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Theatre St. Thomas’ “What’s Next?” playwriting festival gives a creative voice to young artists

This past weekend, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, Theatre St. Thomas (TST) showcased three plays written by STU students, celebrating 25 years in the Black Box Theatre. These students—winners of a playwriting competition put on by TST—created works of comedy under nuclear threat, an emotional detective serial and an intense religious tribulation.

The pieces were each directed by an alumnus of SiPP, St. Thomas’ directing class, and the casts were students associated with Theatre St. Thomas. Each of the three plays showed the talent held at St. Thomas on multiple levels.

Robbie Lynn, TST President and Festival Director, emphasized the challenging—yet very rewarding—nature of the project. “Working as the producer of What’s Next? has been a rewarding experience. We put out the call for playwrights in June with the writing prompt “What’s Next?,” and by August we had 12 submissions. A jury of six, made-up of both professional artists and students, chose three plays to be staged in the Black Box. The jury also selected three directors for the project. The festival features 14 actors, and it has been made possible with the hard work of a strong stage-management team of nine students. The project has taken a lot of cooperation from many young artists at STU, and I have been so impressed with how everyone has risen to the challenge.”

To gain a better understanding of the experience, I sat down with Thomas MacDougall, the writer of the nuclear war-time comedy And Above All; Louis Anthony Bryan, the writer of the thrilling and funny serial detective story I Love this City; and Laura-Beth Bird, the director of Michael Pallotto’s heavy and meaningful Thieves of Paradise.

Playwright of And Above All, Thomas MacDougall

The Brunswickan: What is the value in premiering your show alongside other productions?

Thomas MacDougall: I mean, I knew the other playwrights, Anthony and Michael, and Anthony and I have been pals throughout all of this when we met in my first year. Having someone that’s kind of going through the same process as you, especially when it’s your first time really writing. We had Ryan Griffith (renowned NB playwright) teach us a lot of things, and just to go and get coffee with him to talk about your script was intimidating, but Michael’s doing it and Anthony’s doing it…It gives you that extra push that you need. It sucks that this results in kind of a herd mentality, but when you’ve got friends that have succeeded in the same way you have, it really makes bringing it all to the end of the journey all the easier.

Bruns: Given that you were writing to compete in a festival, how did that affect your creative process?

MacDougall: When I was writing it, it was a bit intimidating, and I wanted to scrap everything I already had on multiple occasions and write something new. And I ended up writing two scripts for the show—but, once I had started writing it, I just couldn’t stop writing, and of course you need to double-check your work asking if it’s good enough, or whether you feel you throw it out or keep it. Really, you’re open to new ideas when you’re looking for inspiration, and eventually something will spark your interest and inspire the piece. We also had about a month and half. Some people had works in progress, but it really just came to wanting to work on something new and using a bit of inspiration from other pieces I’ve worked on. In the end, you just have to take a run at it.

Bruns: If you’re trying to convince someone that new NB theatre is relevant today, what would you say?

MacDougall: There’s an opportunity anywhere to get something interesting and vibrant, and nothing’s going to be more relevant tomorrow than the stuff that’s going on today. This is how you make things that are going to be as memorable as other Canadian playwrights. It’s kind of the perfect environment, because if there’s a show going on they can only really put on one or two shows a year, depending on the company. They’ll pick an old classic, then they’ll put on a new one and both of those will get about the same amount of presence and attention. You get the older demographic of New Brunswick, and they say “Oh I’ve never seen that one!” and then hopefully someone else will take a look at it. Really, the more and more there is, the better it’s going to be in the future.

Playwright of I Love this City, Louis Anthony Bryan

Bruns: Can you tell me about your experience as a playwright watching a director interpret your work?

Louis Anthony Bryan: To be fair, I haven’t seen any of the rehearsals to any large degree. I stepped in just to see what it was like, so I saw the set and them going through one line over and over. I guess I didn’t really want to see any more than that, and it’s difficult to separate yourself from your work—but I didn’t want to be the kind of writer that shows up at every rehearsal with notes, mostly because I wanted to see what [Esther Soucoup, the play’s director] would do with my play. I think the way I wanted to enjoy a play was with the audience, and I wanted to see what the audience would laugh at first, and I wanted to see what jokes they would pick up on and react to. Really, I think the only way to do that is to be there along with them. It was a difficult decision to make and it is very hard, but I found it important to distance myself. That’s just because this is something I want to do, and I might as well learn now.

Bruns: What are some challenges that NB playwrights, or younger playwrights starting off in the field, encounter most?

Bryan: Establishing your style is a big one, not even just trying to find it, because by the time you write a play you probably have a style. The thing is, I think the biggest challenge is making sure that’s not it—not all you do. You want to be open to trying new things and being able to write new genres, characters and stories. But if you found something that works, it’s going to be hard to break away and diverge from that. I think that’s a big problem with being a young playwright—and with New Brunswick, well… it’s a small place. There’s a benefit in that too, but with bigger places you have more experiences and more stories to tell, and those influence your stories. So, you don’t want to be stuck here, you want to grow and branch out, and that may mean coming back to do some work here as well.

Bruns: How did you, as a playwright, and NB theatre benefit from this festival?

Bryan: I think it’s important because people are going to see that there is an interest in independent work, and even if another play company doesn’t do it for years, at least people could say “Wow, I know the guy who did that!” or support the person who wrote that play. I think it also encourages people to do it on their own, and it helps people see that people care, and I think that’s a big part of creativity. People need to care and to give you the opportunity—and seeing that that opportunity is being given to somebody else, they’re going to want to try too. I think that’s a big deal, especially in a small place. It’s a big deal to feel like you can be part of something like this.

Laura-Beth Bird, director of Thieves of Paradise

Bruns: From a director’s perspective, how would you describe your creative relationship with the playwright? Is that the same for the other shows as well, or does it vary with each team?

Laura-Beth Bird: What I’ve been taught through a university education is that once the writer gives up their script, it’s out of their hands—and you do your best work to honour the script as it has been given to you. Michael and I have had a very distant relationship throughout the creative process. He told me his vision for what he wanted, and things that must happen, and it’s been fully my creation from here on out. I also think that it’s completely up to each creative team, because for Esther’s work and Sam’s work it’s entirely up to them whether or not they want to go back to the playwright for input, insight into the work or stylistic choices. I think all three productions have approached it differently.

Bruns: The piece you directed seems to have serious subject matter. How do you find the dramatic tone of the piece affects your experience?

Bird: My experience directing it varies because of the approach we had to take, as the other two productions definitely have comedic matter in them. My piece is very serious because of the religious aspects and the historical nature of the work. My actors have also worked exceedingly hard because of the material, and it’s made it easier for them to take the work more seriously. They’ve put a ridiculous amount of heart and soul into this show—more than I’ve had in any other production that I’ve ever worked with. All of them have taken the time to learn the philosophy behind the work as well, which I find really impressive, and it changes the way we approach the text.

Bruns: Did you structure your work around the Black Box theatre’s small-scale or intimate space that at all?

Bird: I stylized the work so my actors would feel very small in comparison to the audience; there’s a lot of tight spotlights and pinhole spots. They look tiny, just to look small in the view of the world and in the view of God. The way their blocking works and their interactions just makes them feel distant and as if the crowd is looking in on them with a sort of voyeurism.

TST’s “What’s Next” playwriting festival served as a platform for young artists to have their voices reach an audience—and on top of that artistic expression, the plays enthused and entertain that audience.

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