Sunday, December 6, 2009

Guest B - Marcia Johnson

I am pleased to have Marcia Johnson as the first Guest B on NSAA. This will be a peripatetic feature that brings guest bloggers to talk about what they are doing around the world.

Canadian Playwrights Take the World

I recently attended the International Women Playwrights Conference in Mumbai, India. Don’t worry if you have never heard of it or Women Playwrights International (WPI), the organization which, well…organizes these conferences. This was the only the eighth installment since the inaugural one in Buffalo, New York in 1988.

I was fortunate enough to go to the second one (1991) in Toronto. I attended as an actor, doing an excerpt from a collective show by the Company of Sirens. It would be three years before I attempted (and succeeded) in writing a play on my own.
Since those first two neighbourly North American installments of the IWPC, the locations been somewhat more far afield beginning with Adelaide, Australia (1994), Galway, Ireland (1997); Athens and Delphi (2000); Manila (2003) and finally Mumbai in 2009.

As the Chair of the Women’s Caucus of Playwrights Guild of Canada, I urged members to apply to the Conference. I wanted Canada to have a strong showing. I was thrilled when more than twenty of us were invited to present our work. Unfortunately, due to several issues including work conflicts, visa problems and a shortage of travel funding, only nine of made the trip to Mumbai.
We were in contact via email for months leading up to the conference, sharing information about which inoculations to get, the most suitable Indian visa and, most importantly: casting each other in our readings.

The theme of the Conference was Liberty and Tolerance. I had submitted two scripts and was invited to do a reading of Say Ginger Ale. It’s my semi-autobiographical comedy (Comedy was a sub-theme) about a Jamaican-born woman who adapts quite comfortably to Canada and feels no connection to Jamaica. An unexpected trip “back home” unearths long buried feelings and a new found love for the country of her birth.

Only one other writer Gail Nyoka (Mrs. Seacole) in our group is black. So when it came to casting, I had to make that leap of faith and hope that the international audience in Mumbai would understand. Since turnabout is fair play, Sally Stubbs who I had cast as a Jamaican grandmother, cast me as a German grandmother in her play Herr Beckmann’s People. Her play was about a young German-Canadian woman who makes an awful discovery about her father’s actions during World War Two.

So far, it sounds like Canadian women only write about being from somewhere else and making discoveries set in our countries of origin. In our case, that is only half right. All the plays seemed to be about being from somewhere else (physical or otherwise) and trying to fit in.
We met up in one of the hotel rooms on the first morning of the conference and had five minute rehearsals of each of the ten scripts. (Yes, ten. Melissa Major had been invited to read from both Sapphire Butterfly Blue about the Salem Witch Trials and Art is a Cupboard about exiled Russian artists.)

Our plays were very well received. The feedback sessions were lively and engaging. We kept hearing people from all over the world saying that they identified with our characters. Playwrights began fighting over us, asking us to read their plays because our acting was so good and, more importantly, our speech was so clear. Several of us got to read in plays by Australian and Dutch writers but, because of scheduling conflicts, had to say no to Americans and Swedes.

We had been offered the services of acting students at University of Mumbai; our host. I decided to cast a male student as my love interest. We got to meet and rehearse for a few minutes the day before. He seemed to understand the story and the humour but I had to explain to him that, even though the character he was playing was set up on a date by my character’s mother, it was in no way the first step in an arranged marriage. I also had to explain to him and the audience next day what ginger ale is. It’s non-existent in India. When I asked for some at the hotel bar, the bar tender started pouring me a shot of Gordon’s gin.

I digress.

The audience laughed in the right places, the Jamaican accents weren’t that bad and I am now determined to get the play produced in Canada. I wonder if there’s a black theatre company that I could convince to produce it.

Another digression.

During the conference, I was voted in as one of five members of the WPI management committee. Among my duties is assisting the planning committee for the 2012 Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. I had already made some good connections with the Swedish delegation and look forward to working with them over the next few years.

If you see a number of international collaborations between female Canadian playwrights over the next few years, you will know where it all began.
Here’s a shout out to my other Canadian writing sisters who made the great journey with me:
Beverley Cooper (Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott), Trina Davies (Shatter), Jordan Hall (Kayak), Christine Estima (Central Line) and Tara Goldstein (Harriet’s House).


Marcia Johnson said...

Oops. I forgot to include Jakarta's Cnference in 2006. Apparently it was great.

Otherwise, great blog Philip. I'll visit more often.

Obsidian Theatre said...

Oh Marcia there are hours and hours of ranting here. Come back any time