PGC's Q & A with Michele Riml
Playwrights Guild of Canada chats with PGC member, Michele Riml, who talks about taking off the masque, why theatre will never die, what it’s like to trust in your writing, and why showing up for writing is 95% of the battle.
1. You’ve created multiple plays that have debuted at Fringe Festivals and have then been picked up and remounted at theatres across Canada and internationally. Can you chat about the process of creating a show at a Fringe Festival and then remounting it again at a theatre for production? Do your scripts transform during this production process from the original work? How does writing a play for a Fringe Festival differ from the process of writing a commissioned play, like your new play, on the edge, which is currently showing at the Belfry Theatre Mainstage?
I haven’t written for the Fringe in a while, but it is definitely how I started and it helped me develop my process and philosophy about writing. My first three plays, including Sexy Laundry, were written for The Fringe simply because I wanted to write them and I wanted them to be seen. I got to choose the director. I got to be in every rehearsal. So I got to make sure the play was mounted, albeit simply, the way I envisioned it. The Fringe was a way for me to be exposed to Artistic Directors. Both Patrick McDonald of Green Thumb Theatre and Bill Millard at The Arts Club either commissioned or produced a play from seeing something of mine at the Fringe. My play Sexy Laundry was workshopped after The Fringe, but the writing did not change substantially. The production did though, happily. We had lights, a set, sound, all that good stuff that comes with a proper production.
Writing for The Fringe taught me to write what I want to write. Don’t think about what “they” are looking for, or what’s out there right now, or if I’ll be produced. It’s a great freedom to trust that what comes up to write, is what’s meant to come up. Sexy Laundry is a very commercial play, but I would have been doomed if I’d set out to write a “commercial play.” It was just fun to write for The Fringe.
I continue to write with the same philosophy in mind, even when I’m commissioned.
2. In a synopsis of one of your hugely successful plays, Sexy Laundry, it stated: “The bottomless mystery of what attracts people to each other is, arguably, the sustainable fuel of theatre.” Can you talk a bit more about this statement and the themes in your work you are drawn to that work together to create evocative theatre?
I think relationships, like theatre, are about connection and story.
We bring our history and the stories we tell about ourselves into relationships, and sometimes the sparks fly. We want to be known, and we are scared to be known. I love this tension in life and in theatre. Theatre is about taking off the masque, even as the actors don one to tell the story. I am interested in what’s going on inside, what makes us tick, what we hide and especially what we reveal—to ourselves, to our fellow human beings, even to our Gods.
We meet ourselves and our humanity in the theatre. We feel isolated or alone, like “the other”, and then we see through stories and characters that we are not so separate, that we share a connection. We are hungry for that connection as a society. That’s why theatre will never die or be replaced by the Internet. There is a magical thing that happens when the audience breathes together with an actor on stage, when they experience something together in a room, for a moment or for a couple of hours. Nothing can replace that. It’s why I write.
3. Throughout your career, you’ve written 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?
For the most part, I know when I’m writing a TYA play because I’m commissioned by a TYA company, usually Green Thumb Theatre. Often Patrick, (the Artistic Director of Green Thumb Theatre) and I will sit down and talk about the story or issue that I’m interested in exploring. Writing for TYA is tough because you have to think of the place the show will be produced, usually a school gym, and that the audience could vary in age from grade one to grade seven. A six year old is very different from a twelve year old. And yet they often see the same play. So it has to work on a couple of levels.
That said, I never think of my play as a “kid’s” play. I think about the story in the same way that I would tell it to an adult audience. I try not to teach or preach, which is an anathema to any audience of any age. And kids are the best BS detectors of anyone.
The idea for my play RAGE came full blown to me. It was never meant to be a TYA play. It just had a seventeen-year-old person as the main character.
4. What is the most valuable piece of advice you received as a beginning writer and/or what advice would you offer to emerging playwrights?
WRITE. AND REWRITE.
Seriously. You have to write to be a writer. And you have to rewrite to be a good writer.
No way around it. And find your own process. When you find it, trust it. Showing up is 95% of the battle.
