Umbrella Talk with playwright Ken Cameron

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Ken Cameron talks about the differences of his programming work versus his writing, the struggle to be more personal, and love of fountain pens.

A Little More About Ken Cameron

Ken is the Artistic Director off the Magnetic North Theatre Festival produced in partnership with the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa. With a mandate to showcase Canada’s outstanding touring productions, Magnetic North is produced in Ottawa in odd numbered years, and in a different Canadian city every other year. In 2010 the festival will be hosted by the Cities of Kitchener and Waterloo.

Also a Calgary-based playwright Ken is the author of more than fifteen plays, including Harvest which closed a near sold-out run at Ontario’s Blyth Festival and will be performed in five theatres across Ontario and in Edmonton in 2009. In 2007 Ken won the Enbridge playRites Award for the one-act version of Harvest, which The Calgary Herald described as “comic gold”.

My Morocco toured Western Canada and was nominated for Outstanding New Play at Calgary’s Betty Mitchell Awards in Calgary. Ken’s play My One And Only premiered at The Alberta Theatre Projects’ Enbridge playRites Festival ‘04 and received a second production by Edmonton’s Workshop West Theatre in April 2005. The play was featured at The National Arts Centre’s On The Verge reading series, received an Honourable Mention in the Herman Voaden National Playwriting Competition and was nominated for the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for playwriting and a Betty Mitchell Award for Outstanding New Play. It was produced in New York City by the Bridge Theatre Company in November 2005. All three plays will be published by Newest Press in 2010.

Ken was the Executive Director of the Alberta Playwrights' Network, a provincial organization that develops plays and playwrights around Alberta from 2001-07 and is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

What do you drink on opening night?
I'm a red wine guy, through and through. I even make the stuff in my basement when I have the time. I'm big on urban farming. This month I am trying to harvest apples from my neighbour's tree so I can make apple wine, while my wife is busy making home-made hummus, bruschetta and growing alfalfa sprouts. But I re-read the recipe and realized I need 42 lbs: so I'm thinking apple crisp instead. There's something about doing it yourself that gets me going: oddly, I spent many years working in independent theatre for the same reason.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I used to direct my own work for the first ten years of my career, but once I became busy as Executive Director of the Alberta Playwrights' Network, I was no longer able to do so. Once I stopped directing own work it was amazing how much better it was! Ron Jenkins directed the first production of one of my plays outside of Calgary (My One And Only at Workshop West in Edmonton) and I am dying to work with him again.

There are several directors whom I have not yet worked with but whom I admire: The immensely talented Vancouver director Kim Collier, co-Artistic Director of the Electric Company. Their work has been featured at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in the past: The One That Got Away was performed in a swimming pool: and their production of Brilliant about Nicholas Tesla toured the country after appearing at MNTF, including Centre In The Square in Kitchener. I am in awe of her visual sensibility and creative vision. But I think that my writing might have to step up a notch to attract her attention; the work that Kim is drawn to is on a grand scale, with bold ideas, while my plays are smaller in scope and scale, reflecting my own origins in indie theatre.

I can't leave this subject without also citing the work of Chris Abraham of Crow's Theatre, possibly one of the nation's finest directors. I love what he does with text-based work, which was in evidence in his production of Anton Piatgorsky's dense masterpiece Eternal Hydra at MagNorth 2009.

There's a new generation of directors whose work we are bound to see at MagNorth soon whom I would be thrilled to see direct my work: Christian Barry of 2b Theatre; Jamie Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto of Theatre Replacement; Karen Hines who directs the clowns of horror Mump and Smoot and whose work for regional theatre has been exemplary; and Ross Manson, whose intellectual and political integrity is a model for behaviour.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
I used to have difficulty writing about myself directly, in an autobiographical sense. But as soon as I did, with my play My Morocco about the death of my sister and the often troubled relationship between us, my writing moved to a different, more heartfelt level and touched audiences in a different way. I am presently trying to maintain this movement towards investing more of myself in my work.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
I am currently exploring what happens if the genesis of a particular play is not plot or character, but an idea or theme. I am starting with a pair of small pieces, where the stakes aren't very high. I want to see if I can centre a play or performance piece around something other than a linear progression and utilizing the Artisotilian elements that I have become so married to over the past decade. In a sense I am returning to my roots of creation-based, imaginative theatre that I learned while mentoring with One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre. There I observed how a play could be fashioned out of movement or images and ideas. Oddly, despite this training, my own work remained linear and character-driven, because it was something I was good at. Now I hope to marry the best of both worlds.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (e.g.. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
Comedy, I suppose: though life never seems like comedy to those who are experiencing it! I suppose that's what results in the old adage that a comedy is simply a tragedy in which everyone gets married at the end...

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I used to be my own worst critic. As a result, whenever I received praise of any sort I sloughed it off with "yeah, but..." proceeding to find fault with whatever aspect of my work I could. I realized after a time that this kind of false modesty masked a deep insecurity and a fear of success: as if I subconsciously felt I was not worthy and dared not celebrate, for fear of drawing the wrath of Fate upon my head. So I spent a year accepting praise. And I was astonished at how much of it there was! And the gods didn't visit ruin upon me. Instead, I became more confident and thus became a better writer. I still find myself relapsing though: on those occasions I have to visualize an opening night, or recall specific praise from someone whose opinion I deeply respect.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
I would like to see my work produced at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival! But being the Artistic Director, there is an inherent conflict-of-interest there. By not considering my own work, or involving myself as a playwright with projects that might be considered, I can perform my duties with integrity. Besides, oddly enough, I don't actually write the plays that most interest me as a programmer. When I'm looking for work to fit the national stage I am looking for work that pushes our understanding of what performance could be. Often (but not always) this is director-centred or creation-based: and less often playwright-centred work. Perhaps this is, in part, why I want to move my own work away from story and character and into the realm of ideas and images for a while.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I used to write longhand, but over the past ten years I find its too slow for writing and I have to use a computer to keep up with the pace of my thoughts. I know from reading other answers to this umbrella series that I am not alone. Lately I got into fountain pens and started writing hand-written thank-you notes to the directors of plays that I have been seeing for The Magnetic North Theatre Festival. Those fountain pens helped me return to the joy of writing long-hand. And its improved the quality of my handwriting immensely! I now love making notes in my notebook just so I can see how the pen flows across the page. Sadly, fountain pens do not weather air travel well, and frequently explode in a mess of blue ink: I now can only use my fountain pens at home.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
Over a few beers with two playwright buddies, I pointed a finger at my mates and slurred "you always write the buddy play: in which there are two best friends on a journey, which allows you to capitalize on your command of dialogue. And you," I said shifting my focus to my screenwriter/playwright buddy, "are so good with plot and a certain type of character that your recent plays are like stage thrillers combined with a twisted comic sensibility." (Obviously, being writers, we are very articulate when drunk).

"Oh yeah?" they retorted to me. "Your plays always feature structure as a driving force. Your plays place characters into a situation where the dramaturgy of the play directly mirrors the character's primary dilemma. Thus the climax of the play sees the dramaturgical structure coming to a head at the precise time as the character's arc reaches its zenith, making for a powerful final image that unites both story and stagecraft."

Hint, hint to any academics out there ....

What inspires you?
Frankly, my wife. I find her courageous, talented and focused. I watch her acting with integrity every day, and I strive to be half as brave.