PGC's 40th Anniversary Q & A with Anne Chislett
Playwrights Guild of Canada talks to PGC member, Anne Chislett about her early memories of PGC, how the final message in a play for an audience is key, how sometimes the absolute truth in content trumps a dramatic choice in a scene, and loving the process of writing her new play – a big, sweeping socialist epic.
After my first or second production, I was invited to join Playwrights Canada (as I think it was called in the early ‘80’s) by then Executive Director, Shirley Gibson. She was welcoming, supportive, and made every effort to make me feel that I had arrived as a “professional.” I was soon a member of the Board and overwhelmed to serve with playwrights such as Tom Hendry and Mike Cook. The main emphasis of Playwrights Canada at that time was publishing. The mandate was to get every professionally produced Canadian play (there were not so many) into print. The distribution was something we can only dream of today. Just about every library in Canada bought all those scripts. It’s thanks to that initiative that many of us older writers are still the maximum number of “hits” from PLR every year. Back then, The Guild was a separate organization primarily dedicated to achieving a decent contract with PACT, and actively lobbying to get Canadian plays produced on our regional stages. Though many belonged to both organizations, the relationship was not at all positive. After a lengthy struggle, a merger into the Playwrights Guild of Canada was finally achieved.
In the early days, publishing my plays and making them available to amateur and high schools enhanced my earnings considerably. The strong professional contracts negotiated by the Guild were, and continue to be, invaluable. Thanks to the efforts of the Guild, my plays were among the first Canadian works in several Regionals. The contacts one makes through the organization, the dissemination of news, and the opportunities to meet fellow writers are also helpful.
2. You’ve worn many distinguished hats over the course of your career—playwright, dramaturge, and from 1998 – 2002 you were the Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival, a theatre dedicated to new Canadian works, which you also co-founded in 1975. You are also the Vice President of the Board of Directors of Playwrights Canada Press, and sit on the Advisory Board of PGC. You also sat on the jury for PGC’s 2011 Post-Secondary Playwriting Competition.
Do you find that your vast experience and the fact that you work in various disciplines is complementary to each role and also to your playwriting?
Actually, I’m no longer on the Board of Directors of Playwrights Canada Press. I was primarily representing Atlantic Canada and now I’ve returned to Toronto.
I’ve always regarded myself as the theatre worker who writes, rather than a writer who pens plays. In public school, I wrote plays because I couldn’t find ones suitable for me to produce for my class. The nuns were happy to let me dramatise the lives of several saints and popes during class time and my very first professional effort was because I needed a certain kind of play to balance the budget for Blyth’s third season.
In my recent re-incarnation as Blyth’s Artistic Director, I assessed a huge number of brand new scripts for production. I certainly learned what AD’S are looking for in a play, which means I can look at my own projects from that point of view. I also learned the difficulties of the dramaturgical and rehearsal process from the theatre’s point of view, which does not mean I always sympathize with it. On the other hand, I often wish more playwrights had the experience of running a theatre, and be more understanding of an AD’s challenges.
How do your experiences in one field aid and fuel the creation of new work?
Hiring and working with directors, designers, technicians, and actors gave me a greater appreciation of what they can do, and what a fantastic resource a number of them can be. I often call on designers for advice and inspiration, even towards the beginning of a project, and I seek advice from directors after a first draft. A lot of my work has been commissioned which allows me to part of a creative team early on.
I also have gained a good idea of what can’t be done, even with the best will in the world and lots of money. I’ve read work from very young and even emerging writers who never seem to have set foot backstage. It really helps to learn how little time it can take an actor to change a costume, or how long it can take to cross a big stage, as well as when to give a hint in a tiny stage direction, and much more importantly, when not to.
With dramaturgical work, or contests, I gain a lot of inspiration from other people’s scripts. Whenever I read a good play or see a great production, I get the urge to write again.
Theatre and playwriting is certainly art, but it is also a business, and knowing the business is a huge advantage.
3. Your award-winning plays have been widely produced across Canada, and also in Japan and the United States. Can you talk about what your experience has been having work staged in different countries, and how that process had differed from having your work staged in Canada? Has the audience reaction differed depending on where your work has been produced?
I’ve only participated in two productions, as the others got along quite well without me. New York was a nightmare. Japan was heaven.
The most interesting thing is that abroad one is viewed as a “Playwright,” akin to any other playwright in the world, rather than as a sub-species, “Canadian Playwright.” No one in the foreign productions treated me as though they were doing me a favour by producing the play, or lowering their standards to meet Canada Council requirements, as is still the case here sometimes, though thankfully, that’s far more rare these days.
Audience reaction, to my surprise, was exactly the same.
4. Throughout your career, you’ve written award-winning, acclaimed plays for young audiences and also for adults. Is your creative process the same when writing for both audiences, or does it vary depending on the audience? Do you know at the beginning of a project that you are working on a TYA play versus a play for adults, or does the nature of the audience become apparent at a later point in the writing process?
I always know, at least generally, to whom I’m trying to speak when I hatch a project. When the work is commissioned, I know exactly who the audience is going to be and who it is that I’m intending to speak to when I start to write. All the TYA work has been commissioned, and all has been for high schools. When I’m lucky, a play will transcend the specific audience and go off out into the world on its own. One of my TYA’s is on the curricula in Germany.
My process for TYA is a bit different in that I am always addressing a particular issue, and the pressure to be honest, accurate, and fair is even higher than in work for adults. (My two farm crisis plays for Blyth were equally demanding in this regard). Sometimes absolute truth in content trumps a dramatic choice in a scene. One has to be very careful with what message one is leaving the audience. There are also particular technical issues. Playing in gymnasia means having no lights to assist in focusing the audience who have not paid to be there, and indeed may not have chosen to be there. That ups the pressure to be theatrical, dramatic, and engage interest quickly. When sets and props are going to travel by light plane, it ups one’s creativity considerably.
5. What is the most valuable piece of advice you received as a beginning writer and/or what advice would you offer to emerging playwrights?
The answer to both parts of your question is the same, to read the first seven chapters of, Play Directing, Analysis, Communication, and Style by Francis Hodge.
6. What have you been working on lately? Tell us a bit about the plays you are currently working on and if you have any upcoming projects planned?
I’m working, at a leisurely pace, on one of my big, sweeping socialist epics that I love, but I’ve not found a way to proceed with it yet. And, I have to confess, proceeding with it is secondary to just enjoying writing it at this point.
7. Many authors have a favourite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. Please share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer:
I don’t really do inspirational, nor cherished notebooks. But there is always:
“Know what to kiss and when.
Be kind to those above you, even though they be turkeys.”
Those are the only two lines I remember from a parody of the Desiderata.
“More work goes into a failure than a success, so if it’s not working—stop working.”
Anne Chislett’s plays have been produced in Canada, Japan and the USA, and a number have been published in Canada, Japan, the USA and Germany. She’s the recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Chalmers Canadian Play Award for Quiet in the Land. Her play, Flippin’ In received the Chalmers Canadian Play Award in the Theatre for Young Audiences category, and Not Quite the Same was nominated for both the Chalmers and a Dora Mavor Moore award.
Anne is a co-founder and former Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival, a theatre dedicated to the production of new Canadian work. She is a Lifetime Member of both Playwrights Guild of Canada and Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre. She has also served on the Board of Playwrights Canada Press. Recently she taught playwriting at Dalhousie University in Halifax, but has now returned to Toronto.