Umbrella Talk with playwright Joan MacLeod

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Joan MacLeod talks about working with Richard Rose, her life being a movie-of-the-week, and curses Morris Panych for stealing her Urjo Kareda story.

A little more about Joan MacLeod

Joan MacLeod’s plays include Jewel, Toronto, Mississippi, Amigo’s Blue Guitar, The Hope Slide, Little Sister, 2000, The Shape of a Girl and Homechild. She is the recipient of two Chalmers Canadian Play Awards, the Governor General’s Award, the Betty Mitchell Award and the Jessie Richardson Award. For seven years she was a playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The Shape of a Girl has been produced continually since its premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects in 2001 including a sold out run on Broadway and a recent production at the Sydney Opera House. Joan also writes poetry, prose and for television.

Since 2004 she has worked at the University of Victoria as an Associate Professor in the Department ofWriting. Her work has been translated into eight languages. This spring Joan will be the Senior-Playwright-in-Residence at the Playwrights Colony at the Banff Centre. Joan lives in Oak Bay with her thirteen-year-old daughter Ana and her husband Bill.

What do you drink on opening night?
Well I was about to tell you all about drinking scotch with Urjo Kareda on opening night and listening to the play in his office – but Morris (damn him) Panych beat me to it. Urjo and scotch was how I handled my first four openings. Now it’s Irish whiskey– something I usually drink only in Banff at the Playwrights Colony where the plays are developed and sometimes begin. Now I watch the premieres instead of hiding out and listening. At ATP’s opening of ‘Another Home Invasion’ last month, just by fluke, I was sitting beside Sharon Pollock -- which was wonderful and meaningful and strange.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I am completely crazy about working with Richard Rose at the moment. I don’t know how to look beyond that (our TO opening is just two days away). I had heard all these scary things about him but we’ve just had a great experience on this last play. He’s smart, hard-working, always bringing it back to structure. When he would ask for a rewrite and I would try and fool him by patching something up with poetry he would tell me it didn’t make sense, that it wasn’t part of the character’s argument. He doesn’t let me get away with a thing and he almost never gives me a compliment – which (perversely?) I also like. (See dealing with praise below).

What scares you? What can't you write about?
The fear of not being able to write is constant and always building. Every play that I finish – or story or poem – seems miraculous. I write about family all the time but I can’t write about my husband or daughter in a direct way.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
For five years now I’ve been thinking that I am about to write about Bountiful – the Mormon-extremist child-abusing horror show up in the East Kootenay.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
It wouldn’t be a play. It would be a movie-of-the-week on Sunday night. It would start with the lowest point in my life (not there yet) and then work its way backwards. It would star my friend and actor-extraordinaire Leslie Jones from Vancouver. For twenty years now we have been creating movie-of-the-weeks that accompany our lives.

How do you deal with praise?

I keep thinking of the last scene in that movie Babe (sheep farmer and Babe-the-pig who thinks he’s a sheep dog – note before hand that the pig is a noble creature in that movie). At the end of the movie after Babe has wowed everyone herding sheep etc. the farmer turns to Babe and says ‘That’ll do pig.’ Babe looks up at the farmer, feeling proud and worthy. That’s exactly what getting a compliment from Richard Rose is like – a rare event but it means everything.

With criticism?
I keep announcing I’m not going to read reviews anymore. But I always cave in and it always feels awful awful when I get a bad one. And all those clich├ęs are also true – I remember the bad ones best. From now on I am NOT reading anymore reviews.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
My play ‘Shape of a Girl’ had a good run in the States. I’d like to have more plays that cross that border and have a life.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
I write my first drafts, for the most part, in long hand in these little note books. I hate sitting at a desk. I also have always loved the physical act of writing. I am forever buying new pens, the perfect notebook, that sort of thing. I put things into the computer as I go but I don’t create much on the keyboard until after the first draft. I’m afraid the computer will make things look too good too soon (see Morris Panych interview).

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
If they remember that I have a body of work that will be enough. If my work, which is rooted in a time and place that’s specific, is still relevant – great.

What inspires you?
I seem to have made a habit of writing about events that often have actually happened, that shouldn’t have happened – Reena Virk’s murder, the Ocean Ranger sinking, our immigration policies etc. I like to take a good hard look and then figure out a way of making those stories personal.