Archive for the ‘World Interplay’ Tag
Last year I wrote a couple of posts about mentors of mine who helped me along the way, not simply in terms of teaching cold hard facts but more in espousing an attitude towards a life dedicated to the production and appreciation of art. Today, I am switching the focus on the other side of things, and looking at some of my own mentoring activities.
This examination was prompted by an unexpected invitation from a former student, Aaron Coates, to go for lunch recently so he could pick my brain before directing a workshop of a new play.
I’ve known Aaron since he was a student at Winston Churchill High School some 20 years ago now. He came into my student writers group at Alberta Theatre Projects when he was 16 or so, but that was just the beginning. When he was a little older, I became the Canadian Delegate to World Interplay, an international festival for young playwrights. Aaron attended the festival with me one year and acquitted himself very well, making international contacts in the theatre world that he maintains to this day.
Our time together in Australia led to one of the greatest lines in Canadian history, as far as I’m concerned. One evening we were taken to a billabong wildlife sanctuary that had all manner of creeping and crawling things in it, from crocodiles to pythons to – well, to a wombat, which is a kind of big furry rodent (marsupial, probably) that’s kind of cute, but not as cute as a koala bear, say.
We all got a chance to hold the wombat and have our photo taken with it. True to our nature, we Canadians were at the very back of the line, and it’s probably fair to say that by the time the wombat got to us, its patience had worn thin. I had my picture taken with it, then I handed it off to Aaron. From where I was standing, I could clearly see the wombat open its mouth and slowly turn its head and then clamp down hard on Aaron in the area of his right nipple.
Wincing in pain, Aaron turned to our Ranger Rick tour guide and handed him back the animal, saying, “I’m sorry. Your wombat bit me.”
Following the Australia trip, I helped Aaron get a commission from the Alberta Legal Society to write his play, The End of the Rope, which is about the last execution to take place in Alberta. The play had many productions in and around the province and is of great interest to anyone interested in Alberta’s history. (If you’re interested in reading it, or even arranging for a production, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Aaron.)
Over the last decade or so, Aaron’s career has taken many interesting twists and turns. He teaches now at Company of Rogues Studio in Calgary. He is, along with Karen Johnson-Diamond, the co-artistic director of Dirty Laundry, Calgary’s amazing improv theatre company.
And just to show how what goes around comes around, Aaron and KJD have now started a program called Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation, aimed at training and supporting the next generation of improvisers. And so the wheels keep turning from generation to generation.
That he still comes around looking for advice from time to time in immensely gratifying, as I’m sure you can appreciate.
One of the holy writs: it applies to playwriting as well as poetry.
There have been so many others whom I have had the pleasure of teaching and guiding for at least part of their journey, in so many different settings, including ATP, Mount Royal University, Saint Mary’s University College, the National Theatre School, World Interplay, and many other one-offs and one night stands at various universities. And others I am forgetting now.
Another student who comes to mind is Michaela Jeffrey, who is now studying playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal.
Michaela recently reminded me of her first day in the student writer’s group at ATP. I had agreed that she could take part in the group a year earlier than usual, in her last year of Junior High. She was anxious to impress, and so put her heart and soul into writing a monologue to deliver at our Saturday morning workshop.
And this she did. She delivered the mother of all teen angst monologues, and she put everything she had into it. (There may have actually been real tears. I’m sure there probably were.) And then. she reminded me, when she was done there was a pause, as I sat eating my M and M’s, regarding her coolly, and then finally I said, “No one cares, Michaela. No one cares.”
I could say that to her because she was bright, and even at that young age was clearly a person of the theatre. A little tough love, perhaps, but she’s still at in, and as is the case with Aaron, I am so proud of my small contribution to what seems to be a very promising career.
Just yesterday as I was thinking of writing this piece, I ran into another former student on the street and so we stopped and chatted for a bit. I asked her what she was doing these days and she said, almost sheepishly, “Well, I have a job at a florists.” Then she got a look of true panic in her eyes and continued: “Oh, but that’s just a job I had to take because I needed some money. What I’m really doing is an animation project.” And then she really came to life when she told me about the thing that she is doing that is the thing that matters to her most, the art.
