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


Todd said…
We are honored that Janet uses our Rite in the Rain all-weather notebooks to write! Not sure how we'd get in touch to pass along our thanks but she can send me an email if interested. We usually ask folks to send a photo for entry into our web site's cool stories section but since Janet uses them in the shower that wouldn't work :-) Sincerely, Todd Silver