Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Tag

Dissolve the Society   13 comments


It has been a devastating summer for Calgary’s theatre world. The smoke in the air is likely from the fires in BC, but it may well be emanating from the embers of two theatre ventures that have gone up in flames, with a third smoldering and about to consume itself in a maelstrom, if it hasn’t already.

Saddest of these in my mind is the loss of the Calgary International Children’s Festival. Poof! It’s gone, just like that. Not with a bang but a whimper. Actually, not even a whimper. Just this: “The Board of Directors has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2019 Festival and begin work to dissolve the Society.” Cold, corporate legalese that in this context sounds like something Roald Dahl might have written. Dissolve the society, indeed.

No more the excited squeals and cries of happy children slogging through the ubiquitous late season snow storm (which never bothered the children at all), no more the pitter patter of joyous applause, no more the smiling painted faces – well, you get the idea. Dissolve the Society.

The problem with losing something like this is that once it’s gone, it may never come back. But it’s ok, I guess. It’ll be all right. There are countless games and apps for children to distract them from now till the end of time. Who needs live performances, anyway?

Meanwhile, over at The Grand Theatre, if things weren’t weird before, they just got a whole lot weirder. OK. I’ll say it if no one else will. Since Theatre Junction began its new incarnation of what had once been a theatre company – and since their artistic director est tombé et se cogna la tête en Paris – the company has been a rather mysterious and bewildering disappointment.

Is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes, I wonder, but for all the whispering about the place on darkened street corners (or whatever) very little has been said publicly about this company. What it seemed to me was a really, really, REALLY beautiful space with some very uneven and esoteric (to put it nicely) work “happening” on the stage – shades of the mystical Mr. Grotowski et al.(Do you ever feel that you’ve seen it all before? I certainly do.)

I innocently asked this question on Facebook the other day: Has Mark Lawes ever been found to talk about the state of affairs at Theatre Junction? There were many comments, some of them quite witty, from “I hear he is in a witness protection program” to “I hear he is Darcy Evans” to reports of gag orders on the Board (“The Board of Governors has made the difficult decision . . . “) to reports that the organization tried to declare bankruptcy but their asset (ie, The Grand Theatre) is worth too much money.

It goes on and on and on. Call me old-fashioned, call me naïve, but I think that at least by now, Mr. Lawes ought to have addressed this situation publicly. Maybe he still will. Or maybe il est en train de manger un petit gateau a Paris. All we can do is scratch our heads in wonder at what a perfect shit show the whole thing has been from the git go.

And then there is that other fine company down the street and up the avenue, that bastion of new work in all of Canada, and my old company, Alberta Theatre Projects. They took a bad situation, and a really bad decision, and made it worse by lying about it. Now I’m afraid they have a real mess on their hands, made worse by the fact that it is a mess of their own making.

If I could pinpoint one resounding impression I had of ATP from my ten years there as their playwright in residence, it would be the profound respect paid to the playwright. During the years of their playRites Festival, which birthed over 100 Canadian plays (including six of my own), the playwright was treated like a king or queen – verging on how playwrights are treated almost anywhere else in the world outside of English Canada. We were thought to be important. Special, even. We don’t always feel that way in this culture. How many times have I been asked, with great suspicion verging on derision, “You’re a playwriter? What even is that? You write screenplays like for TV or something? But what do you really do? Like for a living?”

Twenty-five years since I first darkened their doorway, it would seem that the status of the playwright over there has diminished somewhat. I don’t often comment about what’s going on at the Projects – they were good to me and gave me a golden opportunity to launch my career. But in this case there’s a personal connection and I am not taking this situation lightly.

One of my duties as playwright in residence at ATP was to teach the high school writing program on Saturday mornings. This was one of my favourite and most rewarding teaching situations ever, and some of my former students have become prominent members of the Calgary theatre community – and beyond.

I allowed Michaela Jeffery to enter my program a year early, while she was still in junior high. It was a no-brainer, as I was (and am) a friend of her father, Dave Jeffery. Theatre royalty in Calgary. Dave was a legendary drama teacher at Western Canada High School who for years inspired a new generation of theatre artists. I figured Dave’s daughter would know more about theatre, and have seen more shows, at thirteen than I ever would. I wasn’t wrong about that. The theatre is in her blood.

I have followed Michaela’s career ever since those days, and felt an almost parental sense of pride when she was first admitted to, and then graduated from, the prestigious playwriting program at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

I worked with her the last two summers at Dave and Karen Jeffrey’s Sunset Theatre in Wells, BC. (I feel pretty much part of the family after those two summers.) What a great honour to dramaturge the play of a former student!

To see that Michaela’s play WROL (Without Rule of Law) was going to be produced at ATP – well, I was elated. As was she! I felt that this was the perfect culmination of a journey that started so long ago, some twenty years or so.

