Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Umbrella Talk with playwright Leanna Brodie

Welcome to this week's Umbrella Talk with playwright Leanna Brodie. This week Leanna talks to us about what she drinks on opening night so that she doesn't get too dehydrated, maudlin, flirty or broke; being produced in a regionally segregated country; and being inspired by a bold hero such as Wang Wei Lin.

A little more on Leanna Brodie

Leanna Brodie is an actor, writer, and translator. Her plays include For Home and Country, The Vic, and Schoolhouse (all published by Talonbooks Ltd.), as well as the CBC radio dramas Invisible City and Seeds of Our Destruction. She was the first Canadian invited to the ACT/Hedgebrook Women Playwrights’ Festival in Seattle; has been Playwright-in-Residence at the Blyth Festival; and has translated Philippe Soldevila’s Conte de la lune for Théâtre des Confettis. Recently, she contributed part of the libretto for David Ogborn’s acclaimed site-specific piece, Opera on the Rocks, and her libretti for works by Ogborn and by Craig Galbraith were heard as part of Tapestry New Opera Works’ Opera to Go 2008. Brodie is currently translating plays by Sébastien Harrisson, Larry Tremblay, and Louise Bombardier. This season, she is working on a new play as Playwright-in-Residence at the 4th Line Theatre; she will be appearing in Carmen Aguirre’s The Refugee Hotel for Alameda Theatre; and The Angle of Reflection (her libretto for New Zealand composer Anthony Young) will be performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Schoolhouse is slated for at least two more productions this season: it has been seen by over 20,000 Canadians so far.

Umbrella Talk with Leanna Brodie

What do you drink on opening night?

Scotch. Single malt if I think it's going to do well: house blend if not. Interspersed with lots of water or cranberry-and-soda, so that I don't get too dehydrated, maudlin, flirty, or broke. I'll take red wine if it's free, of course.

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

There are some wonderful directors I would love to work with, and some I have been fortunate to work with already: but if I ran the world, I would mix things up a little and hook up with people who wouldn't normally be thought of as a match for me. I'd love to have Schoolhouse or For Home and Country directed by Weyni Mengesha or Phil Akin, because they are both rigourous yet highly creative theatre animals who have a lot of insight into human nature, and they'd make me look good. I'd love to see a production of Schoolhouse where the children are created by a puppetteer, like Eric Woolfe or Hélène Ducharme. I'd love to do a play with Tom Diamond: everyone thinks of him as an opera guy, but his theatre instincts are superb. I don't romanticise the French-language theatre scene in Canada, because I've seen dreck in Quebec. But there is a tradition there of fearlessly incorporating dazzling, imagistic, imaginative visual elements that has long inspired me. (In fact, there's a popular conception of "scenic writing" or "scenography" where the director is an equal -- some would say, dominant -- partner in the writing of the piece. That can be a mixed blessing for a writer, of course.) I had to cut a lot of visual and multi-media elements from The Vic because we didn't have the means to pull them off. I wonder what, say, Érik Jean would do with my original conception of the piece (or Brigitte Haentjens, though for her I'd presumably need to be dead first).

On the world stage: Ariane Mnouchkine for the pageant plays, George C. Wolfe for everything else. Because they make words sing and stages dance.

Most of all, I'd love to see Jovanni Sy direct my work, because, among other things, he is perhaps the only person who completely shares my sense of humour.

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

Boring the audience scares me, which is why I don't write about myself. Well, I do, of course, but you wouldn't know exactly when or how unless you knew me very well indeed. On the other hand, I can't write about people or worlds that I don't feel I connect to at a profound level. That insight can come from instinct or personal experience, or it can be achieved through a very deliberate process of research, observation, and reflection. But if I don't feel that I have access to the truth of a person and her circumstances, I don't feel confident enough to write about her.

I also don't write about certain people or stories that I do know intimately, in cases where I feel that it would be a violation to do so. This is where I differ from the Truman Capotes of this world, and from the Bullets Over Broadway theory of the artist as a ruthless absolutist devoid of personal loyalties or boundaries. I've been called cruel and harsh and dark and provocative, yet there are lines of honour that I have not crossed, and I don't think my work is any the worse for it. I do think that one of the ways you define yourself as an artist is by deciding where you draw your lines.

