Friday, 16 May 2014

In Conversation with David S. Craig

by Bruce Pitkin, Executive Director

David is quite happy to be here at the 2014 Festival.  His play Having Hope at Home, set in a farmhouse in Blyth, has had nineteen productions, been produced in Germany, as well as a production by some of today’s attendees.

Let’s look back, thousands of years ago, to the discovery and control of fire. With fire, nightlife was born. So, what did people do with this nightlife? They made music and then told stories. Stories about their own successes and tragedies. Storytelling was created, then people told stories directly to other people, or their public.

In 400 BC, a change occurred, where instead of one storyteller, different people assumed roles in the story and faced each other. Storytelling begat performance. The Greeks then created rules about performance and this new art form. Greek style theatres existed all over the Mediterranean, and later, all over the world. This was the beginning of the fourth wall in performance.

David, at eight years old, sat in a theatre in Montreal, looking at everything around him on and off the stage. He asked his mother, “How did they get up there?” “Shhh!” said his mother, however, his curiosity kept growing. At boarding school, he auditioned for the school play and got a lead role. At his very first curtain call, the applause gave him such a rush, that it converted him to the theatre. That moment he fell in love with the theatre, and of course, all theatre people have this moment. And this very same moment, connects all of us to the discovery of theatre by the ancients.

David went to study at Queen’s University and he saw a performance from British troupe who told a contemporary story, in a bare room, with few props. Another revelation. “How did they get up there?” At that moment, he decided to leave university to pursue theatre training, cutting all strings to conventional life, to take the risk of creating theatre.

To while the time until success arrived, David’s created a kid’s show and that led to another and another, and eventually to a thirty year career writing for the theatre.

He eschewed political theatre for realism, until one day he heard a report on CBC Radio about child homelessness. He began to research about children who become homeless in order to write a story to about them. This led to Danny, King of the Basement, his most produced play here and abroad. He then read excerpts from the play. Afterward, he talked about how kids in the audience related to the plight of the kids in the play. Danny, King of the Basement struck a chord with youth audiences and educators alike, leading to productions across North America. Theatre CAN change people’s attitudes and feelings, subsequently changing their mindset over time.

David did focus groups in high schools to see how to connect with the students there, which led to a series of plays by Roseneath Theatre. They worked at creating theatre for schools, which would perform at the schools themselves. The idea was not very well received, either ideologically or financially. So, they went to the Health Departments within the schools to look for support, then created plays with health related themes, which were well received. The plays, and the issues raised in them, connected well with the high school students. He read an excerpt from one of these plays.

The kids who waited for a message play, were impressed that there wasn’t a neat or ‘happy’ conclusion and that they could finish the story themselves. However, American educators did not like the ending and wanted one where the issues were resolved at the end. That didn’t happen and they play has been David’s most widely produced play. Even as far away as in Turkey, where it appealed to that audience’s strong sense of family.

David met with an American producer, who said that while she liked his plays, she couldn’t produce them, since they did not appeal to the American narrative of redemption. However, she did ask him to ‘pitch her a title’, something that would be familiar to her audiences. That led to David’s choice to do a stage adaption of The Neverending Story. He read an excerpt.

The difference between trying to find prospective producers for Danny, King of the Basement or Having Hope at Home and The Neverending Story, is that people came to him because of the familiarity of Story. This has furthered his work as an adapter, which also gives him the perspective of a producer, in understanding how the play will be produced and received. So working on adaptations has become an important facet of David’s work.

He has also created radio dramas for CBC Radio, although not lately since that department no longer exists. Once he was approached to write a radio special and David responded with the spontaneous idea of retelling the birth of Christ, which then became The First Christmas. He read an excerpt from his ninety minute radio play, which he has adapted for the stage.

David then shared with us the gestation of Having Hope at Home. It came from a reflection on how different generations have differences in their expectations. He had wanted to be there at the birth of his child and decided to have the birth at home. His wife and he hired a midwife who spent time with them and advised them on the birth process. During that time the midwife shared stories of child birth and David decided to write with midwifery as the subject of a play. He eventually wrote about the relationships and personal crisis of the mother to those around her, to make the story more universal. The response to his first submission to the Blyth Festival was not well received. It sat in his bottom drawer until he decided to send it out again to be read. Later, he tried Blyth once more, but was again rebuffed. After a while, and a few artistic directors later, he submitted it one last time and third time lucky, it was produced to wonderful acclaim. He read an excerpt.

David is pleased to have been able to write works that are considered part of the literary canon. In writing, he has discovered that there are rules, hidden rules, which although sometimes challenging, give his work a richness that he cherishes.

Canadian story telling is on the ascendancy. And although Canadians don’t have the same polarization in society as Americans, which makes for very different kind of dramatic work, we still love telling and hearing our own stories. They tell us who we are.

Playwright-in-Person is made possible by a grant from the Playwrights Guild of Canada, funded by the Canada Council.

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