**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with award-winning playwright Jennifer Wynne Webber who writes in multiple genres and who has also worked as a television journalist, professional actor, dramaturge, and video producer. Her first book was a novel called “Defying Gravity.” Scirocco Drama has published two of her plays: “Beside Myself” and “With Glowing Hearts: How Ordinary Women Worked Together to Change the World (And Did).” Her play, “White Lies,” was published in the literary journal, Ryga and, under its former title “Whistling at the Northern Lights,” was also selected as one of Canada’s top five plays for Neue Theaterstücke aus Kanada, a Berlin-based Canada-Germany theatre export program. Two of Jennifer’s plays have also received Off-Broadway staged readings. Jennifer has a degree in History from the University of Saskatchewan and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
How did you get started as a playwright?
That story is a series of disparate scenes, plucked out from quite a long stretch of time.
First, there’s me, as a kid in grade three, sitting cross-legged on the floor watching the theatre troupe that visited our school in Montreal — which I’m pretty sure had to be Youtheatre, by the way, since this was before Geordie Theatre began. And my little glasses-bedecked head was well and truly blown. This was live theatre — where anything could happen, with nothing but a few people and a few props. I thought it was utterly fantastic. Of course, I also thought, “Hey, I could do that!”
So, of course, the next rapid-fire series of scenes would be of me with my two sisters, making up elaborate plays, any chance we could get, and they were sometimes large cast shows, too, when we were visiting one particular batch of cousins. We made up plays of every genre, by the way — even one rather unforgettable musical horror that freaked us all right out. I still remember the chorus.
Next scene would probably be me, in a high school classroom, in Saskatoon, listening to Sharon Pollock who came to speak as part of the school writers’ festival. For one thing, she changed the picture I had of what a writer could look like: here was this formidable woman — and she was a playwright. I’d always wanted to be a writer but, since up until then I pictured writers as Ernest Hemingway, this was an important step for me.
Then there’d be a little flood of linked scenes from the rehearsals and run of the very first professional acting job I ever landed. That was in David Fennario’s Balconville at Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon and I have to say that’s where theatre fully got me. Or maybe when I got it.
I can picture the very moment it happened, too. I was sitting on the edge of the stage during notes, the stage lights were still up and blindingly bright, the seats in the theatre all shadowed, and there I was surrounded by these amazing actors who really were actors (I was just a hopeful newbie), with the inimitable Tibor Feheregyhazi giving us all his many wild and wonderful notes, and me just marveling at the whole experience of all these creative energies coming together to capture something true and powerful about people, about life, about society, about politics, about history, about psychology, about poetry — about everything. Theatre was everything, I decided. Everything I was curious about and studying at university — and more. It brought it all together.
Maybe somewhat oddly, I still didn’t start actually writing plays until many years later though. So fast forward over much living, much writing (mostly prose), much theatre (going and acting), a helpful playwriting course taught by Raymond Storey, and one holiday spent alone on the deck of a borrowed cabin in Washington state where I banged out the first draft of my first attempt at a play on an old manual typewriter (I still love old typewriters since you can’t get sidetracked by the Internet on them). And, of course, all this was taking place during my thirteen years of working in journalism with CBC TV news.
And only toward the end of all that do you get to the day I met with Angus Ferguson to talk about the first draft of my first real play, Beside Myself. (Which I didn’t know was real yet, I just hoped.) Angus was then dramaturge with the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre and also artistic director of Dancing Sky Theatre. And there we were sitting in a car outside a Volvo repair shop on the edge of town, no doubt because of something to do with Saskatchewan weather or rural roads or both. (Prairie dramaturgy!) And there was Angus, to my utter amazement and joy, telling me how keen he was on the play. And he meant it too — he even ended up producing the play at Dancing Sky Theatre about a year later. His belief in me as a playwright that day helped me believe it.
I later learned that, just before Angus came back to Saskatchewan, he had been artistic director of Montreal’s Youtheatre — the very company that had got me so excited about live theatre, way back when I was a kid. This, to my mind, is a lovely bit of symmetry.
Who/what is your inspiration?
I’d have to say my mother, Mona. She was amazing. A strong, funny, adventurous, ever- surprising, and incredibly smart woman who was widowed when she was just in her 30s and yet who somehow managed, all by herself, to raise three daughters with love, humour, and fun — all while working on a small, part-time salary. And yet somehow we grew up feeling that life sparkled with promise, that the world was ours to explore, and that we were loved beyond measure. How she did that, is something I’m still trying to figure out — and live up to.
She also always gave me great feedback on my work — she had a fantastic eye and an amazing ability to zero in on what I was trying to do. In her very final years, I’d read my work out loud to her and she always gave me very sound advice. She also had a natural sense of the dramatic and was a born actor, I believe, although she didn’t have much chance to show her talent to the world. Still, in 1952, when she was just 16 years old, she won the Saskatchewan gold medal in drama for her performance in The Weird Sisters. I wish I could get my hands on that play. I’d love to read it and picture her in the role.
What Canadian play has had the biggest impact on you personally?
I’d have to say David Fennario’s Balconville, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned — the whole wonderful experience of doing my first professional acting job with that incredible group of actors. But also because when I did it, I don’t think I’d ever even had the chance to see a Canadian play before, never mind be in one. And Balconville is, of course, set in Montreal, where I’d lived as a kid, and was about working class people who were struggling to get by, and so it felt relevant and real and important — and it made theatre, for me, something that was alive and electric, and that could convey any world, any time.
As for other Canadian plays that have had an important impact on me, Colleen Murphy’s work comes to mind first, plays like The December Man, and The Breathing Hole. I so appreciate the power and boldness and ambition of her work. Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes was another transformative piece of theatre for me. I’m also incredibly impressed by Hannah Moscovitch’s work — the last piece I’ve seen of hers was Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which I found incredibly moving and smart.
I should note though that, since I’ve tended to live in smaller cities, there are a lot of Canadian plays I’ve only ever been able to read. Still, I travel to see plays as much as I can — and can afford. I drove from Saskatoon to Edmonton to see The December Man, for example. I’d also never been able to get to Stratford until 2017 when they did The Breathing Hole. A ferry trip was required to see Old Stock last year in Vancouver. So we lovers of Canadian theatre who live outside major cities, we often have to work extra hard to see plays, I have to say.
Have you been writing during the pandemic? If so, what are you working on?
I wish I could say yes, that I’ve been writing away with great passion and verve, right since the first lockdown. But, no, it all ground to a halt when our finances did. (My husband is an artist too — an abstract painter.) For months, I was in a total panic, trying to rustle up work, so all I was writing was job application letters.
Only now that I’ve finally managed to line up several months of part-time work have I been able to get back to my writing — which at the moment is working through another draft of my newest play.
It’s called Wild Geese and is about a very busy, and very urbanized woman who becomes an unexpected caregiver to her retired farmer dad just as she and her wife are trying to start a family of their own. It’s inspired, at least in part, by the years I took care of my mother, after she was hit with lung disease. And it also has its roots in my family’s longstanding love of Canada Geese. One bit of goose lore I love is that if one goose is ill or injured, another goose will always drop back to stay with the injured one until it recovers or dies.
It’s a family drama, with a lot of humour in it, and while I have a ways to go with it yet, I’m excited about it. It’s pulled me into some interesting new terrain, and, honestly, it’s already shaping up to be the best thing I’ve ever written. But I head into a workshop of it in a few weeks so I’m sure I’ll want to tear it apart again after that.
What has been getting you through the COVID era?
Caffeine, cocktail hour, and copious amounts of popcorn.
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.