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

How long have you got?

Top of my list at the moment: the plays I owe to Nightwood (infanticidal mothers) and Blyth (evangelical farmers, urban gays, teenage runaways). Also, Gertrude Bell, who invented Iraq.

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

A bilingual feminist puppet play, with guest appearances by Xing Bang Fu (as the Monkey King), Margaret Cho, and Mump and Smoot.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

Do you mean written, published, public praise or criticism? About as poorly as the average person, I suppose.

I pay very close attention if and when someone I respect says something insightful about a work-in-progress. I then have to decide whether or not the specific opinion they have voiced will help me to get closer to what I'm trying to achieve, to my truest impulse or sense of the piece, or not. Theatre is a collaborative art form in which good ideas can come from anyone at any point in the process of creation, and if you don't see that shared creativity as a gift, then you should go away and write a novel, or perhaps take over a small Balkan country. However, sometimes people can make a comment or suggestion that is absolutely valid yet doesn't approach that core idea of what I'm trying to say or do. And the person who bears the final responsibility for deciding that, is me.

In terms of work that's been presented to the public, what's really wonderful is when people write or say to me that the work I have been a part of has affected them in some way: if the focus is on them, not on me. Strangely, that makes me feel more alive than anything they could say about me directly: as if my time on this earth has had some sort of consequence, which is always a bit of a concern for artists, I think.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Well, everywhere, obviously. Within Canada, I would love to be translated into produced in French in Quebec. I would love a professional production in western Canada: my first professional production in Atlantic Canada is a strong possibility this year, which makes me very happy. We are so regionally segregated in this country! Of course, I would love it if I could get a single production of Schoolhouse in an urban theatre. I like to think that if people around the world can accept Our Town and Playboy of the Western World as having something to say to the human condition, then my Baker's Creek plays could achieve some purchase outside the rural environments about which I am ostensibly writing.

Realistically, though, I know I would have a better shot at wider production if I could write stories with four people in them (instead of eight women, for example). I've just never been drawn to those stories. I have an unfortunate taste for the epic.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

First draft: pen. Subsequent drafts: keyboard. But even then, any major rewriting is done with pen, paper, and sometimes scissors and scotch tape.

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

If someone is still writing ANYTHING bout my work in fifty years, I will come back from the dead to buy her a scotch.

"In writing with humour and insight of a varied and distinctive panoply of characters, Brodie showed an infectious compassion for all, without pity or sentiment for any. That is why audiences still love to see her plays, and actors still love to play them.

They also single-handedly created world peace, which most people see as a plus."

What inspires you?

That's a big question. I wrote For Home and Country because I was inspired by the women who banded together to form the Women's Institutes: to provide health education to Canadian rural women; to allow them to organise on behalf of their families and communities; and to relieve some of their terrible isolation. I'm inspired by Wang Wei Lin standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, but also by the kind of long-term, quiet heroism that involves years of hard work and determination and never gets a medal or a TV movie. I think that getting up every day for the rest of your life and battling your demons, or a corrupt or indifferent government, for example, requires just as much courage as pulling someone out of a fire. Not courage in a crisis, though: courage with stamina.

Artistically, I'm inspired by fearless and surprising actresses who make me want to write for them, and by the way certain directors use the theatrical space. I get inspiration from painting and visual art: there's a scene in one of my plays that was directly inspired by a Joyce Wieland quilt. And while I'm actually writing, I find that certain pieces of music will set the mood for me or keep me on track. While writing Schoolhouse, I put kd lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel on repeat.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. If you are a playwright that 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

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Umbrella Talk with playwright David Yee

This week on Umbrella Talk is playwright David Yee. David's play
lady in the red dress, produced by leading Asian Canadian theatre company fu-GEN, begins previews this Saturday, January 24th, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto's Distillery District. Its world premiere is on Thursday, January 29th and the show runs until February 21st. David talks to us here now on Umbrella Talk and he tells us which two extraordinary and visionary directors would tag team to direct the coolest production of one of his plays; where in Canada he would like to see his plays produced and which famous poet's quote he finds inspiring.

