PGC's Q & A with Maja Ardal

Playwrights Guild of Canada talks to PGC member, Maja Ardal about how space, support, and deadlines are needed to help launch a project, how a script is a living, breathing thing that can respond to both the actors’ and audiences’ needs, how poetry can emphasize and highlight themes in a play, the process of adaptation, and all about her upcoming play, Prisoner of Tehran.

1. You’ve worked in many different fields in the theatre community throughout your career—actor, director, theatre and playwriting instructor, playwright, and from 1990 – 1998, you were the Artistic Director of Young People's Theatre and as well, in 2008 you completed a year as Interim Artistic Director at Nightwood Theatre. In addition, in 2002 you received the George Luscombe Award for Mentorship in the Theatre.

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? How do your experiences in one field aid and fuel the creation of new work?

I began as an actor, and I probably always will act. I find that understanding the nature of acting is a great help to my work in the other areas. (I also direct). In my playwriting, I immerse myself in each character, and I must write as if I am one of them. I find it essential to understand the nature of acting when writing my plays. I cannot imagine myself to be an audience when writing, because then I will be writing for the stage. I do not begin my writing work with the stage in mind. I immerse myself in the world of the play. This way I do not restrict my imagination. In my directing work, I imagine what it feels like to be the performer, but I also represent the audience for the actors. When I am directing Prisoner of Tehran, I sometimes feel a need to change the script for clarity, efficiency, or to ease the actor’s job. It is handy to be the playwright as well.

2. Let’s talk a bit about inspiration, the nature of creativity, and how you work as a playwright. What are your favourite or most helpful writing prompts? What is your method for beginning a new project and where do you look for inspiration?

I am never short of things I want to write a play about. My plays all have one thing in common—they are about the trouble people get themselves into. I am also increasingly alarmed about how the political world affects the individual. It is why I have loved writing Prisoner of Tehran, but these forces also exist to some degree in all my work. My latest work-in-progress is about economics.

In order to launch a project, I need three things: space, support, and deadlines. I set the deadlines myself, I apply for funds, and in order to have the mental space to write I isolate myself for periods of time, preferably at my country house in Muskoka. A great deal of my writing has happened in this retreat in the forest and I feel lucky to have it.

Another level of encouragement for my work is my relationships with theatre companies. I have been playwright-in-residence with Nightwood Theatre, and I find this kind of relationship to be very supportive. I will be developing a play with 4th Line Theatre starting at the end of the summer, and I look forward to being a member of this wonderful theatre family.

3. Your successful and award-winning show, You Fancy Yourself, is a hilarious and poignant tale of playground politics and childhood loyalties set against the background of 1950s Scotland and it is published by Playwrights Canada Press. You Fancy Yourself began as a one-act play for Summerworks (2006) and was then produced at Theatre Passe Muraille. In 2009, you were invited to tour England perform the play at theatres, community halls, as well as at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was remounted in 2010 at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainstage.

A) Can you chat about the process of creating a show for a fringe festival and then remounting it again at a theatre for production? Do your scripts transform during the production process from the original work?

I love the writing process that happens during rehearsals. Whether it is I or other actors who are tackling the work, I feel that the script is a living, breathing thing that can respond to the performer’s and audience’s needs in a new way. You Fancy Yourself was a 50 minute piece at Summerworks and it then became a two act piece of about 80 minutes when it was produced in theatres. I had tons of material and just dipped back into it when the play was being prepared for theatres and touring. Now I have two versions of the script: the one act play and the two act play. This has come in handy.

B) Also, tell us about what your experience has been having work staged in different countries, and how that process has differed from having your work staged in Canada. Has the audience reaction changed depending on where your work has been produced?

My work has been produced in Iceland, the US, Scotland, and England. In Iceland, where my first play, Midnight Sun was produced, the audiences dressed formally for a night out at the theatre. They behaved formally too, listening with great intensity. At the curtain call they would collectively applaud in rhythm, a sign of high appreciation. The Icelanders rehearse plays for around eight weeks, and it develops a strong bond in the company, and the community is very aware of the upcoming play. Icelanders treat artists as valued members of the community.

