Author Tags: Disaster, Theatre

Joan MacLeod was born in Vancouver in 1954 and grew up in North Vancouver. She received creative writing degrees from UVic and UBC. Her powerful one-woman play, The Hope Slide, opened in March 1994 in Edinburgh having won the 1993 Chalmers Award. In it, Irene, a middle-aged actress, is on tour to a number of small towns in B.C.'s Kootenay region when she allows her imagination to revisit her teenage fascination with the Doukhobors. She takes on the voices of three Doukhobors: a young woman buried in a mountain slide near the town of Hope; a 17-year-old boy blown up by dynamite and 22-year-old Paul Podmorrow who starved himself in the Doukhobor prison in the town of Hope.

This play was preceded by Toronto, Mississippi and Jewel (which has been translated into at least five languages). Her much-produced play The Shape Of A Girl has been translated into at least six languages. Her first play for young people, Little Sister, was about eating disorders. MacLeod won the 1991 Governor General's Award for Drama for Amigo's Blue Guitar (Blizzard Publishing, 1990) and she wrote the libretto for The Secret Garden, which won a Dora Mavor Moore Award. She has also written various scripts for CBC television.

For seven seasons she was a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.
Joan MacLeod lived on Bowen Island prior to becoming Department Chair of the University of Victoria Writing Department. In spring 2009 she was the Senior Playwright-in-Residence at the Playwrights' Colony at The Banff Centre. Another Home Invasion premiered in February of 2009 at ATP in Calgary, as a co-production with Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.


Amigo's Blue Guitar (Talonbooks, 1997)

2000 (Talonbooks, 1997)

The Hope Slide / Little Sister (Talonbooks, 1999)

The Shape Of A Girl/Jewel (Talonbooks, 2002)

Another Home Invasion (Talonbooks, 2009)

The Valley (Talon 2014) $17.95 978-0-88922-846-7

[BCBW 2014] "Theatre" "Disaster"

Another Home Invasion (Talonbooks $16.95)

from BCBW / Sara Cassidy

For anyone who has followed Joan MacLeodís vigorous, humane and much-acclaimed work as a playwright, from her 1991 Govenor General Award winner Amigoís Blue Guitar, about a Salvadoran refugee, to the GG-nominee Shape of a Girl, written in the wake of Rena Virkís brutal murder in Victoria, to Homechild, about British children shipped to Canada as indentured labourers around the turn of the last century, itís not surprising to learn her newest play presents the voice of someone dealing with injustice.

But in Another Home Invasion, MacLeod for the first time allows a character to directly address the audience. Another Home Invasion is a deliciously readable monologue.

Jean is an elderly B.C. woman who is unable to care for her home or her ailing husband. She must decide what to do when the government decides the only available solution is to have them live separately.

The playís title seemingly refers to a strangerís chaotic incursion on her doorstep. But it soon becomes clear--as Jean describes her beloved, yet erratic and dependent husband, a flippant granddaughter, a distracted daughter, and a steel-cold social worker--that Jeanís home security is being threatened on multiple fronts.

MacLeod created the role of Jean for actor Nicola Lipman, who dazzled at the playís opening at the Tarragon Theatre, and will now perform the play on a cross-country tour.

The warm and down-to-earth Joan MacLeod was interviewed by Sara Cassidy at the University of Victoria where MacLeod is a full-time professor in the Writing Department.

BC BookWorld: You insist that your writing students get on their feet and perform their work. That they moveÖ.
Joan MacLeod: Yes, I want to remind them that theatre is a physical art form.

BCBW: But Jean in Home Invasion is elderlyóthereís minimal physical action.

JM: Yes. An old lady sitting in a chair! It doesnít sound like risky theatre, but it is risky theatre! I didnít want this to be a play where sheís making coffee for invisible people. Itís a direct address to the audience. Sheís got a story and she wants to tell it. And sheís old. In her eighties. Sheís in good health, but it takes pretty much everything she has to tell her story.

Old people are still a lot of the time. So in the play, she gets up, I think, three times. And for a couple of those times itís kind of incidental, sheís got some aches and pains. And then there is one time she is imagining she is with her husband, and she goes down on the floor, beside him. And because she had been so still throughout the play, itís quite powerful watching Nicky do it. Itís hard to go down on your knees on the floor when youíre old.

BCBW: You trigger the play with this incident of a stranger barrelling into Jeanís life; but that isnít the primary story. Youíre exposing a home invasion very different from the kind we read about in the papers.

