Sunday, 16 December 2012

Playwright Profile: Lindsay Burns

For Alberta Theatre Projects: Heartbreaker, For Love and Money, Moliere, Zadie's Shoes, How I Learned to Drive, Popcorn, The Ugly Man, Skygeezers, Our Country’s Good. Elsewhere: Lindsay is most known for her witty and insightful one-woman shows, Dough: The Politics of Martha StewartThe Vajayjay Monologues and Pack of Lies which have toured to New York, Winnipeg and Edmonton.  Lindsay first took part in the Playrites festival in 1992 and has been an enthusiastic supporter of it ever since. She is a passionate Calgarian who lives with, and loves deeply, Grant and Jasper.

1) What is your writing process? Do you start writing right away? Outline? Research?
I avoid writing at all costs. Too much work, too much heartache is expended creating some flawed work. However when backed into a corner and having no other option I will begin by writing monologues and gathering information.

2) Where do you write? 
I like to save writing for when I have a whole day off with no appointments, errands or obligations. Luckily I never have this day so I never have to write.

3) What do you need to have with you when you write? 
A gun to my head.

4) What is the last great play you saw? What made it great?
Enron at Theatre Calgary. This was an economic crime told in a fairytale fashion using sharp knives and explosive images.

5) Mac or PC? 

6) Who are your mentors? 
Phyllis Diller

7) Do you have writing rituals? 
Yes avoiding it, because it’s hard.

8)Best advice for when you hit a wall? 
Stay stuck because the television isn’t going to watch itself.

9) Best piece of grammar or style advice? 
I like the power of three’s. Three examples, three images, a joke delivered three different times.

10) If you were to write a play about your own life, what would the opening line be?
 ‘Oh what new fresh hell is this?'

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Alberta's On Fire!!!

A couple of weeks ago, Alberta Playwrights' Network held a board retreat to discuss the current state of the organization and to plan for the future. On a couple of occasions it was mentioned by various members sitting around the table "What a hotbed of new play development Alberta is."

Well wouldn't you know it...we've been proven right!! The Governor General's Literary Awards for Drama were announced on October 2 and the nominees include

Catherine Banks for It is Solved by Walking                                   
(Playwrights Canada Press; distributed by University of Toronto Press)
Trina Davies for The Romeo Initiative                                           

(Playwrights Canada Press; distributed by University of Toronto Press)
Karen Hines for Drama: Pilot Episode                                                     

(Coach House Books; distributed by LitDistCo)
Cathy Ostlere and Dennis Garnhum for Lost: A Memoir                         

(Scirocco Drama, an imprint of J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing; distributed by University of Toronto Press)
Anusree Roy for Brothel #9
(Playwrights Canada Press; distributed by University of Toronto Press)
What is outstanding about this list of plays (besides the plays themselves) is that 4 of the 5 plays have roots in Alberta, and more specifically Calgary.
Catherine Banks' It Is Solved By Walking had its premiere production in Calgary, produced by Urban Curvz Theatre. The Romeo Initiative and Drama: Pilot Episode premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects Enbridge playRites Festival in 2012. Karen Hines, who is from Calgary, also won the 2012 Betty Mitchell Award for Outstanding New Play for Drama: Pilot Episode. Lost: A Memoir by Cathy Ostlere and Dennis Garnhum was premiered at Theatre Calgary in 2011. 
As if that wasn't enough, John Murrell (an Honourary Lifetime Member of Alberta Playwrights' Network) was also nominated in the Translation category for his translation of Thinking of Yu by Carole Frechette, which also premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects Enbridge playRites Festival. 
This is pretty amazing and points to the fact that we are a "hotbed" of new play development. This province offers some of the greatest resources for new play development in the entire country and Alberta Playwrights' Network is proud to be a part of those resources. As we begin to envision the future of the organization we are incredibly buoyed by the fact that we have such an outstanding record and history of play development in this province. 
Congratulations to all of the writers and producers of these great NEW works!! 

Monday, 20 August 2012

The End of the World as I Know It.

This is a blog post from the Educational Theatre Association in USA by playwright and teacher Stephen Gregg. This is a post worth reading because he handily tells his disappointment when a play is not all he'd hoped it would be.  It is also pretty funny.
The End of the World as I Know It by Stephen Gregg
June 6, 2012
I’m not sure why I thought the end of the world would be amusing.
I don’t know how I could have thought that having a comedy end with the destruction of our planet was a good idea.
It wasn’t a good idea.
Bakersfield High School, under the direction of Jacquie Thompson-Mercer, gave the play a great production, complete with lovely character work and high-end tech.  But then the curtain came down at the end of the play and the audience applauded politely.
No playwright daydreams of polite applause.
This happened a few months ago, at the premiere of my one-act, This Is a Text.
The production was supposed to be the culmination of a development process, proof that the play was ready for publication.
It’s not.
Five minutes before the end of the play, I thought, “Huh, all these appealing young people will be dead in five minutes.  This might be a problem.”                                                             

Lots of play scripts have notes about how the play came to be. Christopher Durang writes good ones. Peter Schaffer writes about the problem he struggled with with Amadeus.(Salieri had very little to do in the second act.)
One of my favorites is from Anatomy of Gray by Jim Leonard.  Leonard describes writing and rewriting the play, getting it workshopped and then produced and then produced some more and still knowing it wasn’t right. And so he put it away.
For ten years.
But what all of these Notes from the Playwright have in common is that they’re written from a place of triumph. The play is being published.  It’s out in the world having a life, which is really most of what you want for a play. These are the notes of the victor, recounting the strategy she used to conquer the monsters that were tearing at her plot.
I thought it might be useful to record that battle in real time, at a moment when the monsters have the upper hand.                                             

