Virtual format adds unexpected layer of intimacy
The Press Play Reading Series, an event organized by the Playwrights Canada Press, offers its attendees a mini-theatre experience — a chance to discover the works of both well-established and up-and-coming Canadian playwrights and theatre artists. Each event in the series features several writers on the publisher’s roster, each giving a dramatic reading of an excerpt from one of their plays.
The latest event took place on the evening of Nov. 23. The wideness of a real-life stage was scaled down to the small rectangle of each attendee’s screen: virtual events are still, clearly, a lingering effect of the pandemic.
However, this virtual format added an unexpected layer of intimacy. Each person on the screen was broadcasting from their private sphere, rather than a shared public space. To make the event accessible to the visually impaired, everyone gave a verbal description of their physical traits and their background.
“I am a white woman with mid-length brown hair sitting in my living room, in front of a shelf with plants and books,” said Carly Maga, the host of the event and the senior manager of marketing and communications for the Arts Commons performance centre in Calgary.
“I am a mature, silver-haired woman in the dark living room of a friend,” said Barbara French, the first playwright welcomed to the screen by Maga. She read from her play, Muse, together with David Owen, the editor of the collection within which it was featured, Long Live the New Flesh: Six Plays from the Digital Frontier. This play takes place within the mind of Grace, a mischievous and troubled musical genius who has been institutionalized in a mental care facility since she was seven.
French played Grace, while Owen played both a doctor and a nurse of the institution. Both immersed themselves into the performance. Grace was brought to life by a high, girlish voice that began the narrative with a fast-paced, excited narration of a childhood memory before her days in the institution. At the sound of the doctor’s cold, clinical voice, Grace clamped a hand on each ear, crouching in fear.
“I am calling from my bedroom. The background is green,” said the next playwright, twenty-four-year-old Nam Nguyen, writer of A Perfect Bowl of Pho, a hip-hop musical about food and culture and the experience of being Vietnamese in the Canadian diaspora.
In contrast to French’s disappearance into Grace, Nguyen’s humorous personality shone throughout the performance. “My publisher is forcing me to write this,” the host had read from the short bio she used to introduce him. Beaming wide, Nguyen delivered his dialogue, voice booming occasionally to match the intensity of his lead character, Jen. Rap verses were woven between the spoken lines, and Nguyen performed these with full physicality, head bopping to his smooth flow, right arm tapping out a drum beat.
“I am a Black human,” said the Zambian-Canadian playwright, Makambe K. Simamba. She read from her play, Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers, exploring themes of racial profiling, police brutality, the afterlife, and the journey of spiritual discovery that each person must take to achieve self-actualization.
As Simamba performed her excerpt, both her tone and physicality changed as she switched between the parts of the young, boisterous Slimm, her murdered lead character, and the grandmother spirit that he encounters in the afterlife, that says with an authoritative voice: “Baby, you stand on the shoulders of the ancestors who chose you to represent them in this moment.”
Next was the pair of actor Maev Beaty and playwright Hannah Moscovitch, a native of Ottawa. They laughed through their self-introductions.
“I am sitting on the third floor of my home, in front of the keyboard where my eight-year-old daughter practices piano,” said Beaty. “After I make her,” she added.
“It’s very clear I’m Jewish,” Moscovitch said, “from the Menorah with candles sitting on the fireplace in the background.”
Beaty performed an excerpt from a work co-written by the two playwrights and another artist, Ann-Marie Kerr, The Secret Life of a Mother. The play is an honest, confessional retelling of moments from the women’s lives. For example, this particular excerpt concerned Moscovitch’s near-miscarriage. As if she was confiding to a friend, Beaty frankly narrated the ordeal, not immersing herself into the unfolding scenes but rather recalling them with her words, looking back from the other end of the tunnel.
Finally, the event was capped off with Moscovitch performing an excerpt from her Governor General Award-winning play, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, switching from the persona of the young, infatuated student, Annie, with a fumbling, reverent voice; and the object of her affections, the wry and slightly menacing professor and author, Jon.
Moscovitch spoke about the resistance she initially got when writing plays centering on women’s experiences. “I got told my whole career: ‘You don’t wanna do shows where women show up’, like that would be bad.”
Now, her reward for pushing past the naysayers is witnessing how her stories have resonated with her audience members (as well as winning prestigious awards for her work).
“Women will come up to me and say that they relate so much to Annie’s experience.”
Overall, this event was a delicious taste of what Canadian theatre has to offer. See new events in the series on the Playwrights Canada Press Facebook page.