This One Goes to Eleven: Sally Stubbs

Sally is an award-winning playwright and teacher-director of theatre with, by and for young people and a performer who loves to clown. She is completing a graduate degree in writing at the University of Victoria with master playwright Joan MacLeod. Hers is a strong local voice, and a proud addition to the interview series.

Sally Stubbs

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Immersed.

2. In as many words as you’d like, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Way back I made a choice to work with young people as a theatre educator. It meant I did my own theatre work when and how I could and, for the most part, stood on the edge of the Vancouver theatre scene. It’s been exciting in the last few years to begin to insert myself slooooowly into the community. From my slightly skewed and isolated angle, here are some words that hit home for me when I think about Vancouver’s independent theatre scene: devised, collaborative, thriving, spectacle-heavy, often spectacular, innovative, interdisciplinary, imagistic, physical, site-specific, and, too often, in my humble opinion, script-light or even anti-script. I love stories. I believe our most potent theatre is rooted in the marriage of thoughtful and innovative interpretation to strong text-based drama. It’s happening on our stages, but not as often as it should.

3. What does your work as a teacher/director of young people tell you about the future of theatre here?

I’ve been working mainly at the post-secondary level for the last few years, but before that I worked with kids from every imaginable background, including at-risk teens in an inner city alternative program, ESL, special needs, and gifted students. The best thing about teaching was being able to work and learn with the kids as we created, interpreted, and watched theatre. Honestly, we did some amazing work together—original plays, devised pieces, the classics, movement-based theatre, interdisciplinary productions, clown—you name it. The kids were passionate and hungry for just about everything we did and saw. They worked their butts off, took risks, mentored one another, and had a blast. Year after year they just kept setting the bar higher. It was a privilege working and learning with them.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’m pretty sure the future of theatre is safe if it rests with our youth. Too often though, I had parents come to thank me and tell me how great it was that their children were so involved and happy doing theatre, but then…‘no offense, Sally, they wouldn’t be taking theatre next year because they had to get serious about the important stuff: math, science, final exams’. Hmmm.

4. What are your great strengths as a playwright? What aspect of playwrighting frustrates you the most?

Great strengths?! I like that. Well, I think my greatest strengths are character and dialogue. I’ve got a pretty good imagination, too, and think visually. What I find most frustrating is structure, always structure. I tend to begin with an idea or an image or a character and then write around it, searching for the through line. I tend to complicate, and the search for that through line can take a hell of a long time. Sometimes I don’t find it.

5. What’s your best advice for the aspiring playwright?

I love Colleen Murphy’s advice: ‘A good script is like a brick shithouse. You’ve got to be able to throw your script at a wall and know the structure will hold.’ If you’re beginning though, I’d say the obvious:  put your butt in a chair and write. Trust yourself and write about what moves you, what genuinely seems to want to come out of you, especially the wild and wonderful stuff that surprises you, even shocks or shames you because maybe it says too damn much about you. That’s the stuff that’s golden, but trusting it can be tough. I know that trusting me has been the hardest lesson for me. The lesson is ongoing.

Stephanie Belding and Christine Willes in a staged reading of Herr Beckmann's People
Stephanie Belding and Christine Willes in a staged reading of Herr Beckmann's People - photograph by David Hauka

6. How are you liking the academic writing route?

I’m loving the academic writing route. I get to work with Joan MacLeod and her colleagues; it’s an amazing faculty. I’ve been in this incredibly decadent situation where I’ve been writing full-time rather than grabbing moments here and there before and after work, and I adore Victoria and UVic. I grew up in Victoria, spent years at the university, and it still feels a lot like home.

7. Who are your great literary influences?

I read all the time, primarily fiction, from trash to the classics. I think everything I pick up influences me. Yes, like most of us, I love Shakespeare. I love the characters, the language, the universality, the crazy plots, the wild juxtapositions and the audacity of his writing. Right now, to name just a few influences: Tom Stoppard, Michael Ondaatje, Tomson Highway, and Colleen Murphy. I read a lot of books for young people. One author who writes beautifully for teens is David Almond; his novels are dark, poetic and rich in atmosphere.

8. What type of theatre would you like to see more of on our stages?

See question 2. I really hope to see a trend in combining the many strengths of our current theatre community—the innovation, risk taking, and spectacle–with the presentation of strong text-based work: new plays and classics. Kudos to the companies who are making it happen, but I want more please.