Again, I couldn’t be prouder that she was still at it. That’s all I’ve ever cared about with my students, is that they keep at it, and not give up on their dreams of being an artist. (I once had a former student contact me and tell me that he’d been admitted to law school. “You’re dead to me,” I said, and we never talked again. True story. Perhaps a tad harsh, but sometimes you have to make a stand.)
I could go on and on, I have had the opportunity to teach so many beautiful and talented people over the years, young and old. But I would just finish by saying this, which anyone who has ever taught will know to be true, that I have learned so much more than I have ever taught anyone,and taken so much more than I have given.
And so here’s to the next generation!
Thanks for reading.
Here’s a musical offering that I couldn’t resist . . . .
Publish and Perish – Part One
I recently received a flurry of emails from participants in the World Interplay Festival of 2001. These are young playwrights from around the world whom I worked with when I was the Canadian delegate to this festival that runs every two years in Australia. Only now, of course, eleven years later, most of them are at the next stage of their careers. They’re not so young anymore and are becoming established in their various countries.
If there is a universal concern shared by these emerging playwrights and myself, it is the sad and worsening state of publishing that seems to be pretty much the same wherever you go. I shared my situation with them and thought I’d share it here. It’s rather lengthy, so I’ve broken it into two parts, the first having to do mostly with play publishing, the second with poetry.
My situation: 10 years into a two book publishing deal with a reputable Canadian publisher, I received my Royalty Statement last week and learned that I am now at a balance of -$239.53. This is presumably good news, showing positive growth from last year’s figure of -$249.06. It looks to me like I made $9.53 last year.
At this clip, in 23 years or so I will be out of the red and into the black.
One of the books in question is my old chestnut, Some Assembly Required. It was originally published by another publisher. Although the play has received scores of productions, at least one a year in the 18 years since I wrote it, and although it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, when the initial printing sold out, that publisher decided not to reprint it. I never understood that, other than to think of it as being a typically Canadian decision: that thing is too successful. We want no part of it! If nothing else, at least that decision made the play available for the other publisher with whom I now am in a negative variance.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like anyone is purposely trying to rip me off. Sadly, it’s just how it is. There’s no skullduggery here as far as I know. Anyone involved in the book publishing industry these days must be driven by only the fuzziest of romantic notions of a world that has books in it. Canadian plays published and on the shelf is a laudable dream. It’s no one’s fault. The reality is there’s just no money involved. We simply don’t have the numbers. It’s just how it is.
So when my friend Michael J. Finner approached me almost five years ago with the hair-brained scheme of starting our own publishing company, I thought I could hardly do worse than I was already doing, and so B House Publications was born.
Trevor Leigh and Arielle Rombough who starred in the premiere production on the cover of B House's first book.
We chose as our entry point into the madness my play Writer’s Block. To make a long story short, we had the play in the lobby on opening night and we sold more copies than I thought possible. A subsequent launch of the book at the Auburn Saloon made the book a virtual best seller in Calgary. Thanks to a generous contract I negotiated with myself, I was in at about a 25% royalty. You can clearly see that even selling one copy of the book would put me miles ahead of where I am with my other publishers. As far as play publishing goes, I did quite well on that book. Don’t get too excited, though. All in all we’re only talking a couple hundred copies.
Suddenly we had a publishing company and now there was work to be done. It was never my intention for B House to be a vanity press. As was the case with T.S. Elliott and Faber and Faber, I thought it would be permissible for me to publish with my own company as long as we were publishing other writers as well, and I was publishing with other presses, which I have done.
In the world of drama, we published a book I am very proud of, Lindsay Burns’ two marvelous scripts, Dough and the Vajayjay Monologues. I have had many conversations with Calgary playwrights (we think of ourselves as a Calgary only publisher) and as far as I know we are now moving forward, roughly at the speed of a glacier, with works by Ethan Cole, Jason Long and Neil Fleming. I hope before too long we come out with books by these fine Calgary playwrights, and others yet to be identified.
In the meanwhile, B House published another play of mine, Queen Lear. Again, we had it in the lobby on opening night. Again, I made more money than I could have hoped for from a “real” publisher. But that’s as far as it’s gone in drama publishing, as this point in time.