A little more on David Yee
David Yee is a playwright and actor, born and raised in Toronto. A proud Hapa of equal Chinese & Scottish descent, his work has been produced internationally and at home. He most recently contributed to the writing team behind Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s Fear of Flight. David was former Associate Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company, and is now their playwright-in-residence. He is currently working on a number of projects with various companies, always in effort to promote interculturalism in the Toronto theatre community.

Umbrella Talk with David Yee

What do you drink on opening night?

I usually nurse a bottle of water and smoke a half-pack of cigarettes. By the time I’m finished smoking, most of the people I didn’t want to talk to have already left.

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

A tag team between Nina Lee Aquino and Jillian Keiley. The room would explode from over-talent. They are both extraordinary and visionary directors, but I can’t stand either of them as people. I’m kidding. Jillian is very sweet.

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

Spiders scare the fuck outta me. So I guess “Arachnophobia: The Classic Story On Stage” is probably off the playwriting bucket list.

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

My final report for the Canada Council. Other than that… I’ve always wanted to write a musical. I don’t know why.

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

Already been done. It’s called “The Misanthrope”. So… comedy, I guess?

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

I don’t mind either, as long as it’s honest. People praise and criticize usually just to hear themselves talk. In those situations, I tend to just tune out and think about what to make for dinner that night. But if it’s honest, in those rare circumstances, I welcome both equally.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Eastern Canada, or other Canadian centres with a small but thriving Pan-Asian community who have probably never seen their experiences reflected on stage.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

Keyboard. That’s how I roll. I like writing somewhere I can smoke and be left to my own devices. Hotel rooms are great for that. The anonymity hotels provide is very conducive to writing for me. Knowing that I’m somewhere no one can find and bother me helps me concentrate on the task at hand. It also means that I can procrastinate and watch porn all day and no one would know. Sometimes the freedom to do fuck all begets the ability to work without distraction.

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

“He seemed to say ‘fuck’ a lot. What do you think that means?”

What inspires you?

Auden said:

If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.

I find that inspiring.

Thanks again for reading this week's Umbrella Talk. If you are a playwright that 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

Our slogan and tagline: You're here, now.

Several years ago we decided to come up with a slogan or a tagline that would capture our company's mandate. So MK and I did some creative brainstorming and came up with a few lines that would incorporate the idea of our theatre company bringing plays to audiences both here in Canada and elsewhere. So the tagline had to imply that our company is omnipresent. I can't remember exactly what the runner-up choices were, but most of them were similar to the same one word tagline used by a famous local tv station (those of us in Toronto would know that station is "everywhere"now in Canada and maybe other cities in the world). We also wanted the tagline to be inclusive of everyone in our community---be it playwrights, other theatre artists and audiences. So after tossing around a few murky taglines I came up with "You're here, now." This choice seemed to sum up exactly what our company wanted to communicate to others in three simple words. It tells people that no matter where you are---here in Canada or elsewhere---that each time you step into a theatre, you are experiencing something uniquely personal and that each moment in that play is a moment that you create on your own.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Umbrella Talk with playwright Kate Hewlett

Welcome back to Umbrella Talk! We kick off our 2009 Umbrella Talk series with playwright and actor Kate Hewlett. Kate's play Humans Anonymous is playing this week at Toronto's Next Stage Festival. Kate tells us what theatrical project she's dying to write next, who she'd like the academics to compare her to 50 years from now and who inspires her---a person who has motivation, courage and is open to change.

A little more about Kate Hewlett

Kate, a National Theatre School and Queens University graduate, is an actor and a playwright. Her plays include Humans Anonymous and The Swearing Jar. Kate was also a member of Tarragon Theatre's Playwrights unit in 2007 and is an associate artist with Unspun Theatre. Selected theatre acting credits include Noble Parasites, Don't Wake Me, Head- Smashed-In and Unity (1918). Selected television and film acting credits include Stargate: Atlantis, Last New Year (feature), Psych and A Dog's Breakfast (feature).

