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 MacLeod’s vigorous, humane and much-acclaimed work as a playwright, from her 1991 Govenor General Award winner Amigo’s Blue Guitar, about a Salvadoran refugee, to the GG-nominee Shape of a Girl, written in the wake of Rena Virk’s brutal murder in Victoria, to Homechild, about British children shipped to Canada as indentured labourers around the turn of the last century, it’s 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 play’s title seemingly refers to a stranger’s 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 Jean’s home security is being threatened on multiple fronts.
MacLeod created the role of Jean for actor Nicola Lipman, who dazzled at the play’s 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 move….
Joan MacLeod: Yes, I want to remind them that theatre is a physical art form.
BCBW: But Jean in Home Invasion is elderly—there’s minimal physical action.
JM: Yes. An old lady sitting in a chair! It doesn’t sound like risky theatre, but it is risky theatre! I didn’t want this to be a play where she’s making coffee for invisible people. It’s a direct address to the audience. She’s got a story and she wants to tell it. And she’s old. In her eighties. She’s 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 it’s kind of incidental, she’s 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, it’s quite powerful watching Nicky do it. It’s hard to go down on your knees on the floor when you’re old.
BCBW: You trigger the play with this incident of a stranger barrelling into Jean’s life; but that isn’t the primary story. You’re exposing a home invasion very different from the kind we read about in the papers.
JM: It’s 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 mantra—keep people in their homes as long as possible—has 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 didn’t get it soon enough. And my mom’s rest home is typical: 85 per cent are women. They nursed their husbands, looked after them until they died, and then they’re on their own. What a strong bunch of women. What a silent bunch of women. I just found that moving.
BCBW: I’m 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 they’re deeply humane plays and pieces of art, as well.
BCBW: Can politics compromise the literariness of a written work?
JM: It sure can. I’ll start a play upset about something, so I guess that’s a political stance—wanting to change something. But characters take over and they’ll 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 character’s own event, if that makes sense.
BCBW: Jean never turns around and says anything about the health care system.
JM: No, that wouldn’t be her way at all. She’s not used to saying what she needs and what she wants in a loud, clear voice. That’s just not on the radar for her. When she’s pissed off at the social worker, she says someone pulled the wool over me and she’s mad, but that’s as direct as that character is ever going to get.
Some plays really are a call to action, but not mine. I don’t 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 doesn’t.
BCBW: Your protagonists are often women whose stories haven’t been told.
JM: Yeah, there’s not a lot of Jeans on the stage right now. And I like that. She’s 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.
It’s 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 can’t see where the unreliability is with the narrator.
JM: Yes. You don’t have any other characters so you have to go with her version. And make your own decisions. And she’s got her blind spots, she’s 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 it’s a love story. And he manages the fort when I’m 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 I’d stood up and done this thing. And it teaches you to edit, that’s for sure. And just to know what an audience feels like was really valuable for me, because it’s very different on the stage than it is sitting in the audience. I’m like most playwrights: I’m all paranoid, feeling responsible and a little out of control. When you’re acting you actually have a little control over the material. But there’s just a sense of goodwill that comes from the audience, and I didn’t know anything about that. It’s just fabulous. It was very uplifting. They’re not out to get you. They’re 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 don’t write at all during the academic year. There’s just no time. Teaching’s demanding. Good demanding. I love it. But we have four months where we don’t teach, and that’s my writing time. I love teaching. I only wish I didn’t have to give grades to people.
BCBW: Is there anything you’d like to add? Maybe about the arts in general?
JM: Well, damn all these funding cuts. It’s awful. We’re really going to see how it affects theatre with the upcoming season. There’s going to be less new work, less money for things, a lot of small companies folding. So certainly, less opportunities for my students. Ironically, it’s probably a good time to be an established playwright with a one-person show. So that’s kind of depressing. And you know, theatre goes on no matter what. So there’s also a bit of to hell with them in terms of funding. People will still make theatre.
Sara Cassidy writes from Victoria.