves.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
Any director that can uncover connections in the play I didn't know were there - that's what I think is cool. Britt Small, Katrina Dunn, and Linda Moore have all been great at this.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
Not knowing what the next play will be scares me - I like to have one in waiting in the wings. I don't think I could write something that's totally made up. Research is the life-raft, if I have a historical person or event to cling to, I can sail off wherever.
What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
I keep trying to write some kind of hybrid of Arcadia, Hamlet, Private Lives and Sweeney Todd. I can usually only mash two of those together at a time. I'm looking forward to working on I Have Seen Beautiful Jim Key, a monologue for a once-famous educated horse who could do math and spell. The title and story comes from a pinback button I saw about 10 years ago on Antiques Roadshow - pretty typical of where I find these strange stories and how long it takes me to get the play written.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
I hope it's a comedy where people laugh at intermission and cry a little at the end. And at some point, one person in the audience gets a joke when no one else does.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I've learned to say thank-you instead of fleeing, but I can never remember praise, it always sounds like its happening underwater. Criticism, on the other hand, is deeply memorable and always comes though crystal-clear. I store it up verbatim in the dungeon of my heart and unchain it in the next play.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Influence is set in my favouRite place - the British Museum - but the position the play takes on the museum's ownership of the Elgin Marbles makes a site-specific production "unlikely." I'd like to see that elusive spark in Cavendish, Vermont, where Phineas Gage had his accident. Castle Tyrol, where Margaret Maultasch lived in the 1300s, was interested in a German or Italian translation of Ugly Duchess, although they may be expecting historical interpretation, which it's not. It was very exciting to do that show in Prague, where she's part of the local mythology. The one play I'd have a hard time seeing in its original setting is Circus Fire in Hartford - too sad. My folks would like to see my plays produced somewhere in the southern hemisphere, where it's warmer.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
Waterproof Rite-in-Rain notebooks and a pencil, so I can write in the shower. My research goes on plain white legal pads, and the dialogue happens on the laptop. I do a billion drafts and although I get closer and closer, I never quite finish.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
That the plays contain more ideas than they can comfortably hold. That's probably negative, but I hope it's true.

What inspires you?
Books, art, actors in rehearsal. I like to make pilgrimages to the places historical figures in my plays lived, or see the artifacts of their daily lives. Relics and haunts are magical and profound to me - a painting, a street, a lock of hair - or a skull and the iron rod that passed through it - nothing will top that. Well, I almost licked the door frame of John Keats' bedroom, but was glad I didn't when I went downstairs to the gift shop and realized they had surveillance cameras.

Thanks for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. Next week, we chat with playwright Linda Griffiths. If you are a playwright that has been produced a few times here in Canada, or elsewhere, and would like to talk to us, please send us a message at

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The unofficial white paper: national companies

I have to say I'm rather disappointed that my article at Theatre is Territory hasn't resulted in any major discussion of the issues. Is it just that everyone is too busy, or are they too burned out by the election/funding cuts? I'd hate to think it's because people don't care.

More support to bring national and international companies to the city - and to support it when it’s here.

I'm going to start on this topic by quoting Mary Vingoe, former Artistic Director of Magnetic North, in the current edition of CanPlay (this issue is fantastic and well worth acquiring):
Toronto is not presenting some of the hottest companies in Canada*, companies who have travelled around the country and increasingly around the world...This 'silo' mentality is having a negative effect not only on Toronto theatre audiences but also on all of us as theatre artists in this country. A Canadian tour, which has to make its way around Canada's largest city, is ridiculous and makes it more difficult for everyone to build a strong national touring network...

Toronto has not welcomed the rest of the country for a long time and it/we are missing out.

A large part of this problem is that Toronto has a higher concentration of theatre artists than any other city in Canada. I'm pretty sure that can be back up with two numbers: the amount of local entries for the Toronto fringe verses other Canadian fringes; and the amount of independent productions per year. And we're all fighting for venues and the opportunity to have our work performed on a main stage. Which doesn't leave much room for other companies that don't live here.

Some work does come here. Factory has made it a policy the last few years to have one of its mainstage shows be a touring production. Summerworks now has its national component, as does the Fringe. And in the article I neglected to mention the Theatre Centre and its FreeFall festival.

But here's a question for you. How many of you Toronto-based artists make a point of seeing the touring stuff when it's here? How many of you went and saw out-of-towners at the Fringe and Summerworks instead of your friends' shows? How many of you go to FreeFall and/or World Stage? Who saw The Old Trout Puppet Workshop (I'm guilty of missing that one) or are planning to see One Yellow Rabbit at the Young Centre? Based on what I've seen, not many.

I'll talk more about the international element in part three and about new venues in part four. For now, I'm limiting myself to talking about how to open ourselves up to the rest of the country.

CanStage needs to figure out who they are and what they are bringing to the table for this community.