5. Your new play, on the edge, looks at the lives of three women in today’s complicated world, each very different from the others and each caught in a labyrinth created by society’s expectations and their own personal challenges. on the edge opened on January 24, 2012 and is running until February 26, 2012 at the Belfry Theatre Mainstage (Victoria, BC), produced by Belfry Theatre.
Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this latest project of yours and what you hope that the audience takes away from the piece.
The play is three monologues: a fashion addict, a cop, and a housewife. Each of the women is very different, but they are also each at a breaking point, or at a breakthrough point in their lines. Women inspire me through the unique challenges we face. Women who fail or struggle and get up again, inspire me. Women who are willing to look at the hard truth about themselves inspire me.
There is a line in the play that Jess, the cop, delivers: “Compassion is insight.”
I hope the audience takes that away. I hope by understanding these diverse women, we come to care about them, and therefore, care about ourselves, in a softer, gentler way. I believe the gift of theatre is that we relate to people whose stories may be different than our own. By understanding them, we come to know ourselves better.
6. The sequel to Sexy Laundry, which is called, Henry and Alice: Into the Wild is scheduled to open in April 2012 at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre. Tell us a bit about this upcoming play and what it was like to continue to work with reoccurring characters in a sequel.
Sexy Laundry was about a marriage and the struggle with keeping it alive and fresh, particularly in the arena of sex. Henry and Alice: Into the Wild is also about marriage and this time it focuses on the strain around finances and what happens when Henry loses his job. It takes place in a campsite because they are trying to save some money on their vacation. Once again they are forced to examine the strength of their relationship, this time in a place without walls or room service.
Henry and Alice: Into the Wild has been fun and challenging to write. It’s been a fun process because it is wonderful to connect with Henry and Alice’s voices again. They are two characters that I know well. I went camping one summer and they just started talking to me again. I thought, “Ok, we’ve seen you make out in a fancy hotel. How would you two survive ‘In The Wild?’”
I think of “the wild” as an emotional place as much as a physical place. It’s new territory for this middle-aged couple to find themselves without a source of income and with a meager retirement. That’s the wild that I’m interested in exploring.
It’s been challenging to write this sequel because Sexy Laundry was successful and it is a funny play. I didn’t intend to write a sequel to Sexy Laundry, and in fact, I try not to think of it like that, but in fact, I let it stand as a play on its own. I had to clear my mind and just let Henry and Alice: Into the Wild come as something new, and not as a remake of Sexy Laundry. Also, the pressure to be funny does not help the writing process or make anything I write be actually funny. I can’t tell a joke to save my life. If people laugh at my stuff it is because they identify with it. I use the quote shared below to help me remember where comedy really comes from.
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 do tend to jot down things that I read or hear for inspiration. They help me in writing and in life. I tend to switch them up through the year. Here are two that are posted on my computer right now:
“It’s not your job to be funny. Your barometer for comedy is nowhere near as good as your barometer for the truth.”—Ivan Reitman
“Do you have patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”—Lao Tzu
Michele Riml is a critically acclaimed playwright from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her plays have been seen in Canada, the US, Poland, New Zealand and Iceland. They include Miss Teen, Under the Influence, Poster Boys, RAGE, Souvenirs, and the break out hit Sexy Laundry, which has been translated into Spanish, German, Icelandic, and most recently, Polish. Henry and Alice: Into the Wild, the sequel to Sexy Laundry, will premiere in April 2012 at The Vancouver Arts Club. Her plays for young audiences include, RAGE (winner of the 2005 Sydney Risk Prize for Outstanding Original Play), The Skinny Lie, and The Invisible Girl and Tree Boy, published this spring by Playwrights Canada Press. Michele was nominated for the 2008 Siminovitch Prize and is a mentor for young writers through the IGNITE! program at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Her newest play on the edge, is currently running at The Belfry Theatre in Victoria.
Photo Credit: Peter Pokorny
Caption: “Michele at rehearsal for ‘on the edge’ at The Belfry Theatre”