Interview with Featured Playwright — Alison Lawrence
**Each month we interview two member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspirations with the community. As a part of our long-term goal to help improve equity in Canadian theatre, we make it a point to promote and feature at least one female playwright for this series. Dive into their minds and get inspired by their journeys.
Alison is a writer and actor. Her play Piece by Piece premiered at the Next Stage Festival in January 2015, and was…www.playwrightsguild.ca
As you’re getting ready for another amazing run of Bittergirl — the Musical, set to take place in BC’s Granville Island, from June 15 to July 29, 2017, and then later this summer, to return to Charlottetown, can you talk about the gender dynamic of your audience? To be specific, most women can obviously relate to being “bitter” and having experienced getting dumped at some point in their lives — did you find that men were just as receptive to the pain and/or strength of a bitter girl? Or were men were put off a bit by it, and/or perhaps how they thought men were being portrayed in Bittergirl?
In the original play version of bittergirl, we had a section at the end with reasons we had dumped people, and they weren’t always the most reasonable of reasons (like “he wore white tube socks with black dress shoes”) — so we cast ourselves as the perpetrators as well. And men have always embraced the show.
Weirdly, some of our ex’s have taken great pride in claiming some of the behaviours of our Bitterboy as theirs. Sometimes wrongly. But we first performed the show at the Rhubarb! Festival at Buddies in Bad Times, back in the day, and guess what? Everybody gets dumped: male, female, gay, straight, old and young. We do get a predominantly female audience at the show but everybody sees something of themselves in it.
The play and the musical are about the power of friendship, about getting each other through the hard emotional times we all face, and about being happy with who you are. Everybody can relate to that.
The Thing Between Us, (back in 2014), chronicles the relationship between three particular women, within a familial structure. I read that it took you somewhere in the neighbourhood of five years to complete this project — quite a journey! What did you learn most about yourself, and the relationships with the women in your life upon this journey?
I had an idea for that play and took a rough first draft of it to the Banff Playwrights Colony, where I was lucky enough to work with Don Hannah as my dramaturge. I took it home and after some time thought I had finished it, but soon realized I hadn’t. I discovered that one of the characters wasn’t necessary, that the story was really about the three women. So it was back to the computer and more drafts. Then as we were getting ready to produce the show my producing partner Mary Francis Moore was offered the chance of a lifetime to spend a year in London, England, so we shelved the production for a year. On her return we produced the show and coincidentally I was offered a place in the Next Stage Festival for another script I had been working on, Piece by Piece.
So suddenly we were producing two new plays in a very short period of time. That was a bit crazy. It was good for the control freak in me to let go and embrace all the changes that came the play’s way, both in the production and in the writing.
“I learned how a play can morph and change and take on a life of its own if you let it.”
Interestingly, after that whole circuitous route I think the play ended up answering some questions that Don asked me way back at the beginning in Banff. Maybe it needed to go that long route to get to where it needed to.
My most important relationships are with the women in my life: my mother, my daughter, and my bittergirl partners Annabel Fitzsimmons and Mary Francis Moore (Mary Francis and I also run the mcguffin company together).
I go back to relationships between women again and again, probably because of the endlessly supportive, challenging, loving and complicated relationships I have with the women in my life. One of the things I’m most proud of is that after its long creative journey, The Thing Between Us was shortlisted that year for PGC’s Carol Bolt Award.
The Catering Queen, another super-successful project of yours, with sold out runs, back in 2006 & 2009, was one you personally starred in, as you did with bittergirl — Do you find it very different, when you function is such a way that is more “hands-on”? Or do you find that there is very little difference when not also acting, bur focusing mainly on writing and directing?
I always joke that I never got to enjoy the success of The Catering Queen, because I was so busy writing, producing and acting in the show. When we produced it a second time it was a little easier to enjoy because I wasn’t still working on the script and our tight-knit cast all looked after each other.
During the first runs of bittergirl, I was a single mum with a young-ish daughter at home, and my bittergirl partners always made fun of me phoning myself right before we walked onstage to leave to-do lists on my voice mail for when I got home at night. But now my daughter is 26 years old and Annabel and Mary Francis are both in the weeds with their kids — the tables have turned. I can head out to the bar with my daughter after a show and the two of them have to get home to let the sitter go — the complete opposite of our lives when we were performing bittergirl ourselves.
It’s hard work to wear a bunch of different hats, but it is so, so satisfying. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a control freak. I wouldn’t say that it’s that much different to throw performing into the mix, it’s just more work. Although as I get older I don’t always want to perform.
“I like the rehearsal hall more than the stage, which as a producer and writer works just fine.”
The mcguffin company, your independent theatre collective, has a mandate that aims to “produce new independent Canadian work featuring women on and offstage, with an emphasis on the actor and the writer” — very noble! So what would you say has been the single greatest challenge in staying true to that? Or perhaps, where has most of the resistance/pushback, come from?
There’s no challenge in staying true to that mandate. The pushback hasn’t come towards the company, rather the company was created because of the resistance we found in trying to produce work that centres around the lives of women.
I was on a Dora Mavor Moore Award jury a few years back and saw eighty-something plays that season. (It was awesome — I highly recommend the experience.) But I found I was regularly surrounded by women audience members who were passionately discussing their full and interesting lives before the show began only to have the lights come up on a stage full of male actors, in plays written by men, directed by men, usually at theatres programmed by men. Nothing wrong with that, but the balance was off. Way off. Women are writing but not enough writing by women is getting produced on our mainstages.
What does the future hold for Alison Lawrence?
I’m performing this summer, working on a couple of summer theatre shows around Ontario. It’s nice to remind myself that I’m an actor as well (and, added bonus, in one I get to play opposite my husband Brian Young). I’ll be in PEI for previews and opening of Bittergirl — the Musical at the Charlottetown Festival at the beginning of July.
I’m working on a number of projects that are still at that gorgeous, messy development stage: I’ve written a romantic comedy for an older woman for the Lighthouse Festival in Port Dover that is being workshopped this fall; I’ve been researching and writing a first draft of a play on Medical Assistance in Dying for Studio 180’s In Development program; and Mary Francis Moore and I (if we can ever get the time in the same province together) have been working on and off on a new play for 6 women tentatively titled Jam.
There’s a new company aiming to tour Central Ontario that is going to produce The Thing Between Us next spring. And I’ve got a notebook full of other things I want to work on — the biggest problem is finding the time.