JM: Itís about how the health care system is failing people, in our province in particular, and the effect health cuts have had on seniors. I reference Frank and Fanny Elbow in Princeton, who were separated and how they were both dead within two weeks. What a tragedy. Similar scenarios played out two or three times while I was writing the play.

Jean is really ready to move into a place; she needs help. That mantraókeep people in their homes as long as possibleóhas been abused. My mom was in her apartment way longer than she should have been. It was hard on her, hard on her family. She needed help and she didnít get it soon enough. And my momís rest home is typical: 85 per cent are women. They nursed their husbands, looked after them until they died, and then theyíre on their own. What a strong bunch of women. What a silent bunch of women. I just found that moving.

BCBW: Iím tempted to refer to you as a political writer, but the label always lands wrong. It cheats your work.

JM: I do write about real life events and try to get inside headlines. But ultimately I hope theyíre deeply humane plays and pieces of art, as well.

BCBW: Can politics compromise the literariness of a written work?

JM: It sure can. Iíll start a play upset about something, so I guess thatís a political stanceówanting to change something. But characters take over and theyíll hijack that intent many times over before the play is finished.

BCBW: And you allow that to happen.

JM: Yeah, I want to be true to the character. So the character and the event that inspired the play get further and further apart and I find the characterís own event, if that makes sense.

BCBW: Jean never turns around and says anything about the health care system.

JM: No, that wouldnít be her way at all. Sheís not used to saying what she needs and what she wants in a loud, clear voice. Thatís just not on the radar for her. When sheís pissed off at the social worker, she says someone pulled the wool over me and sheís mad, but thatís as direct as that character is ever going to get.

Some plays really are a call to action, but not mine. I donít really think that much about it. I just want (the audience) to have a good night in the theatre, to listen, and take away what they will. I like to get to the heart of someone and tell her story. And sometimes that crosses onto political turf and sometimes it doesnít.

BCBW: Your protagonists are often women whose stories havenít been told.

JM: Yeah, thereís not a lot of Jeans on the stage right now. And I like that. Sheís getting her time and Nicky makes sure she uses it well. When we were premiering in Calgary, she takes her time and makes eye contact with people and establishes that contact.

Itís her shot, her opportunity to tell her story. [Director] Richard Rose calls it her complaint.

BCBW: Ric Knowles, in his introduction to the book, notes how breaking down the fourth wall like that traps the audience in the story. We canít see where the unreliability is with the narrator.

JM: Yes. You donít have any other characters so you have to go with her version. And make your own decisions. And sheís got her blind spots, sheís not a self-aware character, so you have to do some of her work for her.

BCBW: You dedicated Another Home Invasion to your husband. Why?

JM: Because it is about marriage. Ultimately itís a love story. And he manages the fort when Iím running off to rehearsal...

BCBW: In 1987, you played the protagonist in your own play, Jewel, about the Ocean Ranger disaster, when the actor hired for the part left the show at dress rehearsal. How did that affect you as a playwright?

JM: it was really lucky for my career; critics knew who I was, that Iíd stood up and done this thing. And it teaches you to edit, thatís for sure. And just to know what an audience feels like was really valuable for me, because itís very different on the stage than it is sitting in the audience. Iím like most playwrights: Iím all paranoid, feeling responsible and a little out of control. When youíre acting you actually have a little control over the material. But thereís just a sense of goodwill that comes from the audience, and I didnít know anything about that. Itís just fabulous. It was very uplifting. Theyíre not out to get you. Theyíre not waiting for you to make a mistake.

BCBW: Do you have what you would call a writing life?

JM: Not lately, being a full-time professor. I donít write at all during the academic year. Thereís just no time. Teachingís demanding. Good demanding. I love it. But we have four months where we donít teach, and thatís my writing time. I love teaching. I only wish I didnít have to give grades to people.

BCBW: Is there anything youíd like to add? Maybe about the arts in general?

JM: Well, damn all these funding cuts. Itís awful. Weíre really going to see how it affects theatre with the upcoming season. Thereís going to be less new work, less money for things, a lot of small companies folding. So certainly, less opportunities for my students. Ironically, itís probably a good time to be an established playwright with a one-person show. So thatís kind of depressing. And you know, theatre goes on no matter what. So thereís also a bit of to hell with them in terms of funding. People will still make theatre.

Sara Cassidy writes from Victoria.

[BCBW 2010]