Thursday, 14 September 2017

Stories from the Summer Theatre Intensive: Telling Our Important Stories

The Noble Scribes.
(Back row) Jim, Sue, Donna-Michelle
(Front row) Shelley, Jean, Cathy
by Shelley M. Hobbs

This was my first time attending a Theatre Ontario intensive. It was a retirement present from my wife, Joan.

Having spent 27 years working as a lawyer for the Public Guardian and Trustee, I retired in large part to pursue playwriting. My other identity boxes to tick would include lesbian, hearing impaired, cancer survivor, married, grandparent, pale-privileged, cis-female, child of immigrants and naturalist. I came to this program having started writing for theatre later in life, with modest success. I have co-written a musical about women’s hockey (Hipcheck: the Musical) and two dramas (A Good Death; Happy Family) all of which were produced in different years at the Toronto Fringe Festival. 

I have no formal training in theatre. Everything I’ve learned has been from going to theatre (about a hundred plays and musicals a year, mostly indie and small company works), from the development of my own work, and from talking theatre with anyone who doesn’t move quickly enough to get away. 

This intensive meant I was going to spend a week doing nothing but writing and learning about writing. I would meet other playwrights. I would meet our instructor, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, who is a professional, Dora Award-winning, former playwright-in-residence for Obsidian Theatre: a grown-up in theatre terms.

My playwright classmates came from Toronto, rural Ontario, and Montréal. The other Theatre Ontario attendees I met who were in the Advanced Director and Acting programs were from all over the province, representing community theatres of every size and ambition. Every day, I was immersed in discussions with a variety of folks about favourite plays, production politics, props and sets, and how to get stuff on stage with ever-shrinking budgets. It was oxygen for my soul.

Donna-Michelle showed such respect and support for each of us. The question of what defined an “Important Story” was treated as an organic one. She brought a library of plays to read that she considered important for different reasons. Vital questions and intriguing assignments were given. Think about your play from the point of view of those whose stories are not commonly told. Don’t assume the audience knows what you know. Try this, and if it doesn’t work, try this. 

We shared our work, either a play we were already working on or what we had written for our assignments. I heard such well-crafted words. Sometimes, we were all brought to tears. I shared a play that I’ve struggled to get done for years. Years of scribbles on the backs on envelopes and bizarrely scrawled notes to myself—“Make B do forgery herself?” “Research documentation 1934-37.” “What about hats?”

Exploring the masks from other classes at Factory 163
I brought that play to the group, and despite falling at mid-week into what writers may recognize as the “It’s Utter Crap!” nadir, working with Donna-Michelle and my fellow Noble Scribes kick-started it back to life. It’s my hope that the other Noble Scribes, indeed, everyone at the Intensives, got to feel that surge of energy that finding the right direction gives you.

Thank you, Theatre Ontario and Factory 163!

Thank you, Jim and Sue and Cathy and Jean: the Noble Scribes!

Thank you so much, Donna-Michelle!

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