Umbrella Talk with playwright Catherine Banks

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Catherine Banks talks about single malt scotch, finding a lost director, and the pride of Canadian playwrights.

A Little More About Catherine Banks

Playwright, born (1957) and raised in Nova Scotia. Catherine Banks began her professional life as a Special Education teacher, and wrote plays while raising her children, Rilla and Simon, inspired by seeing a production of Les Belles-soeurs by Michel Tremblay.

Her plays include Bone Cage (Playwrights Co-op Forerunner and Ship's Company Theatre); Eula's Offer; The Summer of the Piping Plover (UpStart Theatre); Three Storey Ocean View ( Mulgrave Road Theatre , Toronto Equity Showcase); and Bitter Rose (Women's Theatre and Creativity Centre). Bitter Rose has aired on Bravo! Canada.

Her work has been performed in Manitoba, Toronto and St. John's at the LSPU Hall. Three Storey Ocean View won the Silver Medal in the 1995 du Maurier National Play Competition and was nominated for a Merrit Award for best new play in 2000. Bone Cage was awarded the Special Merit prize in the 2002 Theatre BC New Play Competition and was showcased at the National Arts Centre's On the Verge 2005. In 2008 it was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Literature (English) Drama.

Her plays are characterized by black humour, and compelling dramatic metaphor. They have been described as “Atlantic gothic,” because of their unflinching exploration of poverty, monotony and the addictions that often provide an escape from such social limitations. She has just completed writing her sixth play, Missy and Me, about a Nova Scotia housewife leaving for New York to pursue the object of her obsession Missy Elliott. She is working on her two new plays Downed Hearts, and It is Solved By Walking.

Catherine Banks currently resides in Sambro, Nova Scotia.

What do you drink on opening night?
I don’t drink before the performance but after the speeches are done I have a white wine usually. I haven’t had an opening night since I fell in love with Scotch in May so I suspect next opening it will be single malt.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I actually don’t know the director’s name but he or she directed an amazing production of Jacob’s Wake (Michael Cook) at the National Arts Centre in about 1986. (I don’t retain names at the best of times and I had only written one play at this point so it wasn’t like I thought Oh I must have this director direct my work.) The set I remember was stripped away to very bare essentials with strips of plastic on three sides of the stage where the cast entered and exited. The plastic was painted with icebergs and the whole concept of the production played on the emotional isolation of each family member. I loved the production and it has stayed with me for going on 25 years. I “googled” the production but alas I couldn’t find the name of the director. Anyway I would love to have that person direct one of my plays maybe Three Storey, Ocean View with its bending of time and complex story lines.

What scares you?
When I get to that place in a script, where I am just now with a script, and it starts to feel that it won’t be a play after all. I have worked for 3 years (in this case) and maybe it won’t be a play.

What can't you write about?
I can’t seem to write about stuff that doesn’t really matter to me. I tried to write a play once about girls who play hockey but I couldn’t find that hook that made me want to finish it enough to dig down and do it. So far, not counting the current crisis, it is the only play that I started and haven’t finished. I think about it sometimes but now I think maybe the material is dated.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
I want to write a play about mothers and daughters but I don’t think I will ever be able to do that although obviously I am a daughter AND I am the mother to a daughter.

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

Like all humans there are elements of all the genres in my life.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
Of course I loved to be praised but then I often think well they are just saying that because (insert some absurd reason like they know my grade 5 teacher’s mother). I take all criticism to heart first but later I can look at it more objectively but it’s a long 10 years in between. I have gone back and read rejection letters and realized that I actually missed all the really good things they said and hyper-focused on something like “This play isn’t right for us.”---in my head that line has been heard as “Why do you think you can write plays worthy of our attention?” I know terrible really terrible. Plus not hearing from a Theatre that I have sent a play to after say 3 months I go straight to “Why do you think you can write plays?”

Where would you like your work to be produced?
Of course I am a Canadian playwright I would like my work to be at the National Arts Centre. In the year I lived in Ottawa back in 1986 I saw the work of Michel Tremblay and Michael Cook for the first time and I had a great sense of pride that our writers could write powerful gripping work. I would like to have my work on in NYC and in London----you know all the biggies. But ultimately what matters is that the production is done well by people who love the script----even in the smallest of theatres that is the most thrilling thing of all.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

I like to write first drafts of scenes by hand and type them in the same day. I can’t leave it too long as my hand writing and spelling are such that there is definitely a best before date on stuff that I have to be able to read---which means I have to remember what I was thinking when I scribbled it down.

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

That I wrote with clarity and honesty about my time.

What inspires you?
Poetry. I read it every day. I love poems. I am not at all a scholar I am sure there are lots of things I miss when I read a poem and I could never talk to you about meter or form or the mechanics of a good poem. But poetry lights the darkness where I struggle to do my own work.