PGC's Q&A with Ellen Peterson
Playwrights Guild of Canada caught up with PGC member, Ellen Peterson to talk about her new play The Brink, one of three new Canadian premieres set to open the Prairie Theatre Exchange's (PTE) 40th Season. Along with talking about her play, we also discuss Ellen's experiences working with PTE's Playwrights Unit and how the emphasis on nurturing homegrown talent is starting to pay big dividends for Winnipeg's theatre scene. The Brink premieres October 11th at PTE, through October 28th, 2012.
1) Can you give us a brief summary of your play, The Brink which is slated to open Prairie Theatre Exchange’s 40th Season?
Niagara Falls, 1969. A family is struggling to save the failing print shop once owned by their mother, who was the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel. A deserter from the US Army arrives at their door seeking shelter, and proceeds to remind them of everything they’re trying to forget: lost opportunities, past mistakes, the legacy of war, the seeming futility of “great achievements,” the pull of liberty versus duty. They get a big order, an order that could change everything, but somebody makes a very small, very costly mistake. The forces of personal and global history combine to decide their fate.
2) What originally drew you to the main character and his situation?
The writing of the play, many drafts ago, began with the idea of a high school hero and star athlete (a pole-vaulter) whose trip to the Olympics is cancelled because of World War II. The Games in 1940 were to be held in Tokyo and I wondered if there was any reason why a Canadian soldier would have ended up there. I came across the horrific story of the soldiers who fought the Battle of Hong Kong and were later incarcerated, starved and tortured by the Japanese.
The question for me became: then what? What does a person who has survived something like that do with that experience? I am interested in how our actions, great or small, can have unforeseen consequences. The pole-vaulter turned out not to be the protagonist. But he’s still the hero, if you see the difference. The protagonist is his niece who’s never been anywhere or done anything but is trying to do what she feels is her duty.
3) “The Brink” is a product of PTE’s Playwrights Unit, which was set up to allow playwrights to act as a support group - supplying feedback on each others’ work. Can you expand a bit on this experience?
The Unit rocks! I would not be writing now if it were not for this group. I was re-entering my theatre career after a long maternity leave, wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my life, when Bob Metcalfe formed the Unit. It does some amazing things: it causes me to believe that my writing matters. Writers are always working but rarely heard from. You can disappear for months at a time and that makes it easy to think it doesn’t matter if you keep going. The Unit forces me to write. If you don’t bring pages to a meeting you have to bring snacks the next time which sounds a bit silly but it works. I would rather (we would all rather) hammer out three pages the morning of the meeting than face the humiliation of having to show up with some stupid cookies. Because of the Unit I am obligated to write, I am convinced that my writing is important, and the feedback cuts down considerably on the kind of time you can waste not knowing how something will go over.
4) How has PTE’s emphasis on nurturing local Manitoba talent affected you personally, as a playwright living and working in Winnipeg?
Well, I wrote this play and it’s getting produced. Amazing! Other writers I know have had or are about to have the same experience. We are getting stronger as a writing community all the time, we write good plays here, and as fellow Unit member Rick Chafe says: Winnipeg is now finally going to start to be a place plays come from.
5) Any thoughts on your play being chosen to open such a landmark season for PTE?
Pressure? What pressure? Seriously, I am honoured, thrilled and very grateful.
6) You’ve worked both as an actor and as a theatre instruction during your career. How do these other roles contribute to your playwriting?
Almost everything I know about how plays work is from acting in them. Studying a play as an actor is not an intellectual exercise and requires that you focus on nothing but action. I also work as a dramaturge for the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, a job which causes me to own script. I wish I could practice what I preach. I think the mistakes are necessary though.
7) What are you currently working on?
I’m working on some rewrites of The Brink of course. And when I first dreamed up this story it became clear that it was kind of “twenty pounds of play in a one pound bag.” The back-stories are pretty interesting and deserved fuller treatment. I received generous support from the Manitoba and Winnipeg Arts Councils and the Canada Council to expand it into a trilogy. I have a full first draft of a play which tells a more complete tale of the men who fought the Battle of Hong Kong and survived the POW camps (working title: A Song For The Kamloops Kid). And I have a really messed up “sort-of-a-draft” of a play about daredevils in Niagara Falls. I don’t know what it’s called, though. Daredevils maybe. After The Brink I’ll get back to work on those.
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.
Here’s my quote and it’s a doozy: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” (Kafka) And this one helps too: “Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” (e.e. cummings)
Ellen Peterson is a playwright, actor, teacher, and dramaturge.
Ellen was most recently seen in Theatre Projects Manitoba’s In the Chamber series, for which she wrote and performed The Eight Tiny Reindeer of the Apocalypse. Other plays include Tickle Trunk (Theatre Projects), Branta Canadensis (Popular Theatre Alliance), Learning to Drive or: the Year of Not Pretending, and The Blanket Show. A member of the Prarie Theatre Exchange Playwrights Unit, her play The Brink will have its premiere at PTE in October 2012. Ellen also serves as dramaturge for the Manitoba Association of Playwright’s Open Door.
As an actor Ellen has appeared at PTE (All Restaurant Fires are Arson, Marion Bridge), Manitoba Theatre Centre (Over the Tavern, The History of Manitoba…), as well as with Theatre Projects Manitoba and Manitoba Theatre for Young People. Ellen lives with her family in north Winnipeg.