Sunday, July 24. Still reeling from the death of Amy Winehouse and the tragedies in Somalia and Norway. It feels weird to be getting on a bike and listen to actors talk about their work at Shaw. I’m wearing my straw hat and sunglasses on a borrowed bike and total strangers are saying good morning to me. “It’s a beautiful day”, they say. It really is. I smile.
Great actors talk about working at the Shaw. They seem grateful which does my heart good. Many of them have done more plays in five seasons than I’ve done in my twenty-eight year career. If I’d heard any complaints, I just may have become violent.
Michael Billington from The Guardian (since 1971!) gave his address. What an incredible man. His talk was about the relevance of plays by Shaw to our times. The man knows his business and it is clear that he has a tremendous respect for the practitioners of theatre. I wish certain Toronto theatre writers had been in the audience. My favourite moment was when asked about gender- and colour-blind casting. His answer: “Why not?”
The directing panel. I must admit that it wasn’t my favourite. Other people loved it but since I have never had any interest in directing, it didn’t do as much for me. I must say it was a shock to hear how disparaging Morris Panych was of Shaw’s work (“boring”, “couldn’t remember reading it” “I stole Newton’s cuts from his production”). He was sitting right next to Jackie Maxwell! He must have been kidding.
And lastly, Suzan-Lori Parks! Somehow Philip got away with opening the conversation by asking her about her childhood nickname ‘Ledgebutt.’ He completely disarmed her and they spoke like old friends for the rest of their (too brief) time together. Suzan-Lori said that she learned to embrace the name that she was called and grew to “own” that butt of hers. She learned of the eighteenth century African woman who had a condition known as steatopygia, resulting in her having a very large behind. She was put on display in Picadilly Circus and in Paris until she died in 1815. A more perfect story couldn’t have presented itself to Suzan-Lori and Hottentot Venus, the play was born.
There are so many things I could write about Suzan-Lori Parks. The first person who suggested she write for theatre was James Baldwin; Canadian writer Carol Shields is the subject of one of her 365 plays; she uses an egg timer and earplugs when writing; “there is much more leeway for colour-blind casting in classic plays than in new plays…” Everything out of her mouth was an inspiration. The day before, someone had mistaken me for her. I found it amusing at the time and, after the conversation with Philip, I was downright honoured.
She signed my book and posed for a picture with me. I told her that I was writing for opera and hoped that she’d catch its debut in Chicago next year. I really hope I’ll get to see her version of Porgy and Bess which is opening soon in New York.
What I hope for the most is that she gets to see Topdog/Underdog (which she wrote in three days!) at Shaw or at its remount at the Theatre Centre in Toronto. She has a healthy habit of letting plays go and moving on to the next project. I can’t help but think how pleased she would be to rediscover this brilliant work of hers under Philip’s great direction, the superb acting of Nigel and Kevin and Camellia Koo’s smart design.
It was a great weekend. On Monday morning, I was up and writing at 7:30. Did I mention that I have a project that I’m submitting to the Shaw? They might get it sooner than expected.
Wish me luck.