A few weeks after the politely received production, I said to Todd, “So, is it kind of a downer that the world ends?”
He confessed that yes, the nuclear holocaust was a bummer.
So I took out the end of the world.
But, as you can imagine, it requires a fair amount of exposition—setting up—to explain why the world explodes. So that exposition came out. And when that exposition was removed some moments no longer made sense and some transitions went missing. Worst of all, some characters seemed irrelevant and the play had no sense of drive.
All of which made me realize that my problems had been bigger than the ending. (Among other things, using a character solely as an expository device is bad playwriting.)
The more I pulled at the apocalypse thread, the more my little throw rug of a play unraveled.This Is a Text is now about four inchoate pages long.
The moment when a project unravels is never a writer’s best moment. But it does happen, and I’m recording this now partly for myself.
It’s happened before. You examine the threads, see which of them might work, and start to weave again.  Often you get a play that’s better than the one you started with.
But sometimes the play isn’t better. And sometimes—this is where the anxiety lies—you don’t get a play at all.
This Is a Text is scheduled to come out this fall. It’s in my publisher’s catalog already. (Let’s not mention this to them.)
Nothing to do but pick up those sad little remaining threads and start weaving again.
It’s not the end of the world.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Playwright Profile: Alice Nelson


Alice is an actor, playwright, director, puppeteer, improviser and clown. She holds an MFA from Dell’Arte Physical Theatre School in California and a BFA from the U of L. Alice’s company, Organized Crime, will perform a staged reading at the Auburn Saloon of her new co-created musical, KEEP SWEET: A Polygamy Musical. Organized Crime will be performing Land of Dream, a clown show about chasing the American dream, at the Motel in December 2012. Last season, Alice was selected as Lunchbox Theatre’s Emerging Director. Her credits included directing Mockingbird Close and assistant directing Perils in Paris, Last Christmas, Super 8 and Whimsy State. She directed Picasso at the Lapin Agile for Morpheus Theatre, Sleeping Beauty for Loose Moose and The Boy's Own Jedi Handbook for Empress Theatre.  Alice has also written and toured several shows, including three solo shows: Swashbucklers, Local Celebrity and Elephant. She co-created and toured RAUNCH: The Rise of Female Chauvinist Pigs and was commissioned by Empress Theatre to write an original clown show, The Worry Wart. Alice teaches and frequently leads workshops in clown, melodrama and improv. Her passion is supporting Clowns Without Borders and raising awareness of their amazing international work!

 1) What is your writing process? Do you start writing right away? Outline? Research?
Research (mostly reading books on a subject), ramble about an idea to friends, my folks, anyone willing to listen, more research, more rambling, watch movies on the topic, watch movies loosely related to the topic, watch movies unrelated to the topic and then chastise myself for slacking off. Research, write a grant, ramble, write another grant because the first one was rejected, almost give up, get a grant and then think, "Damn it, now I have to get to work." Stare at the computer screen terrified to write a first draft that will be awful. Make an outline with post-it-notes. Then start writing - no, wait, I need to do more research. Get back to writing. Change outline completely. Write. Edit as I write. Get a few close friends and colleagues to read it. Write down all the feedback I a bucket of ice cream, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Basically, never fall in love with being done.

2) Where do you write?

My living room. Usually at around 6am. By the second cup of coffee, I really think I'm on to something.

3) What do you need to have with you when you write?
Post-it-notes. My reference books are filled with post-it-notes. I also do my outline with colour coded post-it-notes on giant poster board, so it's like a display at a junior high science fair. Then I carry that around to meetings with the creative team. Nerd.

4) What was the last great play you saw? What made it great?
How I Became Invisible by Clunk Puppet Lab, last September at the Vertigo Studio Space. Since its debut, the artistic directors have rewritten the show, so that the visual magic is linked strongly to a story of the human condition. As I volunteered on the show last time it was produced (sweeping the floor and painting props) the artistic duo asked me on board as a puppeteer for the updated version which is touring to Almonte, Ontario for the Puppet UP Festival in August. How often do you get asked to work on the last great play you saw?

What made it great was how they created a detailed, visually compelling world onstage and their animation of the characters was filled with surprises and magic.

5) Mac or PC?

6) Who are your mentors?
Ronlin Foreman, alchemist and instructor from Dell'Arte Physical Theatre School, "If you want us to believe you, you must believe." TJ Dawe, who encouraged me in my writing, "Don't worry if you're not sure where your writing is going. It's important and valuable just to explore. You don't catch any fish if you don't go fishing."

7) Do you have writing rituals?
Procrastinating? That happens pretty traditionally.

8) Best advice for when you hit a wall?
Walk it off. Or sleep on it. Or keep writing. The first draft is always the rough draft, write stuff now knowing if it's good or not. Just write and write lots. Over write. It will get better. But it has to be words on a page first. 


Monday, 23 July 2012

Cease and Desist!!!

In our modern, webbed-out world, it can be hard to tell what is public domain and what isn't. I can download a TV series to my computer, but I can't use those images for commercial use. I can copy and paste images of celebrities found on the internet and use them as my profile picture, but I can't without written authorization use those likenesses in the publication of a book or as projected images in a play. I can download a free app which allows me to transform Youtube Videos into MP3's so that I can take the sound from anything on Youtube and use it how I wish. So if someone has published a video of a song you want, you can save yourself the $0.99 iTunes charges. It's piracy, but who's going to know...