I should mention that the name of the company, B House, is a frank if somewhat tongue in cheek admission that we wouldn’t think of ourselves as anyone’s “A” choice. I encourage the writers who come to me to exhaust other possibilities and only come to us as a last resort. “Start with Random House! Start with Frontenac!” We have no resources, no marketing, no one to maintain the website, no one to pick up the phone, no phone on any account, no one who even knows how to create an invoice. More and more, the company is sliding into the deep abyss of “a great creative venture marred by the absence of any organizing principle or anyone who knows how to do or is willing to do what the fuck needs to be done.”
Yet, B House has had something of a resurgence thank to the very rich poetry scene here in Calgary. I will pick up on this theme in my next post . . . coming to you a few days from now.
Thanks for reading!
A million or so years ago, when I was completing my BA in English at the University of Regina I was hired by my mentor and namesake, Gene Dawson, to be his TA. This meant that I was thrust in front of a class of engineering students barely younger than me to teach them something about English grammar, which I knew very little about.
“Stay one chapter ahead and don’t let them see you sweat,” was the advice given to me then, and many times since in other situations. Anyone who plans on a career in education would do well to have that bit of advice tattooed on some part of his or her body.
I survived the class and learned something about English grammar, an increasingly rare skill to have. Here’s an example, free of charge. “Between you and I” is incorrect because between is a preposition which is followed by an object and never a subject; therefore you should be saying “Between you and me.” If you’ve been saying “Between you and I,” now you know better, so stop it. You see? Grammar can be a wonderful thing!
Since then I have taught in many place, mostly in creative writing, mostly playwriting. I have led workshops for young playwrights from around the world at World Interplay in Australia. I have taught kids from the hood in Harlem, in New York City. I’ve taught in Singapore, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and other places, classes ranging in time from a few hours to a full university semester.
My mother and her mother were both teachers. They say that the desire to teach, the need to teach, may well be hereditary, passed down through the genes. I have no reason to doubt this.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it has to do with the photo I poached and placed at the top of this post, and it comes from a Zen parable which goes like this . . . A Canadian scholar was seeking the wisdom of a famous Zen master about the secret of education. She was invited to have tea with the master. He began to pour the tea into the cup, and then continued to pour as the tea filled the cup, spilled over the edge, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and the floor, but still he kept pouring until finally she exclaimed: “Stop, Master, you can’t get any more tea into that cup!” He stopped pouring and said, “You have learned what you have come to learn from me.” And that was the end of the lesson.
Through all the teaching experience I have had over the ensuing decades since I dazzled that class of young engineers, maybe the one thing I’ve learned is when to stop pouring it in. We tend to think in quotas, of material that must be gotten through, and so we keep pouring and pouring even as our students’ eyes glaze over because their cups are full. I believe more and more that if we just allow the time and space for our students to probe the essence of the thing we are teaching, they will somehow get it, if they are meant to get it. This is certainly true in the arts. You might not want to use such a philosophy in teaching pilots how to land an airplane, or surgeons how to cut.
Just allow . . . it’s harder than it seems. It takes a measure of wisdom and patience, and a healthy ego.
Another thing I’ve learned comes from the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors say, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make teachers say parts of it as well.
I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and do no harm to anyone.
I always think if nothing else, if someone comes to me because he or she is interested in the theatre, don’t let me destroy their love for it. If nothing else, even if they learn nothing, do no harm. People learn in their own time, at their own pace. Maybe something they hear today will lie dormant for years, and when the time is right, suddenly it will make sense. I’ve known this to happen. A delayed reaction, sometimes by years. Finally it sinks in. We can’t always control when that will happen.
So. Just some thoughts on teaching on a cold snowy day in Calgary.
I honestly think it’s the highest calling.
Something by one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was swirling around on Facebook the other day. I shared it with my students at St. Mary’s University College and it seems like a reasonable way to end this bit of rambling. I believe what he says is true, and that in part explains why I have spent so much time and energy over the years teaching the next great generation of artists.
Enjoy! And thanks for reading,