In England, the audiences for You Fancy Yourself were generally very jolly and vocal. I was on tour there, and one of the loveliest rituals I enjoyed when arriving at new venues was a pot of good English tea. The warmth of the English audiences reminded me of audiences in Toronto, who are very respectful, engaged and appreciative. The Edinburgh Fringe is a competitive venue where the audiences are knowledgeable and ready for a fun night out. But they are also comparative. I was fortunate to have a review, which led audiences to my venue, and the local Edinburgh folks really liked having a play that was set in their hometown.

When Midnight Sun was produced in the US, I realized that the interpretation had become rather sentimental. But the jazz playing was fantastic. The audiences seemed to like the sentimentality more than I did. Perhaps it was the cultural difference.

4. Your new play, Prisoner of Tehran, is an adaptation of the bestselling international memoir by Marina Nemat that exposes the brave story of what happened in 1980, when she was only 16 years old and was arrested for speaking out against Ayatollah Khomeini's regime.

The World Premiere of Prisoner of Tehran runs April 10 – 28, 2012 at the Theatre Passe Muraille (Toronto, ON), produced by Contrary Company and Theatre Passe Muraille. Tell us a bit more about the themes in the play, and what you hope that the audience takes away from the piece.

Much of the dialogue is infused with my imagination. I wrote for only three actors, and I used poetry to bring Marina’s own love of and gift for poetry alive. The use of poetry also helps to emphasize the theme of the play, which focuses on the young people in the story. It is about the loss of freedom of young people, and especially young women, who are the most vulnerable. This is a political play, of course. Marina believes that the cycle of violence must be broken by bearing witness to the violence of oppressive governments like Iran’s.

5. Can you share what the process was like of creating a stageplay based on the adaptation of a work?

I prepared for the stage adaptation of the memoir written by Marina Nemat by writing from the point of view of each individual character in the story. I filled several large notebooks with handwritten internal monologues. The story is about Marina’s unjust imprisonment as a teenager in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran. She was tortured, and sentenced to death. Her interrogator saved her from execution, than forced her to marry him. Marina did not want me to vilify Ali her interrogator, or to make it a story of the innocent victim and the villain. So I set about making each character in the play as rich and full as possible. I did ask Marina’s permission to fictionalize scenes to strengthen the theatricality. She totally understood this and gave me her blessing. She attended the workshop process daily as well as rehearsals. This is a gift for us all.

6. What is the most valuable piece of advice you received as a beginning writer and/or what advice would you offer to emerging playwrights?

Judith Thompson told me in my early years as a writer, “Don’t let people see your work until you have written a complete draft,” and I have followed her advice ever since.

She also said, “Every play needs a ticking time bomb.”

It is such a practical and inspiring thought. And I have that expectation in my work from the start. When I go over what I have written, I discover whether I can feel the tick-tock. If not, there is a problem.

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:

My screen saver for years had a quote from playwright Maria Irene Fornes, “Whisper to a friend.”

She described writing as something you would whisper to an intimate friend. It reminds me to write truthfully and fearlessly, without self-judgment.


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Photography by Alex Felipe


Maja Ardal has worked in Canadian theatre for 40 years. She was Artistic Director of Young People’s Theatre from 1990-98, and interim AD of Nightwood Theatre in 2009. She performed her plays, You Fancy Yourself (Dora Award for Performance), and The Cure for Everything at Theatre Passe Muraille (Dora nomination for Outstanding Play). She also performed You Fancy Yourself at the Edinburgh Fringe 2009, and on tour through England. She performed The Cure for Everything at the California International Theatre Festival in the fall of 2011. Maja’s play, Midnight Sun was produced by Tarragon Theatre and the National Arts Centre, and also at Gloucester Playhouse Massachusetts. All three of those plays are published by Playwrights Canada Press. Maja is developing a new play for 4th Line Theatre. She is also developing a new work about the economy. Maja is the Artistic Director of Contrary Company, which is producing Maja’s play, Prisoner of Tehran, adapted from the memoir by Marina Nemat. She has been invited to bring the play to the Women’s International Playwrights’ Conference in Stockholm (August 2012).