Below is an article from the New York Times regarding a play based loosely on "Three's Company" which received a Cease and Desist order.
If Three Constitutes Company, Add Lawyers to Make It a Crowd
Published: July 17, 2012, New York Times

"Most playwrights have jitters on opening night, but David Adjmi was in a panic amid the festivities last month for “3C,” his darkly comic deconstruction of the 1970s sitcom “Three’s Company.” That same day he learned that the copyright owner of “Three’s Company” had sent a cease-and-desist letter to the play’s producers charging that Mr. Adjmi had infringed on the copyright by borrowing so many elements from the TV series, including its premise about a man who pretends to be gay to live with two female roommates.

The show went on — but the copyright fight remains far from resolved.
At issue is whether “3C” is enough of a parody of “Three’s Company” to be protected under First Amendment exceptions to copyright law — specifically, under the legal doctrine of fair use, which allows artists to use copyrighted work to lampoon or critique the material, as the international hit “Forbidden Broadway” has done for years with its sendups of famous musicals.
But another issue is personal, at least in this case: The ability of a financially strapped, largely unknown playwright to fight legal threats.
Fearing the potential legal bills, Mr. Adjmi, 38, said that he initially agreed — in an e-mail sent through his agents — to the demands of the “Three’s Company” owners that he turn down any future productions of “3C” or any publication or circulation of the script, in effect allowing his play to die after its Off Broadway run at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which ended on Saturday.
The production received mixed reviews, but whether critics liked or hated it, they all picked up on the allusions to the “Three’s Company” characters, who were given new psychological and sexual layers.
Mr. Adjmi said that after six sleepless nights he decided to give in, agreeing to the terms from the copyright owner, DLT Entertainment, that the New York production would not be extended and there would be no others. Like many full-time playwrights, Mr. Adjmi lives mostly on theater commissions and grants — for him, totaling $25,000 to $50,000 a year — in addition to royalties from productions of his work, which include the recent Off Broadway plays “Stunning” and “Elective Affinities.” He estimated that he earned from nothing to $25,000 in royalties annually, and that he made about $2,500 from the run of “3C,” which played the typical five-week run at the Rattlestick.
“I can’t afford a fancy lawyer,” Mr. Adjmi said, “and I was getting all sorts of conflicting advice from my agents at CAA and my producers, some of whom doubted that the play would meet the legal standards of parody.” (The producers declined to comment, citing advice from their lawyers.)
Mr. Adjmi has not signed any document, however, and now fellow playwrights are urging him to fight. The Pulitzer Prize finalist Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities”), upon learning of Mr. Adjmi’s situation recently, has urged him to work with the Dramatists Guild, a trade association for writers. Mr. Baitz is also gathering signatures from theater artists for an open letter supporting Mr. Adjmi. Such publicity could attract a lawyer to Mr. Adjmi’s case on a pro bono basis, Mr. Baitz said.
“The fact that the lawyers for the long-gone show ‘Three’s Company’ have nothing better to do, aside from billing legal hours like truffle pigs, than attempt to bully an Off Broadway playwright of modest means is an affront of the most base kind,” Mr. Baitz said.
The sort of artistic appropriation in “3C” is ubiquitous today, with musicians sampling melodies, artists doing collages that draw on existing photos, and theater and film writers making use of characters created in earlier works, though the legal situation in this area remains murky. Cartoons and television shows have been frequent stage fodder; in the play “Dog Sees God,” inspired by the Peanuts comic strip, the playwright Bert V. Royal sought to avoid copyright problems by turning the familiar characters into teenagers and changing their names (Charlie Brown became C. B.), while Anne Washburn’s new play, “Mr. Burns,” references characters and moments from “The Simpsons” in an examination of nostalgia for pop culture.
Mr. Adjmi said his intent was to write “a deep critique of the ideologies and assumptions behind the television series, leading to a collective nervous breakdown for the characters.”
But “3C” is no laughing matter for the “Three’s Company” camp. Donald Taffner Jr., president of DLT Entertainment, said the company was “very protective of the overall brand” because the show continued to earn substantial revenues from syndication on TV Land and on home video. Mr. Taffner said that “3C” used at least 17 elements from the television series; the list, which was included in the June cease-and-desist letter, mostly involves overlaps in character and plot outlines. For example, one of the female roommates (Chrissy on TV, Connie in “3C”) is blonde, sexy and the daughter of a minister.
“We’re up for renewal soon with TV Land, and we’re playing around with the idea of doing a theatrical version of ‘Three’s Company’ ourselves, so we don’t want anything out there that might cause harm,” said Mr. Taffner, the son of one of the original “Three’s Company” producers. “And we think ‘3C’ borrows far too many elements to make a fair-use parody argument.”
Alex V. Chachkes, an intellectual property lawyer at the Orrick firm who has worked on fair-use cases in the theater, said he believed Mr. Adjmi had a good case for parody, although he noted that he had not seen the play.
“If Adjmi was taking an episode of ‘Three’s Company’ and selling it for commercial use, he’d be in trouble,” Mr. Chachkes said. “But if he was putting ‘Three’s Company’ to use in a really transformative way, which audiences would not confuse with a TV episode, he has a stronger case to make.”
The idea of spending emotional energy, and possibly his savings, in a legal battle seemed depressing to Mr. Adjmi, but he said he was now considering his options.
“I never saw ‘3C’ as a big commercial play that would make me a lot of money,” he said, “but it is a play that I’m proud of, and the thought of it disappearing makes me sick.”"

