PGC's Q&A with Betty-Jane Wylie
Playwrights Guild of Canada talks to PGC member, Betty-Jane Wylie about her long and diverse career that spans 36 plays (and musicals) and 40 books of non-fiction, biography, belles letters, poetry and cooking. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her first mystery novel.
1) During your long career, you’ve written poetry, plays, musicals, screenplays and non-fiction. Does working in so many different forms influence the way you approach playwriting?
Certainly, the different forms and genres I have used have influenced my playwriting but the reverse is also true. Writing dialogue teaches one an economy of words that few novelists employ. I remember once at a Banff writing studio when we were all reading to each other, one novelist said to me she’d kill to be able to write my dialogue. On the other hand, I’ve had editors read my fiction and comment that there’s too much dialogue. Then there’s the huge importance of landing on the right word. Playwrights have to know the importance and power of a good punch line, and that’s useful in all other writing. Both poets and playwrights seem to have a better sense of rhythm than novelists. On the other hand, some poets I have worked with had no respect for prose rhythms. I could go on and on, you know, about character-driven plots, and the importance of what is not being said, and show don’t tell – all that stuff. Next question….
2) You works have been staged across Canada and around the world. What are the biggest differences and similarities when working on Canadian versus international productions?
First, you get more respect outside our country. I used to say that Canadian theatres (i.e. producers, directors, etc.) prefer a playwright to be Shakespeare, American, or dead. They have begun to tolerate Canadian playwrights but it’s more than attitude, it’s the respect given to the material that concerns me.
3) Were you ever asked to make any adjustment to your plays when they were staged outside of Canada?
There are language differences. I don’t use the Canadian “eh” very often but I remember I had one character who said it. In an American production, I had to stop the actor and explain that “eh” was not the same as “huh”. In another instance, the place names were changed, substituting American landmarks for Canadian ones. I have actually written an article about ESL, English as a second language in the USA. Remember that Shaw line about Americans not having spoken English for years?
4) What aspect of your works do you think makes it so attractive to non-Canadian audiences?
Nothing to do with ethnic similarities or differences. My most produced play outside this country is about an old woman in a room, because there are old women in rooms around the world. The essential metaphor of a play transcends nationalities. Think of dice being rolled on a war drum. Think of two tramps waiting under a tree for someone who never shows up. Think of an older woman and a younger man.
5) In your book The Write Track you discuss how one succeeds as a freelance writer. Do you have any similar advice on how to succeed as a playwright?
In a way, in the beginning, it’s easier. Every playwright has a few actor friends. You can get a jug of wine and ask them to give you an evening and read your script to you. (Necessary for your rewrite-polish.) Then there are Fringes and Umbrellas and Works to find your first audiences, and hope for word-of-mouth and interested (influential?) viewers. After that, it gets harder, something to do with the second question. Agents have told me that Canadian theatres are less “polite” to playwrights than theatres in other countries. I told a story in my book (Track) about the farmer and the donkey. The punch line is “First, you have to get the donkey’s attention.” Ay, there’s the rub.
6) If you could give one piece of advice to a playwright starting out, what would it be?
Hang on to the passion. You need a lot to carry you through re-writes and rejections. If you’re looking for fame and fortune, quit while you’re ahead. Remember what Bernard Slade (Same Time Next Year) said: “You can make a killing in the theatre, but you can’t make a living.” Cherish the process.
7) What are you currently working on?
A usual, a number of things. I’m just finishing a mystery novel, my first, and it’s on spec, so don’t hold your breath. I’m still trying to sell my masterpiece (a play so-called by a friend and mentor) that’s been a long long time in the making. I’m just starting my own website
with the intention of writing blog notes to my next non-fiction book, about age. It’s a travel book.
8) 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’ve already given you a couple. For years I had a letter to the editor published in the Stratford Beacon Herald, from someone declaring his taste in theatre, all negative, centering on what he wouldn’t tolerate. I used it as a reminder of the person I was NOT writing for, though that probably reduces my salability. Like everyone else, I’ve had my lumps in life - the main reason I write so many different things (I had to). I have cherished what Bill Mitchell said to me at a low point in my life. He told me I would survive because I had “guts and grace”. That has kept me going. I hope it helps you, too.
Betty Jane Wylie was a published poet first, then a puppet playwright, then a live-stage playwright for both children and adults, then an author, and then a screenwriter for TV and film. She concentrates now on plays and books. Her plays have been produced at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, St. Lawrence Centre, National Arts Centre, Stratford Third Stage (now the Tom Patterson Theatre), Factory Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille and Theatre Direct in Toronto, and other theatres in Canada (Saskatchewan, Alberta, NW Territories, etc. as well as various fringe festivals; in New York (AMAS Repertory Theatre), Minneapolis and Waterloo, Iowa, and in New Zealand, London, England, and South Africa. She has had 36 plays (and musicals) produced and published about 40 books of non-fiction, biography, belles letters, poetry and cooking. Her first TV movie (with Donald Martin) won two Geminis (for best supporting actors). She was a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe, has been named a Woman of Distinction by the YWCA, and given an Alumni Jubilee Award by the University of Manitoba where she received an honorary doctorate (D. Litt) in May of 2003. She was also awarded an Order of Canada in 2003.