9. How has the Playwrights Theatre Centre affected your career trajectory?

The Playwrights Theatre Centre has been my home in the Vancouver theatre community. Without the PTC, well, I don’t know where I’d be. I took my first playwriting workshop at the PTC years ago with Gordon Armstrong. He was inspirational and continued to mentor me after the workshop came to an end. Chapelle Jaffe and then Martin Kinch had confidence in my writing when I had none. The PTC has provided me with readings, workshops, mentors, dramaturgy, and contacts in the theatre community. My plays have been in the New Play Festival twice and, because of the PTC, Wreckage was showcased at Magnetic North in Edmonton as part of the National Arts Centre’s ‘On the Verge’.   Next up is the Flying Start program with Touchstone Theatre. I absolutely recommend the PTC to emerging playwrights.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Top three theatre reads? Impossible. They change all the time. For today, however, I’ll go with  Anthony Sher’s Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook; Martin McDonagh’s The Pillow Man; and Joan MacLeod’s Another Home Invasion. I was privileged to read an early draft of Joan’s beautiful play before it went into production.

11. What’s next?

I’m really excited about next year. My play, Wreckage, is being produced on the Phoenix Theatre Mainstage at UVic, directed by Fran Gebhard. I’m thrilled to say that the script’s finally being published, too, by Scirocco Drama. It should be out by September. Herr Beckmann’s People has been on a bit of a roll and was recently selected for Flying Start 2010, a collaborative program of PTC and Touchstone Theatre. It receives a full-production in Vancouver next season; Katrina Dunn directs and Martin Kinch acts as dramaturg.  For my thesis, I’m working on two inter-related one-act scripts for a teen audience. Meanwhile, I’m adapting another script, Spinning You Home, into a novel for young audiences and, in the fall, I’ll be teaching playwriting at UVic and Douglas College. Immersed.

The Real Thing: Stoppard’s cricket bat incites to write

cricket-bat1It’s amazing to me how few still-composing A-list playwrights there are out there with work in heavy rotation. The Big Guns – the few that we waggish theatre-types gush about to each other about over the good glassware – seem to move in trend cycles through the Canadian stages and kind of define the period; Mamet segues into LaBute back into Mamet who gives way to a flutter of Shanley…we seem to be coming into a Stoppard right now, CanStage has announced the inclusion of the dense and lovely Rock ‘n Roll in their upcoming season, The Invention of Love is impending at Jericho and The Real Thing is impressing its eager audience right now on the Granville Island Stage. I’m just waiting on the announcement of another mounting of Dogg’s Hamlett/Cahoot’s Macbeth, surely not far behind.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but does theatre have a kind of collective consciousness when it comes to established works? Do we adhere to the cache of a particular playwright at certain periods the way that hem lines and Federal Government approval ratings rise and fall? There was a gush of Sarah Kane productions awhile back from points all over the continent after years of shying away from the complexities (and rawness) of In Yer Face, perhaps there’s some connective undercurrent in the gestalt that gurgles up a particularly masterful voice that resonates at a particular time.

If this is the theatre community’s version of cycling through CDs in the car stereo, I’m pretty happy with the current playlist. Seeing The Real Thing at the Arts Club last week reminded me of how much I like my theatre with some loquacity, Stoppard is a giant word-nerd and proud of it. This ain’t theatre for the uninitiated, the dialogue unspools relentlessly, and it takes solid actors to keep it rolling throughout. (Which the Arts Club certainly had, especially in leads Jennifer Lines and Vincent Gale who made it look easy, and in young Julie McIsaac, looking in her short time on stage like she was having the time of her life.) This work wears its brains on its sleeve, and is obviously autobiographical. (‘Auto-something’, in Stoppard’s own words.) It was written in 1982 as a reaction to critics who panned the playwright for being unable to write about love, and for not providing good roles for women. Whether or not he was successful in that reach is something you’ll have to judge for yourself, but he certainly succeeded in writing a love letter to the power of the written word. His avatar in the play, Henry, beautifully snobs out about a bad piece of writing by metaphorically comparing a cricket bat to a plain plank of wood:

real-thing-078sThis [cricket bat] here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might travel… [He clucks his tongue and picks up Brodie’s script.] Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. [indicating the cricket bat] This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. [he reads] ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch! [He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits.]

This play was a marvelous reminder to me – written as it was for the theatre set, playwrights in particular – that we need to aim at writing cricket bats, then taking to the field with them. If for no other reason than there is lots of room out there in the field for playwrighting that we, the keepers of the collective consciousness, will deem the next big thing.