Now, you may be thinking, "Well of course this guy got caught, his play was being produced in New York" but let me assure you in this day and age, no matter how large or small a town or theatre you are producing work in is, you can't hide from a Google search.

Over ten years ago, I was hired by an independent theatre company to direct a staged version of a fairly well known movie. The first question I asked was, "Do you have the rights to do this?" I was assured that there was an agreement in place with the screenwriter and director of the film and that this small theatre company in Calgary had access and rights to produce a stage version of this high profile  Hollywood Film. I was even told that those rights cost us no money. This lead me to ask the question again and again I was met with the response that this company had been granted the rights. I asked if the rights agreement allowed for adaptation of the material so that we could make it more stageable. They said yes and I was handed a published version of the screenplay which they bought at Chapters. So I set down to adapt the text (it didn't require much in the way of adapting it for the stage as there was really only one location, hence making it very stage worthy) and created an adaptation, which I put my name on as adapter. All of our media releases and press stated the "Title of the movie" by "screenwriter" adapted by Trevor Rueger. Opening night of the show, I overhear one of the producers in discussion with an audience member who had asked "How did you get the rights to this?" to overhear the producer state that "They got permission 3 years ago to do a reading of the script in a university class where they were charging no money. I assume that agreement still stands." I waited until after the opening night performance and during the small party, pulled the producer aside and said "So explain to me the rights agreement we have?". It was at this point I had all the information...too late in the game as my name was on the script as the adaptor and reviews were about to go out online. If the writer's people found out about it, I was on the hook...they would be coming after me. No one has, but I still get emails to this day from producers interested in reading my adaptation, many of whom ask if I have the rights or how to get the rights. An elephant and the internet never forget. Ten years later this can still be found on the internet

Now you may be thinking "Well of course you could have been caught, you were adapting one of the biggest films of the 90's". I turn you to another example. In 2008, Trepan Theatre in Calgary began work on a devised creation called "La Mexicaine de Perforation"about a secret society that exists in the catacombs of Paris. Shortly after they began to publicize the show via the internet and Calgary media, they received a cease and desist letter from the lawyer of this secret organization. Trepan Theatre consulted with their own lawyer who advised them that as the show was a parody of the secret organization, they weren't doing anything illegal. The project was produced, and the show started with the producers stepping on stage to recite a disclaimer explaining the legal situation, which not only made fun of the situation, but provided them with a legal leg to stand on should further action be taken. So what did they learn? They learned that even a secret society that not many people outside of Paris have ever heard of, had a lawyer and someone scanning the internet.

Have you ever seen those TV commercials where a famous hockey player comes out in a uniform, only it's not his team uniform, it's a uniform that has no logo on it and isn't even the right colours of the team he plays for? Do you know why this is? Because the NHL owns those logos and demands a large sum payment for use of those in commercials. If another company is going to use our image to make money, we are going to get paid for it. And this should be your general rule of thumb...if I am making money through the use of someone else's property, I'm probably in violation of copyright, no matter where I got the property from. This pertains to music as well. Have you ever seen a sitcom where there's a birthday party going on and someone brings in a cake festooned with candles and no one sings "Happy Birthday"? Have you ever thought that was weird? It's not if you understand that someone actually owns the rights to the song "Happy Birthday" and that it costs money to get the rights to use it in a commercial situation.

So do due diligence. Make the necessary investigations. Don't assume someone doesn't in someway own what you want to use. Most of the time an agreement can be struck with the only demand being adequate notice in the program regarding copyright.  So the moral of the story is "Let's be careful out there." (from Hill Street Blues. Creator Steven Bochco/Michael Kozoll. Produced by MTM Enterprises and 20th Century Fox Television.)

Friday, 15 June 2012

What's Going On!!

So as an actor and a director I always found this time of year when companies were announcing their seasons to be very stressful. You start to realize what opportunities are up for grabs and everyone starts to get tense as they try and scramble to put together a season of work for themselves.

However, this is now my second season at the helm of APN and I've discovered in this position, I really like this time of year. And here's a few reasons why...look at all the APN members who are being produced or recognized next year!!! (Note: ** denotes plays that APN has helped to develop)

First of all...Nicole Moeller, who just received the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award For Drama for her play An Almost Perfect Thing**, which will also receive its second production at New West Theatre in Lethbridge next year.

Sterling Award Nominees 
- Outstanding New Play - Darrin Hagen for With Bells On** (also nominated for Outstanding Indie Production)
- Outstanding Fringe New Work - Marty Chan for Mothership Down**
- Outstanding Fringe New Work - David Belke for Forsooth My Lovely
- Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre for Young Audiences - Tracy Carroll (Director) Lig and Bittle 

Raunch by Jacqueline Russell & Alice Nelson can be seen as part of Uprising at the Magnetic North Festival of Canadian plays in Calgary.

Andrew Torry's play Hideout** is being performed in both Calgary and Edmonton. In Calgary it is being produced as part of SAGE Theatre's IGNITE Festival and in Edmonton it is being produced as part of Theatre Network's NextFest.

Mike Czuba's play Satellites is being produced at the IGNITE festival as well, along with Jeremy Park's play Kona Sirs. Mike will also be having his premiere production of Satie et Cocteau: A Rehearsal of a Play of a Composer by a Poet at the Mountain View Festival this summer.

Cheryl Foggo is producing in association with the Calgary Stampede Board her play John Ware Reimagined as a series of staged readings as part of the centennial Stampede celebrations.

Chris Craddock's one man show, Public Speaking is being presented as part of SAGE Theatre's 2012/2013 season.