But then we learned it was not to be. Rather, offered in its place, the latest “laugh-out-loud comedy” by Toronto (or Stratford, perhaps) playwright Mark Crawford.

Well, isn’t this a pretty kettle of fish?! I certainly place no blame for this with Mr. Crawford – in fact, he is in an unenviable position of having his play be the one many Calgarians will be itching to hate, if they bother to see it at all.

The optics of replacing the work of a local female playwright with that of a male playwright from Ontario are really so rotten you can likely smell them from the top of the CN Tower, or the Calgary Tower, wherever you happen to be. (Oh, right! We’re in Calgary. I almost forgot.) Clearly, the company blundered, and in these dangerous times we are living in, let us hope they can somehow turn things around from this low point for next season.

Meanwhile Michaela’s cast and friends of the production-that-did-not-happen (and there are many) will be rallying in support on Monday, September 17 at a to-be-determined location. A recent campaign raised several thousand dollars in support of what is truly a legitimate cause. Maybe there is hope, after all.

Yes, something is in the air all right and it doesn’t smell good. Let’s hope that the people involved, from board members to directors artistic to artists to government funders to our corporations who haven’t so much stopped making money as they’ve stopped sharing it – let’s hope they do the work and fight the good fight and that things will change and change soon.

Otherwise, you might as well go ahead and dissolve the society.

Thanks for reading.


Do No Harm   5 comments

Me and the girls. It’s always gratifying to see an action shot like this and realize that people were actually listening and paying attention!

It would probably come as a surprise to those not actually involved in the writing industry to know just how much time and energy we writers invest in teaching others how to do what we do. Teach may be too strong a word to describe this activity. Perhaps it’s only guiding. Allowing, even.

I’m guided in this activity by a motto that comes from the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.  I know that I can’t always reach every person in the room. I also know that despite their desire and hard work, some just won’t have what it takes. Fair enough, they will find that out with time. But at least I hope that nowhere in this process will I damper anyone’s love of writing and literature, or harm in any way their sense of self-worth.

People who enroll in any kind of class do so with a hope and a prayer, it seems to me. And no matter what they might seem, they are no doubt vulnerable and even fragile and I try to honour that. They may not learn to write as a result of their time with me, but at least they won’t feel any worse about themselves.

Do no harm. It’s a modest goal, but an important one.  Sometimes more than others.

Recently, I was invited to talk to a group of aboriginal girls who are part of the Stardale Women’s Group Foundation, being run in Calgary by the indefatigable Helen McPhaden.  Stardale, which began in Saskatchewan in 1997, offers a wide variety of services and programs specifically for aboriginal women and girls.

(More information can be found at their excellent website:

I met with the girls in a small community centre in the west end of town early one evening. A light supper was provided for the girls (and their instructor for the evening) and after they had taken care of some business, they were introduced to the great author (moi) and our goal was to explore the writing process together in a reasonable manner.

As I say, my goal is to do no harm. I was aware that some of the girls in that room had been on very difficult journeys in their young lives. In fact, Helen told me that the underlying goal of the group is to restore, in some cases create in the first place, a sense of self-esteem.

Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows how easy it is to be wounded by a teacher.  It can be deliberate or it can be accidental, but it happens. It has always struck me that some teachers, those we refer to as pedants, are in the habit of using their knowledge on a subject both as a weapon and as an extension of their huge but fragile egos. That is in fact the opposite philosophy of doing no harm.

I know that the idea of writing something doesn’t fill everyone with a feeling of radiant joy. In fact it scares the hell out of a lot of people. (Apparently public speaking is the greatest fear most people have.) And so I don’t ask much at these workshops. In fact, with these girls, I only ask for one word. I figure everyone has at least one word in them!

But that’s for starters. I had the girls write one word on a small recipe card and then I got them back and shuffled them and handed them out again so they could write a second word on a different card. Even a third or fourth or fifth if they felt up to it. And so in this manner we came up with the cards in the photo below.

“Love, hate, you only live and laugh once, hurt, happiness, I love you, I loooove you, joy.”

It’s just a beginning, of course. The cards can be added to,  shared or taken over by one person.  Two words together might be the basis for a poem, and from there it’s not too big a jump to open a notebook and start writing on one’s own.

The cards done by the girls at Stardale aren’t really a whole lot different from the cards generated by other students in other situations. Wherever we find ourselves, whatever hand we have been dealt in life, it seems to me we all hope for and fear pretty much the same things.

That these girls have grown to participate so well and so enthusiastically in workshops like the one I led and everything they do beyond this says a lot about their own courage and determination. It also says a lot about the volunteers and leaders of the Stardale Girls Program. It’s a very much needed and important program. It is changing the lives and expectations of these girls for the good.

I was honoured to be asked to take part in it.

Thanks for reading!

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