Umbrella Talk with Kate Hewlett

What do you drink on opening night?

Before the show, I drink coffee. Afterwards, I drink beer...unless the show goes horribly awry, in which case I turn to tequila. Then beer. Then my own tears. Then back to coffee. It's a vicious cycle.

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

The Fonz. Because there's no one cooler than the Fonz. But PT Anderson would be a close second.

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

It's funny you should ask, because Humans Anonymous is all about fear. We had our fundraiser on Tuesday (yes, even though we opened on Thursday -- I'm a little disorganized) and each person who performed was asked to state one of his or her fears. I had none left, because all of mine are in the play and I didn't want to rip off my own writing! If you see the play, you'll discover the cornucopia of fears I struggle with...
What can't I write about? Well, the idea of writing a drama scares me a lot. I use comedy as a crutch sometimes, I think, and I would find it hard to write a straight drama. Luckily, I like plays that make people laugh. But I like to add a dash of heartbreak, too, just to keep them rooted in reality.

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

I am absolutely dying to write a musical. I write music; I write plays; why not take the plunge and combine the two? I keep saying that I am going to write one, then I get caught up in acting and remounts (and facebook) and I postpone the inevitable yet again...

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

It would have to be a comedy. I trip a lot.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

After my first episode of Stargate Atlantis aired (I was a guest star in a few episodes) I spent hours -- literally, hours -- reading all of the online comments about my performance. The Stargate fans are loyal and lovely, so it took a long time to find a really cruel one, but when I did...I was finally able to stop looking. I needed to read the worst possible criticism in order to get over my fear of it. Now, I am less affected by reviews, praise, criticism or feedback. The most important thing is the audience reaction, and the experience itself. Reviews are only important because they affect audience turnout.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

At the Canon Theatre. I was an usher there for a little while and it would satisfy some weird fantasy to be able to watch my own play on stage there. And to act on that stage. I would also love to have my work produced in London (England. Not Ontario. London, Ontario scares me a bit.)

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

It actually depends on the type of writing. Songs, I write by hand (usually on napkins, actually, because they tend to come to me at inconvenient times). Plays, though, I always write on my computer. I have a MacBook Air. We make a very nice couple.

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

The ultimate compliment (other than just being talked about by academics in 50 years) would be any comparison to Oscar Wilde. Or Noel Coward. Or Salma Hayek...for different reasons, obviously.

What inspires you?

I'm going to opt for the cheesy answer here and say "my mom". She went back to school when she was thirty-five years old and did her BA. Because she was raising four kids, she studied part-time and it took her thirteen years to get her degree. She went on to do her Masters degree, and after that, her PhD. She studied European history, moved to Italy, learned Italian, wrote a children's book, wrote a novel...and she's still going strong. That kind of motivation, courage and openness to change inspires me.

I am also inspired by people who are focused and confident. Like Christopher Stanton. Do you know Christopher Stanton? If not, you should. He's a genius.

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More from the Barricades

This request is being circulated by Canadian Arts Coalition,:

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is in the midst of shaping an economic stimulus package and budget, which he will deliver January 27. Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore is also reaching out to consult with arts and culture stakeholders across the country to understand the needs of our sector. Please stand up and let the politicians know that the Canadian arts sector is a thriving industry and investment in the Canadian arts sector must be sustained. Call on our government and political leaders to ensure that the arts are part of the economic stimulus package Canadians are looking for.

What do I say:

In August, the Canadian Arts Coalition issued The Arts Advantage, a pre-budget brief that calls for sustained investment in the Canadian arts sector. In that brief the Coalition called on the Government of Canada to:

1. Build on its support for artists and arts organizations through the Canada Council for the Arts.

2. Facilitate the efforts of Canadian arts and cultural organizations to train the next generation of artists, and expand their audiences and the markets for their work, through the programs of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

3. Reinvest in programs of support for international cultural diplomacy and market development.

These general priorities are as important as ever. (We also urge you to review the December 18 submission of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, which includes these priorities.)