Sequence** by Arun Lakra (winner of the 2011 Alberta Playwriting Competition) will receive its world premiere in Downstage Theatre's 2012/2013 season.

Conni Massing, Neil Fleming, Glenda Stirling, Caroline Russell-King and David Sealy are all having work produced next year at Lunchbox Theatre. Thanks to the entire staff and crew at Lunchbox who continue to be strong supporters and partners of APN in Calgary.

David Haas is having his play A Health Unto Her Majesty performed at the St. Jean Baptiste Festival.

Nathan Huisman has just signed on as the new General Manager at Workshop West Theatre who have also been great supporters and partners of APN in Edmonton.

I know that this list isn't complete and there are omissions, but for those of you who I missed, I do apologize but also remind you to keep us at APN informed of what you are doing and where you are being produced. If you tell us what you're up to, we can tell our membership what you're up to. We are here to help you market your work any way we can and the best way to market yourself is to get the word out that you are being produced.

I hope you all have a great summer of writing or relaxing. I'm going to try and relax as it would appear I have a lot of plays to see next season!!


Thursday, 19 April 2012

When clear is not clear enough...or is it??

I have been sitting on this quote which I found in the Calgary Herald on March 14th, searching for an opportune time to blog about it. The quote in question...

"In the absence of defining information, people project what they believe should be there. People are emotional and they want to engage with emotional characters. They will often engage their own psychology to do that. They will assume causality and infer narrative."

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of working with Sharon Cavanagh on her new play The Final Word. It's the story of an aging poet who has come to the Minister of Culture to demand a statue be erected of him. The language is poetic and offers a discussion on the nature of art and politics. While working on the play, questions came up on a couple of occasions regarding how a moment was to be played. Where I, as the director and dramaturg, understood a moment one way, Sharon understood it differently when she wrote it. Neither interpretation was incorrect, based on the material Sharon had written, even though they were in direct opposition of each other. On each occasion I deferred to Sharon. After all, she should know the answer as she wrote it. But on each occasion it became clear to the both of us that there was a lot of room for interpretation. So the question I posed to Sharon was "Have you provided a director or actor with enough information to ensure that your choices become their choices? If you wish them to approximate your thoughts and interpretation, have you given them enough information to get there?" I love this play and nothing stated above is meant as a criticism of the work. (How's that for clarity? Notice how I used Bold and Italics to be clear about this point. You should be able to infer how strongly I believe in that statement.)

While I don't think one can create with this quote in the front of your mind, it is an interesting thought to keep in the back of your mind when working on your next great play. A play can be overwritten as easily as a play can be underwritten. The overwritten work provides no room for interpretation by the artists or audience, while the underwritten provides no defining information and can be anything to to anyone. On a theatrical spectrum you could put Norm Foster at one end and Samuel Beckett at the other. Where does your work live? One interpretation or many? Are you generating the meaning of your work or is the audience? Are you providing us with enough of a context for thought?

So where did this quote come from? Shall I keep that a secret and have you infer it came from a writer? Well I won't. The quote wasn't from a writer at all. The quote came from David Mark an expert in Artificial Intelligence, speaking at a gaming conference, about creating video game characters.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Playwright Profile: Neil Fleming

Neil is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter based in Calgary. His plays include: Outside, Anomaly, Security, Last Christmas (Lunchbox), 6-Car Pile-Up, Corpsing, He Said, She Said (Radio Nights), John Doe/Jack Rabbit (Ground Zero/FireBelly Theatre) and Honesty (Two Sheds Theatre Troupe). In the past Neil has served on the APN board as President and as Alberta Rep on the National Council for the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Neil splits his time writing plays, being creative at joe: media group, hanging with his girls Jane and Emma, walking his dog Pippin, and playing left wing for the Hosers. Visit

1) What is your writing process? Do you start writing right away? Outline? Research?
I usually have a bunch of different ideas gestating all at once. Whichever one bubbles to the top is the one that gets my attention first. Once I’m ready to put it down on paper, I do a rough structural outline. I really enjoy the discoveries of a first draft, so I don’t tend to over-plan, but I work better in a framework, with key moments laid out to aim for. I always try and know the ending before I begin.

2) Where do you write?
On my laptop – wherever it happens to be.

3) What do you need to have with you when you write?
I like to have internet access for on the fly fact-checking. A note pad. Coffee. Chocolate. Later on, Irish whiskey.

4) What is the last great play you saw? What made it great?

Ooo. Tough one. I’m going to go with Stephen Massicotte’s “The Clockmaker”. I loved its absurd style mingled with the realistic tension of an abusive relationship. I loved that it kept me guessing all the way until the end. As a writer, I can’t shut off the story machine in my head, so watching a play that I can’t predict the outcome is a rare joy. In the end I had that feeling of satisfaction you get when you finish a large crossword puzzle without cheating.

5) Mac or PC?
13” Macbook. iPhone 3GS. iPad2.

6) Who are your mentors?
I don’t know if I have a mentor per se – maybe I should though. I know I learned a lot about playwriting from Gordon Pengilly and Sharon Pollock through programs at APN. I learned a lot about craft from dramaturgs like Shari Wattling, Vanessa Porteous, Vicki Stroich, Trevor Rueger, and Johanne Deleeuw. I learned a lot about the business of being a writer from Vern Thiessen.

7) Do you have writing rituals?
Aside from the sacrificing of a virgin Oilers Fan before sitting down to right a first draft. Not really.

8) Best advice for when you hit a wall?
Step back. Usually when you hit a wall it is because you (or a character) need(s) to make an important decision. You need to step back and look at the question that needs answering before you can go ahead. These are great opportunities to make a decision on behalf of your characters, that not only solves the problem, but makes the drama higher and their situation worse. Step back. Examine. Decide. Carry on.

