Featured Member — Janet Munsil

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*Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Janet Munsil, a playwright and the former producer/artistic director of Intrepid Theatre in Victoria (1992–2016). Her plays have been produced internationally by theatres including the National Arts Centre, Theatre Calgary, ATP, Tarragon, Touchstone, The West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Citizen’s (Glasgow), The Arts Club Stanley Theatre, Persephone, and the Soho Theatre in London’s West End. Her play “That Elusive Spark” was a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards. She teaches playwriting at the University of Victoria as a sessional instructor, and is the Instigator of the Canadian Play Thing (plaything.ca), which she operates from her home on Lkwungen territory/Victoria BC.

What sparked your interest in playwriting?

I was always interested in plays, although I wasn’t a “theatre kid.” I loved going to plays, but there wasn’t a lot of access to live theatre where I grew up, so it was more about reading — I liked reading plays, and I liked imagining other books — mostly biographies — that I was reading at the time as plays that I would write, design, direct, and probably star in, Rushmore-style.

What inspires you to write?

Honestly, I haven’t been feeling like writing, or even thinking about it, during these strange days — or reading, which is usually the fuel. I’m typically inspired to write when I make some obscure connection between two or more things I’ve been reading, and then it’s ­ “To the Library!” I’m really missing libraries.

What are your thoughts on the shift in theatre due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The heightened profile of the performing arts in the media is interesting to me. So many things are open-access and there seems to be a real hunger and enthusiasm for art in the general public on a scale I’ve never seen. I hope institutions are thinking about preserving that momentum, and exploring new ways to open doors to artists and audiences. This is a great moment to be experimenting, in addition to finding the path back to “normal.”

What have you been working on lately in quarantine?

I started the Canadian Play Thing as a facebook group on March 17th, set up a website, heard about zoom — and we were reading our first play four days later, with a cast of actors all over the country. I was a festival producer for a long time — so that figure-it-out, get-it-done skill-and-mind-set has been useful.

As of this weekend, we’ve done 20 of 40 scheduled full-length readings of playwright-submitted work — currently at the rate of three or four per week. The playwright submits a play, I email them to set a date, and we cast from the roster of a couple hundred actors across the country. Most are unrehearsed “warm reads” — so it’s very live in that sense. The online venue seats 100, with the audience off-stage, so unlike many scroll-by livestream experiences or archived recordings, we have chosen to be in same place at the same time together.

Since I made the move to teaching and writing full-time, I’ve been thinking about the public reading of a play as a kind of performance of the work — one that focusses on the playwright’s words, ideas, and intentions. Not every play that is written is going to have a full production, and most readings of new plays are considered “tryouts,” or part of a development process — a poor second to a “real” production — rather than a realization of the text on a fundamental level: words written for actors to speak. It takes so much work and energy to write a script. It should be easier to share that work than it is.

The Play Thing does new scripts that have been Covid-cancelled, or that are caught in the endless workshop loop, or are complete but un-staged, or plays that have premiered but never got a second production; we have actors who are bored at home, we have audiences who want to be exposed to new plays and playwrights but may not have the opportunity. And the huge plays, the plays with ten or twenty or forty characters. We can do those, no big deal. Is it like a full production? No. It’s obviously different. I think that as long as this is useful to playwrights, and makes them feel supported, and people want to attend because they care about Canadian plays, and actors want to gather and do what they do, then it’s worthwhile. And if the idea has value “when this is all over” as a service to playwrights — I’ll do what I can to keep it going.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could say “Hey, I wrote a scene this morning and I’d like to hear it and get some feedback– who’s in?” and ten minutes later you were hearing the words, taking the notes, finding the momentum you need to keep going?

What are some hobbies/activities that have been helping you get through quarantine?

I complete abandoned needlepoint canvases I find in thrift shops. My one rule is that it has to have some stitching started on it before I buy it — I like to collaborate.

Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.

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Established in 1972, PGC is a registered national arts service association committed to advancing the creative rights and interests of Canadian playwrights.

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