All this said, we know each segment of the arts sector has specific needs and you know best what yours are. We urge you to use the contacts you have with the federal government—through your funders, supporters, and formal and informal associations—to tell the federal Finance Minister and the Minister of Canadian Heritage of your specific needs.

What you can do: -- Please do at least one of these things.

· Go to: to participate in the Minister of Finance's online budget consultations. (Deadline, 9 January 2009).

· Write to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, copying Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, urging him to include investment in the arts sector in Canada's budget and economic stimulus package.

· Write to your Premier and provincial minister responsible for arts, encouraging them to ensure that the arts are included in the economic recovery package to be discussed at a first ministers' meeting in mid-January.

· Talk and/or email your local MP and MPP/MLA.

Tell us what you're doing.

Brought together to bring a unified voice for the Canadian arts sector, please keep the Canadian Arts Coalition informed your actions and successes. Please let us know who you've contacted, what you've told them and what kind of response you've received. You can email us at

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Back to the Barricades

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a good holiday. I spent it either with family, out with friends, working, or being sick. A very mixed bag but I enter the new year feeling very hopeful.

Kent and I are spending time this month planning for upcoming productions and some other organizational changes, of which I hope to share soon.

In the meantime, the world economic crisis continues and not surprisingly, arts are not part of the discussion. In economic downturns, popular forms of art do very well as people are looking for entertainment and escape. This bodes well for the film and television industry. Too bad they've lost export support.

This is when people need arts in their lives. Never is art less "a frill" then in times of trouble. Art can connect people to each other and push back fear. And it's really such a small investment relative to the numbers that are being thrown around for other industries for similar numbers of jobs.

So what can be done? An event has cropped up on Facebook (although I think it would work better as a group) urging people to write to the new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, to ensure that arts funding is part of the discussion. This is what I wrote:
I'm concerned that the arts will not included in the upcoming economic stimulus package. I'm sure you've seen the numbers - a small amount of investment in culture has a huge economic impact for a community. And with the arts cuts from last summer not restored, the arts sector has no export support. This is at a time when historically cultural industries have done well.

Please ensure that artists are also provided with economic support. Since many artists support themselves with jobs in the service sector, which has been hit very hard, they are at great risk of falling through the cracks.

If this is something you want to be a part of, either use the feedback form on his website or email him at

At a time when so much federal money is going to be used as stimulus, it's important that arts stay on the agenda. There is much work to be done.

Friday, January 2, 2009

one big umbrella theatre blog's Top 10 Blog entries of 2008

Happy 2009 everyone! Before we open up our one big umbrella for another year, we'd like to thank everyone who has continued to visit our blog ( during 2008 to read MK Piatkowski's insights and thoughts on playwrights, theatre, just about anything art and our successful Umbrella Talks with playwrights. We continue to enjoy and look forward to reading your comments and feedback. We'd like to take this opportunity to highlight the top blog entries on the one big umbrella blog in 2008. Feel free to revisit them and read them again and all the other blog entries for 2008. These are the blog entries that had the most clicks and views (according to our stats provider FeedBurner):

one big umbrella theatre blog's
Top 10 Blog entries of 2008

1. Jazzed by the possibilities (May 4th, 2008)

2. Umbrella Talk with playwright Mark Leiren-Young (August 6th, 2008)

3. Performing men I admire (May 5th, 2008)

4. Alias Godot (May 16th, 2008)

5. Big news in Mirvish Land (May 9th, 2008)

6. I missed something big! (April 11th, 2008)

7. Umbrella Talk with playwright Norm Foster (November 1st, 2008)

8. The unofficial white paper: national companies (November 6th, 2008)

9. Test drive Facebook Blog Networks (November 6th, 2008)

10. Long Time Between Drinks (January 14th, 2008)

Bubbling under...

By request (May 6th, 2008)

Umbrella Talk with playwright Janet Munsil (November 8th, 2008)

Breakfast (May 22nd, 2008)