9) Best piece of grammar or style advice?
The world of the play is up to you, but if it is not the normal world, you need to fill us in on the rules. The audience will come into your world if you tell them how your world works. The problem is, you must follow the rules you have laid out, or risk losing us to confusion and frustration. Make your own rules, but follow them to the letter.

10) If you were to write a play about your own life, what would the opening line be?
“When I was a kid, I really wanted to be James Bond, or Luke Skywalker, or Indiana Jones, or… I guess what I really wanted was an adventure. I didn’t realize at the time, that life itself is kind of the ultimate adventure.”

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Entire Performing Arts Industry to Blame for the Demise of the Vancouver Playhouse

Written by Matthew Jocelyn
Appeared in the Toronto Star, March 17th, 2012
View the article here
The Vancouver Playhouse announced on March 9 that, crippled by chronic deficit-related issues, it was closing its doors the very next day, a few months shy of its 50th anniversary. This was and is a day of mourning for Canadian theatre.
More significantly, it is a sign of the collective failure of all of us directly or indirectly involved in the performing arts industry in Canada, a failure to defend the indisputable need for strong, publicly funded theatrical institutions in our country.
Created in 1962, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company was a forerunner of the boom of large regional theatre companies established countrywide throughout the 1960s, supported largely, at their inception, by the Canada Council for the Arts. Yet despite this generous support to create a network of centres for the performing arts, the intrinsic, lasting value of being an institution was never truly conferred upon them.
As with many such organizations, the Vancouver Playhouse remained a “company,” a rootless entity forced to rent its city-owned performance space and justify its existence through commercial success. The term “company,” though used widely in the theatre business, unwittingly and perversely infers a likeness to the private sector. Companies come and go, are bought and sold and in the end must turn a profit or die. Institutions, on the other hand, are part of the fabric of society, they give meaning while at the same time being engines for change, and for that reason are essential to preserve.
Which public school, which hospital, museum or university, which prison or military base, research centre or art gallery goes by the term “company” or is treated as one? Why then our country’s not-for-profit performing arts institutions, a fundamental part of our national identity, the home for the creation and transmission of our stories?
The bankruptcy of the Vancouver Playhouse is not a local problem — it is the failure of an entire system. It is a failure of the department of Canadian Heritage which, by allowing this disappearance, is depriving not only Vancouver but also the rest of Canada of a fundamental part of our national heritage. It is a failure of the Canada Council for the Arts, whose funding mechanisms are not attuned to the specific role of the country’s major performing arts institutions, forcing us to operate on an edulcorated commercial model as opposed to enabling us to fulfill the mandate of true creative licence and engaged public service that should be ours.
It is a failure of the province of British Columbia and the city of Vancouver. And it is a failure of the Playhouse’s board of directors, unwilling or unable to fulfill their charge as its guardians, or to actively rally support for its preservation.
It is also a failure of the performing arts institutional network of which I am a part, the large-scale not-for-profit theatres, each caught up in our own survival to such a degree that we have been unable to create a collective national voice. It is a failure of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), an organization representing all professional theatre in the country, yet incapable of defending a major institution at a critical moment for fear of internal criticism from a membership dominated by smaller independent companies, most of whom also struggle to survive.
It is a failure of the two principal unions in the performing arts sector: Actors’ Equity and IATSE. Both were created as defensive mechanisms against American touring productions long before not-for-profit theatre came into existence in Canada, and both continue to confuse purely commercial theatre with theatre that has a mandate for public service, exacting often crippling conditions for our productions.
It is a failure of the media because, in general, the media are uninterested in the arts, and of theatre critics in particular, too many of whom assume that venting their (often alarmingly ill-informed) opinion is more important than “mediating” the work they are writing about, that is, helping audiences understand and appreciate its nature, its successes and failings, thus helping foster the curiosity and appetite without which theatre dies.
Sadly, it is also a failure of the artists — and here again I include myself — unable to produce a body of work that makes theatre a truly necessary, truly integrated part of our modern world, and of the audiences, insufficient in number, insufficiently curious, excessively influenced by the above-mentioned critical inadequacies.
It is, in other words, the failure of an entire system. And in this failure, each of us has lost, no one gained.
As with all true tragedies however, some form of catharsis can ensue. The disappearance of the Vancouver Playhouse can and must serve a purpose, must help us attain a deeper understanding of our profession, of the work we are (or aren’t) doing, the role we play (or don’t) within today’s world. This collective failure must be seized as an opportunity to undertake an uncompromisingly critical evaluation of how not-for-profit theatre has evolved in Canada over the past 50 years, of what we are doing (or aren’t) to ensure an artistically vital, socially integrated, institutionally rooted industry for the 50 years to come.
Simply put, it is time for an audit, a detailed medical examination of our collective corps malade. And in the wake, it is time to pursue whatever measures are required, be they surgical or otherwise. Without such fearless self-analysis, our entire industry is potentially prey to the same fatal disease as that which got the better of the Vancouver Playhouse.
As the curtain closes on the Vancouver Playhouse, I can’t help myself from asking: Who’s next?
A more insidious question follows, one for which we are all responsible: Who really cares?
Matthew Jocelyn is artistic and general director of Canadian Stage.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Welcome A-Board!!!

