Umbrella Talk with playwright Shirley Barrie

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Shirley Barrie talks about how the time of day for her openings affect her drinking patterns, how the computer has changed her draft style, and how she likes to set challenges for herself.

A little more about Shirley Barrie

Shirley has worked in the theatre for many years as both a playwright and a producer. She and her husband, Ken Chubb, went to England for a year in 1971 and ended up staying for 14, founding the Wakefield Tricycle Company and later the Tricycle Theatre which is still a very successful theatre and arts complex on the Kilburn High Road in London. Shirley started writing young audience and family plays for the Tricycle and then for other British companies. Back in Toronto, she co-founded Straight Stitching Productions with director Lib Spry and the company produced several of her plays, winning a Chalmers Award for Straight Stitching and a Chalmers and a Dora award for Carrying the Calf.

She has continued to write plays for young and adult audiences. Most recently, in 2007 4th Line Theatre produced Beautiful Lady, Tell Me… and she is writing another play for the company about the great comic actress, Marie Dressler. Bozo’s Fortune, an adaptation of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi, is currently in the school-touring repertoire of Shoestring Opera, and with Emil Sher she co-edited Prepare to Embark: Six Theatrical Adventures for Young Audiences published by Playwrights Canada Press. In 2006/07 she also had the amazing opportunity of spending over six months in South Africa working as Senior Story Editor on the TV drama series Jozi-H.

What do you drink on opening night?
Before or after the performance? Before: I can’t eat. And I’m stressed. So anything liquid tends to land in places other than my mouth. It’s safer for myself, and for others, if I stick to water. After: Theatre for young audiences shows tend to open in schools often in the morning. So water continues to be the drink of choice. For a play that’s opened in a theatre, I might move on to red wine if I’m feeling relatively confident, or single malt whiskey if the opportunity arises.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I was fortunate to have Molly Thom direct the first production of Beautiful Lady Tell Me… Her input and dramatic eye were crucial to the final ethos of the piece. But I’d also love to see what a director like Peter Anderson with his knowledge of clown and movement would do with it, or Eda Holmes.

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

Everything I haven’t written about yet. Almost every project begins as a scary, “I can’t do that” adventure. If the objective isn’t set by the company commissioning the piece, then I try to set myself a challenge. Often these are stylistic. With Beautiful Lady, Tell Me… (produced by 4th Line Theatre in 2007) I played with a huge subject, a large cast, a back and forth time scheme, and a variety of vaudeville styles smashing up against each other. Scary but exhilarating! Somehow it all worked and performers and audiences loved it.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
Most of the things I haven’t written about yet. On some days I want to write a literary, easy to perform, small cast play. Everybody admires the writing and everybody wants to produce the play. But that (so far) isn’t what comes out. I write plays that give great challenges to actors, and sometimes to audiences, that have quirky elements, and that are often better in the performance than the read.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
With luck, life is long, and a play is much shorter. I have had times of intense drama, great adventure, high melodrama and low comedy. But surrounding them are long stretches of the much more mundane joys and dilemmas of living that would drive most audiences screaming from the theatre.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I tend to be suspicious of praise, and sensitive to criticism. But I’m trying to acknowledge the former in the spirit it’s given, and internalize the latter only if it makes sense in the context of what I’m trying to write. In other words my skin is growing increasingly thick – along with other parts of my anatomy.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
It’s evolving. I still start by hand. I’m ridiculously particular about what I write with. “My” fountain pen and “my” mechanical pencil both have to be on my desk before I start working, and it’s not a pretty sight if one of them goes missing.

I used to write everything by hand and then transcribe. As I got more used to computers, I’d write the first draft by hand, using pen or pencil depending on how confident I felt, and edit mostly on the computer. Lately, the pen or pencil beginnings, are turning into short form maps that I interpret on the computer. But in order to keep the false starts and scratch outs (which sometimes can turn out to be not so false after all) I have a holding document which for my current project is called “icky bits.”

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

I’d like them to remember me in 50 years!! I won’t be around to worry about what they say.

What inspires you?
Injustice in many forms, peculiar behaviour, the unexpected, little known stories from the past that connect with something I’m feeling or experiencing in the present, life with all its aspirations and messiness.