Friday, July 11, 2008
12 or 20 questions: with 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 and the Governor General’s Award. All of her plays have been produced extensively. For seven years she was a playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre -- one of Canada’s major theatres for new work. ‘The Shape of a Girl’ has been touring or in production continually since its premiere in 2001 including a sold out run in New York City on 42nd Street, and has been translated into six languages. Joan also writes poetry, prose and for television. She grew up in North Vancouver and spent ten years on Bowen Island before taking a position with the Department of Writing in 2004. Her new play ‘Another Home Invasion’ opens in February 2009 at ATP in Calgary – a coproduction with the Tarragon. It opens in Toronto in March.
1 My first play, Jewel, was written in a weekend in Banff in 1985. It’s a one person show and the character was loosely based on a character I had created in a piece of fiction several years before. Once I put that character together with the play’s premise it just came flowing out. I performed the play – it was just 35 minutes long then – because I couldn’t find an actor to do it. I’m not a performer but I learned something about theatre by getting up on stage and looking at things from that angle. We took the play to the Edmonton Fringe that year with a real actor and of course I learned something from looking at things from that angle as well. The first professional production of the play (it was rewritten and then over an hour) was at Tarragon a year later. The actor hired to play the part in Toronto had to leave the show after the dress rehearsal. And I got the part. Again I didn’t know how to act really but I, sort of, pulled it off. I did 35 shows. It was thrilling. It helped my career enormously to have had that odd and terrifying experience (I haven’t been on a stage since and don’t want to be on one). It also helped my career, I think, that the Toronto critics knew right from this start that I was a first time playwright who had marched around in her nightgown on stage trying to act because things had fallen apart in rehearsal – the show must go on and all that. Jewel has had dozens of productions since and has been translated into several languages. It’s still being performed – thankfully not be me.
2 I’ve lived in Victoria for four years. It’s remarkably beautiful –a bit different than the mainland coast that I’m used to but still familiar. I’ve never written anything set here. But B.C.’s landscape overall profoundly effects my work. Place is nearly as important as character in my plays. There is a fictional island I based on the gulf islands that both Amigo’s Blue Guitar and The Shape of a Girl take place in. The Kootenays, the North Peace – those areas are also setting for The Hope Slide and Jewel. 2000 and my new play Another Home Invasion take place in North Vancouver where I grew up. Homechild is set in Glengarry County in Ontario which is where my parents are from and a place I return to often.
3 A play starts when I am grabbed by something – often an event in the news. I will read everything I can about it and then eventually develop a character that is some how connected to it. I write just monologues for the first few months, trying to get a sense of the story. I don’t work on more than one project at a time. I write really slowly. It takes me a couple of years to write a play – that isn’t writing full time of course – but it’s usually a couple of years from first thought to opening night.
4 Because I write and perform monologues before writing the actual plays having a chance to read out loud is really important to my process. Also after I have a first draft we usually hire actors and work for one days, often resulting in a public reading that evening or afternoon. That’s also an important part of the process. All of my plays have been workshopped in the Playwrights Colony in Banff. Hearing the work and getting input from actors, directors and dramaturges is essential.
5 I’m not really interested in theory. I guess I’m always trying to solve some internal thing. It’s pretty vague though. I just like getting inside someone and seeing how that one person ticks and in turn seeing what that says about us as a whole. What the current questions are etc. seems more like academic turf or a way to discuss the work after the fact.
6 Basically I trust my instincts when I’m working on a first draft. But as noted I need the input from actors, dramaturges etc after that. Often I’ll work with a dramaturge before I have a first draft. And my playwright friends – there’s two or three of them that read my stuff – are essential to the process.
7 I find writing gets harder the older I get. I’m always afraid I have nothing left to say. I’m not one of those writers who have too many ideas and not enough time. I was pretty fearless when I was younger. Now I think long and hard before deciding the point of view I want to write from.
8 I have a mild allergy to pears (apples, apricots etc.) unless they’re cooked. I started becoming allergic in my thirties (Toronto did it to me) so I haven’t eaten a pear in twenty years. Sad, eh?
9 The best of advice I’ve received was to finish things. It’s really easy to start a piece of writing but much harder to persevere and finish.
10 I love moving between genres. I started out as a fiction writer and then a poet. I didn’t become a playwright until I was thirty. I find it pretty easy to go between those three genres. I find it much harder to write for screen (television in my case) or to write a libretto; they aren’t as natural a fit for me. But the line between my prose, poetry and drama is pretty blurry.
11 Before becoming a parent I used to say at least that I wrote four hours a day, usually in the late morning, and then for another four hours tried to do something related to writing – research, applying for a grant, listening to a piece of music. Everything went out the window when I became a mother and started teaching on a regular basis. Now I tend to write in the early morning. When I’m in Banff I can write all day but usually I’m done by two or three in the afternoon. This year I discovered that in the evening, when the family was watching TV, I could sit with them with my lap top on my knees and edit and reread etc. I no longer need quiet etc. to write. I grab the time when I can. Patrick Friesen taught me to always keep my office door open – that kids will let you do your thing more readily if they don’t feel shut out.
12 My writing often gets stalled. Reading has always been a life saver for me. And I’ll do what I call phony writing – writing that I know is terrible but from a distance at least it looks like the real thing. Going to the theatre – that works sometimes. More often than not I don’t really like what I see but that can be inspiring in its own twisted way.,
13 My latest play is a one person show – so that’s similar of course to my very first play. It’s my fourth one person show out of ten plays now. I think my ability to tell a story has improved. I’m much more aware of structure than I used to be but I’m still primarily an intuitive writer and voice is still my forte – none of that has changed.
14 Of course going to the theatre is really important but reading is still my primary source of inspiration – that is reading fiction.
15 Southern fiction – Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner – were a big deal to me when I was starting out. Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Atwood – the usual suspects I guess. In terms of playwrighting actor and playwright Alan Williams is the one who got me into this business and influenced my early work enormously. Sam Shepherd and George Walker are also playwrights I keep returning to.
16 I’d like to go to Asia.
17/18 I can’t imagine doing anything besides writing. I’ve wanted to write ever since I can remember. It’s always been what I do best. I’m also a teacher and I enjoy that (marking aside) but really it’s all about the writing.
19 The most recent book I read was Strawberry Fields which I really enjoyed. Last great book – Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. Most recent film The Savages – which had many perfect moments. Most recent great film -- Babel – flawed but again so many perfect things.
20 Another Home Invasion premieres in Calgary then Toronto in February 2009. It’s a monologue; the character Jean is eighty and caring for her unwell husband when a meth addict shows up at the door. It’s about the present health care system and how that is failing elderly people.
12 or 20 questions archive