On February 26, 2012, at the Annual General Meeting of APN, 3 new board members were elected from a very respected and talented slate of candidates. APN would like to welcome to the 2012 - 2014 Board of Directors:
Amy DeFelice - Edmonton
Neil Fleming - Calgary
Nathan Huisman - Camrose
On behalf of the staff and all the members of APN, I would like to express my hearfelt gratitude to the members of the board who finished out their terms and stepped down at the same AGM.
Jonathan Chapman - served four years on the board as Vice president and then as President. His guidance and visioning for the organization will be missed.
Johanne Deleeuw - served two years on the board after resigning her position as Executive Director. Johanne was an incredible asset to the organization and to me in the transition to my taking on the Executive Directorship. During her time as ED she was instrumental to bringing the organization forward and left it in great shape for me to take over.
Dale Lee Kwong - served four years on the board and her passion and advocacy for the organization will be missed. She is a passionate advocate for the theatre and for all forms of writing.
Jeremy Mason - served two years on the board of APN while also serving on the board of Theatre Alberta. Jeremy is a tireless volunteer and was instrumental in bringing APN to southern Alberta for two co-produced readings with New West Theatre. His clarity and big ideas will be missed.
I look forward to meeting and working with this new board and I know that with their guidance and assistance, APN will continue to grow and prosper in the years to come.
Trevor Rueger
Executive Director

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Charles, what have you done now!?! Confessions of a tattooed playwright

By Charles Netto

A week ago I wrote Kelly Reay, director of the Lunchbox production of Super 8 a play written by myself and Mark Hopkins. It is a play we have worked on for two years and had the great fortune to win the Alberta Playwriting Contest Discovery Category in 2011.

My message to Kelly was mostly to discuss a minor change involving a sound cue that he had suggested. I mentioned that Mark and I were okay with that change but that the epilogue should probably not be changed as it had been permanently inscribed on my arm.

Tattoo Pictured here:

Kelly wrote me back:
“wow dude!  That's dedication. Now I really feel the pressure to make sure you like the production!”

The truth is how the production turns out and/or is received will not affect how I feel about my choice to put the epilogue of Super 8 on my body.

Don’t get me wrong I am extremely excited for the production, it’s a great team and I know it will be an awesome show. However it’s not because of the production that I did this. For me the words in the epilogue of Super 8 hold power in themselves, whether or not there was a production.

I have occasionally considered getting a tattoo. There have been ideas I have toyed with, usually connected to my Trinidadian heritage or my father. However nothing has resonated with me over time enough to commit to getting done.

So why now?

It was the right time for some permanent tribal markings. In this case my tribe is theatre and stories. I was attracted to the idea of putting words on my body, more so words that I had been a part of writing.

As I researched Tattoos it became more and more clear how much words resonated with me. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I also think words can create a thousand pictures. Pictures that can change and shift depending on the context of who is reading them, and when and where they are being read. Words can hold great power in them as an entity beyond the speaker or writer.

Why those particular words? 

A few reasons. Mark found a beautiful simplicity in the words when shaping my original over-written draft. As well the format of the text is important to me. It is one that Mark and I use when writing, so the text represents collaboration as well.

Most important though the lines themselves reflect a philosophy that resonates with me. A philosophy about simple, honest connections between people and yet the impermanence of those connections, and of course the impermanence of life itself. These themes are important to me even if I sometimes struggle with the impermanence aspect.   

People have told me it was a brave, bold, passionate, crazy thing to do. It may be all of those things, but for me it just made sense.

Having said all that, I have not told my mother yet…


You can see Super 8 at Lunchbox Theatre playing until February 25th, check it out!

Breaking the Rules by Marsha Norman

This appeared on on February 24th, 2008. Rife with contentious and/or true statements, this is a great article to read. Enjoy!

Original text can be found HERE.


When he learned I wanted to write a play, Jon Jory, who was then Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, took me out to lunch and said, “OK, here are the three mistakes you don’t have to make.” And that’s pretty much the way I teach to this day — telling writers the traps they don’t have to fall into, not saying how it has to be done, just trying to save them some of their precious time. Over the years people have yelled at me for teaching the rules, or even for suggesting that there are rules. But I never expect these rules to be followed absolutely. They serve the same purpose as the boundary flags in ski resorts. You can ski in the ungroomed powder if you want, but you’d better know what you’re doing, and be willing to take the risk. Still, we do not turn on the television to watch average skiers take safe trips down the green trails. We turn on the X Games to see heli-skiers land on the top of glaciers and shoot off the edges of the cliffs, or watch the great Shaun White “shred some gnarly terrain”, as my son says. And that brings us to “August: Osage County,” a play that only seems traditional, but actually creates its excitement by breaking the rules.

Rule #1: No passive central character. The general idea of this rule is that the main character — and there can only be one — has to want something, and the play ends when the main character gets it or not. Hamlet wants vengeance and everybody ends up dead. “A Doll’s House” is another good example. Nora wants the love of her husband, but when she doesn’t get it, she leaves. Lear does learn who loves him most; “The Three Sisters” don’t get to Moscow; Cinderella gets her prince; Macbeth doesn’t end up King. This list goes on and on.

But in “August,” it’s not clear who the main character is. I guess it’s Violet, but it’s certainly not clear what she wants, other than to keep everybody off balance. Does she want them all to go away? I don’t think so. Does she want them to love her? No. Does she want them to take care of her? No. Did she want Bev to die? I don’t think she cared. But as a pure destructive force, you can’t take your eyes off her. Watching Violet is like being glued to the Weather Channel during a hurricane. Or rubbernecking on the highway. Or sitting through “Titus Andronicus.” Violet is hell on wheels, and part of the pleasure in watching her is knowing at least you’re not in her family. I suppose you could make the case for Barbara being the main character, and maybe in another production she might appear to be. But in this one, from the moment Violet clomps down the stairs, you know she is the boss. But does she get what she wants? Does she know what she wants? No more than a flash flood does, I think. But perhaps that is part of the fascination. She is, in the words of a startling new book, a “Black Swan,” an improbable thing that has immeasurable impact.