So we have a problem with not having Canadian companies play Toronto. And here we have what is, for all intents and purposes, our regional theatre. A theatre that no longer has a distinct identity. A company that has Canadian in the title. Who have a strong subscriber base that wants quality theatre at a decent price. So I'm suggesting that they take this mantle and run with it. Since there is a perception that they have separated themselves from this community for a long time, it wouldn't be a great loss if they aligned themselves more as national presenters. Or they could reserve the Bluma for the touring companies and keep the Berkeley Street Project as well.

Ah, but who would do productions of Frost/Nixon and Doubt? After all, these are seminal plays that, while take longer to get here than any other city in Canada thanks to boneheaded New York producers, are still major works that deserve local productions. Well, Studio 180 has been doing a pretty good job with these kind of shows and is already partnering with CanStage. Tarragon also has a good track record and an artistic director who I suspect would love to get his hands into this more if he didn't have to worry about CanStage outbidding him. And Company Theatre is doing a great job of getting Irish work here. If CanStage wanted to keep their hand in, they could partner with these companies, alleviating their current financial crunch while still satisfying their subscribers.

But if CanStage can step up to the plate for Canadian touring companies, they'd finally be worthy of their name.

* Mary lists Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, Eastern Front, The Electric Company, Boca del Lupo, Ghost River, and Catalyst Theatre as examples. I actually have seen a Catalyst show, but it was while I was in Adelaide for the 2004 performing arts market.

Test drive Facebook Blog Networks

If you now look down the right-hand sidebar, you'll see a box with the Facebook blue that says "Blog Networks". It's a newish Facebook app that allows you to join this blog's network. I've sent out invites to my FB friends who I know either a) blog, or b) read here regularly. The app requires 15 subscribers to stream, so if I can get some of you to add the app, I can test out how effectively I can use it to spread the word. Thanks if you can help!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Norm Foster

On the heels of last week's Umbrella Talk with this year's Siminovitch Winner Daniel MacIvor, this week we have another Canadian playwriting legend, Norm Foster. Norm tells us which two Hollywood geniuses he would like to direct the coolest production of one of his plays; why he doesn't write about anything that upsets him and about taking umbrage at critics' remarks---or not.

A little more on Norm Foster

Norm Foster has been called Canada's preeminent comic playwright, and he is also one of the most prolific and most produced of all Canadian playwrights. Halifax Chronicle-Herald columnist Ron Foley writes "Foster's stage writing remains one of Canada's greatest theatrical treasures", and The Calgary Herald describes him as 'one of the funniest writers of intelligent comedy in Canadian theatre today'. Mr. Foster has over forty plays to his credit including Ethan Claymore, The Foursome, The Melville Boys, The Affections Of May, Wrong For Each Other, Jasper Station (with Steve Thomas), The Last Resort (with Leslie Arden), The Love List, Outlaw, Jenny's House Of Joy, Old Love and Mending Fences. He is the recipient of the Los Angeles Drama-League Award for his play, The Melville Boys, and he was recently honoured with an award from Theatre Ontario for his 'distinguished service to Ontario's theatre community.'

Umbrella Talk with Norm Foster

What do you drink on opening night?
Sleeman's beer. And if Sleeman's not around, anybody else's beer.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
Mike Nichols or Robert Redford. Nichols because he's a genius. Redford because I want to say I've met Robert Redford. And he's a genius too by the way.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
Cruelty to women or children. I don't want to write about anything that upsets me. I write because it is fun for me. Why would I want to sit down and write something that wasn't fun for me? I'm not in this to be a tortured soul. I want to have fun like the simple, shallow man that I am.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
Something to do with Bobby Darin's life. But, now that I've mentioned it here I suppose someone will steal the idea. Me and my big mouth.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
I suppose it would be comedy. It would be like a Frank Capra movie. Innocent. Light. Jeff Daniels would probably play me.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I assume we're talking about critics here. If critics could write, act or direct, they would be writers, actors or directors. But they can't and that's why they are critics. I've developed a pretty thick skin over the years. Nothing bothers me. I believe the good reviews and take umbrage with the bad ones. I don't really take umbrage. I just wanted to say umbrage so that people will think I'm one of those intellectual writers. But, I suppose that ship has sailed.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
London....England, not Ontario. Well, Ontario too. I love London, Ontario. Okay, London Ontario it is.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I have an office in my house. I write when no one else is around. No distractions. And I write on a keyboard. I don't even know what a pen is. I've heard of them but I've never seen one.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
I'd like them to say, "He sure entertained a lot of people."

What inspires you?
Good writing. Good theatre. Good movies. Anything that has a ring of quality to it.

Thanks again for visiting the one big umbrella blog and reading our Umbrella Talks with playwrights. In the upcoming weeks, we will be talking with playwrights Janet Munsil, Mark Brownell, Linda Griffiths, Marjorie Chan and Alex Dallas. If you are a playwright that has been produced a number of times here in Canada, or elsewhere, and would like to talk to us too, please send us an e-mail at