‘Cricket Bat’ courtesy of Flikr user No Sex, Bone Dragon

This one goes to eleven: Amiel Gladstone

Amiel Gladstone: Playwright, Director, Blogger (he has one of the best titles for a blog ever), he works all over BC from Victoria (a co-founder of Theatre SKAM) to Vancouver to the Okanagan. His numerous plays include Hippies and Bolsheviks and My Three Sisters, a Chekhov adaptation.

Amiel is truly tireless in his efforts to carve out a theatrical legacy for BC, and we’re grateful he took the time to be interviewed. Read on for his thoughts on the business here, and some truly innovative ideas towards lifting us to the next stage…

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1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Bucharest! (I’m here for the Romanian premiere of my play ‘Hippies and Bolsheviks’.)

2. In any number of words, describe the present condition of the North-West theatre scene.

The North-West theatre scene? I’m not exactly sure what the boundaries are of this scene. I have vague ideas of what happens in Whitehorse, Kamloops, Nelson, Victoria and Vancouver, so it’s hard to paint this all with the same brush, but I would say that in the places outside Vancouver I see theatre that is finding ways to survive and the audiences are responding to it, possibly because there is a deep human need to hear stories presented live in front of them.

I think the Vancouver scene has experienced a well documented rise by the latest generation of companies, and we are currently in a plateau phase, which may not be able to last long. I think we need to start taking big immediate steps forward as we risk losing momentum.

3. What is it about the nature of theatre that has kept your attention for so long?

This question makes me feel old. I think part of it is because I still haven’t been able to get it right – there’s always something to be working on to make it better.  Plays are never finished. There’s always structure to be strengthened, moments to clarify, things that I’d like to make stronger, clearer, funnier. The creation of theatre is always changing, always a puzzle, but with no box top to help guide you. It is an emotional elusive compelling thing. And there is no better drug than the deep belly laugh of an audience enthralled. It takes collaboration and trust to make that it all happen. Trust and collaboration amongst fellow addicts.

4. Is playwrighting a solo or collaborative exercise for you? Why?

Initially very solo. This is changing a bit because I’m trying to adapt to the way most theatres work – that is they take a ‘completed’ script and rehearse it. I have started rehearsals with actors with 12 measly pages of script and written furiously as  we went along. It can be a particular kind of hell for actors. But as I said I’m trying to get better and have more on paper before bringing in actors.

5. How are we evolving as a theatre community?

There is more sharing of resources. There is more awareness of how we all fit in the ecology of our community, in fact it appears we actually have an ecology. We are reflecting the diversity of our population more.

6. If you were given one million dollars towards improving the health of independent theatre here, how would you spend it?

I would like to try a grand experiment. In Europe, this idea of running a show for 10 days and then closing is absurd. Equally crazy to them: the subscriber model in which each play runs for 4 weeks whether is is successful or not. The European community does performances once a week, or twice a month say, and is able to run them for months. Audiences are built for successful shows, actors have months to develop roles in performance, Plays can have a longer life and greater impact.

I’d love to be able to try this. Perhaps this is the next step we need.

ATP in Calgary tried a season in rep a few years back and it didn’t seem to work at all, so there is obviously risk involved.

We have many obstacles over here to prevent this, including how the actors’ association contracts, how we schedule our companies, and how the venues are shares. So with my one million dollars I would like a building in which we can try to run shows in rep. Various companies can bring in shows, throughout the season.

This building ideally would have a lot of much needed rehearsal space, and a theatre bar which actually caters to the theatre community, as a gathering place, an idea sharing place, a place to party.

7. What should our new theatre artists know about the legacy of the scene that has come before them?

I think that we are all trying our best.

8. What should they change about it?

I think good work is the best argument for everything.

9. What has been your proudest theatrical moment to date?

Standing in the lunch line up at the Banff Centre cafeteria as part of the PlayRites Colony for the first time.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Tips: Ideas for Directors by Jon Jory. The most useful book that I have found on directing in today’s world.

Obedience, Struggle and Revolt- A collection of lectures by David Hare. Lucid, provocative, inspiring ideas.

The Stage Lighting Handbook – 4th Edition by Francis Reid.

11. What’s next?

20 Minute Musicals – Theatre Replacement at PuSh. I’m directing short works by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson and Geoff Burner. Jan 29 / 30.

Jack Pine – a new children’s opera by Veda Hille. Directing this world premiere for Vancouver Opera which will tour schools and go to BC Scene in Ottawa. Public premiere February 15 at Centennial Theatre in North Van.

The Ends of the Earth. Directing Morris Panych’s Governor General Award winning 1992 play at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, opens March 15.

E-stage for the Vancouver Playhouse. Guiding high school playwrights through some script development workshops during Spring Break.