Rule #2: On or about page 8, tell the audience why they are here and what is at stake, or to put it more simply, when they can go home. In my play, “‘night, Mother,” you stay to see if the mother can stop Jessie from killing herself. In “Wicked,” the musical, you can go home when you find out whether the two girls stay friends. In “Fiddler,” you stay to see if tradition will be enough to hold the world together. In the “Faith Healer,” you can go home when you know exactly how Frank Hardy dies. In “Proof,” you can go home when you know whether the girl is insane or a genius. In “Mauritius,” you can go home when you find out if the girl can survive the greed of the guys. Once you set up the audience’s expectations, they have to be met. Romeo and Juliet have to feel the effects of their romance; they can’t just wander off and date other people. Cyrano has to finally confess his love to Roxanne; he can’t just die in the street and let her hear it from someone else. Rule 2 says tell the audience what they have come to see, and then show it to them.

Once again, “August” ignores the rules. After the first scene, we think we are here to see if Bev’s decision to hire Johnna will save the situation. It never occurs to you that you won’t see Bev again. Letts gives the most precious ten minutes the audience has to a man who is not in the play. So when the second scene begins and we learn that Bev is missing, we have to start over. So now we think we’re waiting to see what happened to Bev. Did Violet poison him? Did he just run off? And while we are waiting for that information, we meet the family: we see whose marriage is falling apart, who’s smoking weed and who is holding what grudges and why. But at the end of the act, we learn that Bev killed himself. So at the top of the second act, we start over again with our expectations. Now we guess we are waiting to see the effect his death will have on the family. Will they have to move out? Will someone go to jail? But we don’t get those answers. What we get instead is one of the most riotous family dinners ever written. You should see this thing on the page: there are three columns of dialogue, all spoken simultaneously, and all accomplished with extreme brilliance by the acting company. At the end of the act, Barbara takes charge of the situation, accuses her mother of being a drug addict and directs the family to round up all the drugs in the house. Is this what we were waiting for, someone to control this witch? It doesn’t feel like it. So then Act 3 begins and we start over again, this time wondering if Violet will get straight. But what happens is the final terrible secrets of the family are revealed, extinguishing any hopes anybody had for happiness, and everybody leaves. The fantastic unpredictable part of this act is that Barbara, for a moment, seems to be turning into her mother, and then we wonder if that’s what the play has been about: whether we ultimately turn into our parents. But I don’t think that’s it either. I think Tracy Letts didn’t want you to know what was coming, any more than any of us do when we go home for the holidays. I think he was asking the questions: what do our families have to do with us? And when can we get away from them? The answers to which are: nothing and never.

Rule #3: The main character can’t be clinically insane. The idea of this rule is that a character who is clinically insane, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, cannot really be held responsible for his or her actions, so there’s nothing for us to do but watch. We can’t perform our audience-as-jury role, or learn from how people respond to their fate, or watch as a good man is undone by his fatal flaw or enjoy any of the other pleasures of attending a piece of tragic drama. Plays with insane central characters make us feel useless, and we don’t like that. Plays are supposed to involve us somehow, be our stories somehow, help us understand the world or give us a look inside a part of it we wouldn’t otherwise know.

This play breaks that rule with a profound effect. It features a vicious, drug-addicted woman who is completely without concern for consequence. So I didn’t care about her. I kind of wished she’d died instead of Bev. But I did find myself watching, out of the corner of my eye, to see how and if anyone would be able to escape. And this is the power of this work. Violet is like a kind of Cyclops, eating the sailors for lunch as Barbara, taking the role of Odysseus, tries to figure a way to get everybody out of the cave. I do know this feeling. It’s how I’ve felt living in America with George Bush in the White House. Powerless and defeated. It’s actually how I felt growing up the way I did, with a violent mother and no one there to protect me.

So “August” represents rule-breaking at its finest here. Take an insane, violent character, give her all the power and see how the little people handle it. It’s not about the tyrant; it’s about life with the tyrant. And that, I fear, is something Americans really needed to hear about long before now. This is a cautionary tale. And it is an important piece of political drama, whether it is seen that way or not. This is what happens when you give the drunks the keys to the car, or the crazy people the power. This is trouble you can’t think your way out of.

Marsha Norman is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, a screenwriter and novelist. She wrote the book and lyrics for The Secret Garden which garnered her a Tony Award in 1991 and also wrote the libretto for The Color Purple.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Looking For New Board Members

Are you interested in helping to shape and govern the future of your organization? APN is currently looking for members interested in joining the Board of Directors for the 2012 -2014 term.

Suggested qualifications for election:

- Must be a member in good standing of Alberta Playwrights’ Network

- Must have an interest in New Play Development

- Must have an interest in Alberta theatre community

- Should have some experience or familiarity with APN, its services and programs

- Previous non-profit experience would be considered an asset, but not necessary

- Could have connections to the business community but must be deeply committed to the arts and playwrighting in Alberta

The time commitment is minimal (3 – 5 hours monthly) which includes attendance at monthly board meetings conducted via conference call.

If you are interested in putting your name forth for nomination to the board, please contact Trevor Rueger ( Elections will take place at the Annual General Meeting on Sunday, February 26, 2012.

Volunteer your time and make a difference in your organization.