Playwriting for Today's Canada
How should artists create when there is no money?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
When I was 13 my father gave me a Brother portable typewriter for Christmas. On New Year's day, following, I spent the entire day on the machine writing my first full-length play: A Time For Madness. A woman is alone, her husband and two friends have escaped from prison and hole up at her place. Somehow it turns into a bloodbath with woman covered in her husbands blood and - like Lucia di Lammermoor (opera influenced by early writings - she does a long-ass mad scene. The only thing it had going for it was that it was a small cast and one set - cheap to produce. My next full-length play would have required 40 actors, was about six hours long and had a similarly pretentious title: A Life in Damascus. I dreamed as I wrote it, almost certainly aware it would never be done as we descended into a recession.
I called the play Aléola and wrote it in one go on the night of my 19th birthday (at work on my graveyard shift desk clerk job).
(Those days have come back - those of the small casts and single-sets. It's happened before: recession=two theatrical phenomena - little Canadian theatre is done (even fewer premieres) and those plays which are done are small. In the 70s-80s recession we had solos coming out of our ass and a lot of them were piss-poor - you can see far better at any Fringe these days and I saw one - Phone Whore - this week, that was a gem.)
I was 18 and I was on a bus coming back from my graveyard shift as a desk clerk in a downtown motel in Quebec City and a morning commuter was reading a cheapie novel called Such Was Our Passion. I wondered what it would be about. It hit me in a wave and it was the right time for the idea: an aging couple on their anniversary, abandoned by their children and realizing they could not exist one without the other. The husband makes a hideous decision and the lights dim to blackout as they die. I called the play Aléola and wrote it in one go on the night of my 19th birthday (at work on my graveyard shift desk clerk job). It went on to win a very nice award and has since been performed across Canada, in the US, London, England, on radio and television, in English French and Acadian dialect. It made me a fucking fortune!
If I could, I'd also be writing small-cast musicals (look at the surprising success of Craigslist Cantata and Ride The Cyclone).
Not for one minute, as I wrote it, did I think, "Two characters, one set...cha-ching!" But those were the times and the play was catnip to cash-strapped companies. (Sad story: two of the companies who produced it - Open Circle in Toronto and Theatre Three in Edmonton - no longer exist.)
After, Aléola, however...
I realized, as anyone who wants to make a living in Canadian theatre does realize, that small casts and small sets and a well-made play are never a bad idea in a bad economy (or even a good one!). Solos, too, are a nice idea. If I could, I'd also be writing small-cast musicals (look at the surprising success of Craigslist Cantata and Ride The Cyclone).
But let me say this to playwrights/actors/directors - let your imaginations fly! Understand the confines of money but also remember that big ideas need not be abandoned for all that. It took big imagination and soaring ideas to create Raoul Bhaneja's Hamlet (Solo) or Rick Miller's Machomer. Cameryn Moore creates a giant, troubling and unforgettable world alone with a phone in Phone Whore (as Cocteau did with La Voix Humaine). The well-made duet The Gin Game attracted the greatest actors in the world to it and massive audiences to them.
A Matthew Shepard solo is waiting to be written (scored?)!
A Matthew Shepard solo is waiting to be written (scored?)! A Roméo Dallaire drama is out there! Political satires float about us with only two characters (think Trudeau/Chrétien or Harper/Manning)! Waiting For The Parade is halfway to a chamber musical!
Also write those huge-cast plays, difficult to produce, which make us dream as we read them. Give us one about the Laurier Theatre fire. Tell us a drama like the Meech Lake Accord. Do what Kent Stetson did with The Harps of God. (Dammit! Someone put this goddam play on!) Don't wait for the recession to end to write the big plays because, as I learned, writing the big plays keep the muscles spry and the small ones - when they come - write themselves.