Eric Coates is the Artistic Director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. GCTC currently has two playwrights in residence: Vishesh Abeyratne and Sanita Fejzić. In this first of a two-article series, Eric takes us behind the scenes of the conversations he is having with Sanita.
In the preface to her script, Blissful State of Surrender, Sanita Fejzić writes: “…the Bosnian immigrant’s imagination is as deep and complex as is their troubled history.” It’s a signal that, regardless of any autobiographical content, imagination drives her work and she doesn’t need to waste time by fussing over what’s “real” and what’s not. Sadly, female playwrights spend an inordinate amount of time fending off questions about autobiographical content due to assumptions that women are somehow less imaginative than their male counterparts, and, therefore, incapable of writing anything except autobiography. It’s alarming to see how often this bias crops up, particularly in media interviews that work to uncover the source of a writer’s impulse rather than examining its impact. Sanita’s own Bosnian imagination allows her to harness her relationships not only to people, but to the natural world as a place that teems with conversation, real and imagined. This fluidity is both refreshing and disarming when she exercises it in her plays and poetry.
In our bi-weekly meetings, Sanita speaks openly of the trauma her family suffered before, during, and after their flight from the former Yugoslavia, and although it informs her work as a playwright, it doesn’t dictate the terms of engagement. These meetings started as a result of a series of 50 pitch sessions that GCTC conducted in the spring, once it became apparent that our building would remain closed for the duration of the pandemic. Impressed by Sanita’s combination of curiosity and fortitude, I reallocated some resources in order to create a play-writing residency for her. (Vishesh Abeyratne is also a resident playwright and I will write about his engagement with GCTC in my next instalment.) Spurred by our mutual devotion to author and scientist Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass), we’ve established an easy rapport, which evolves and grows during discussions on myriad topics including, but not limited to, parenting, politics, skiing, identity, and, of course, Sanita’s writing.
During these difficult days of isolation, I am grateful each time that I meet with Sanita.
In order to support Sanita on multiple fronts, some of our recent discussions have also focused on the means by which a playwright can establish boundaries during a script’s development. It’s not unusual for an emerging playwright to enter a collaboration with a producer while weighed down with a sense of gratitude so acute that it veers into submissiveness. It’s my job to upend that dynamic and encourage the writer to feel empowered by their own work. After all, doesn’t it make more sense for the rest of us to be grateful—grateful for the opportunity to receive the play and to provide support by respecting the emotional labour and mental discipline that led to its creation? During these difficult days of isolation, I am grateful each time that I meet with Sanita and hear her new ideas that burst like the seedpods of Impatiens pallida. Like this plant, her writing is extraordinarily tough, even when it puts its vulnerability on full display.
Blissful State of Surrender is powerful evidence of Sanita’s work ethic and of her stated belief that “writing is rewriting.” She infuses her rewrites with the energy that typically drives a first draft, and she engages each debate thoughtfully, often providing me with a new perspective on emigration, academia, gender, or anything that springs unexpectedly from the huge range of topics that creep into conversation. The family of Bosnian refugees at the heart of her story likely wouldn’t have the patience for the process that their inventor is so keen to embrace. Where Sanita takes time to reflect, her characters tend to step on each other’s thoughts while thrusting their own agenda forward, displaying that peculiar human foible of pretending to listen while preparing to speak, which makes it impossible to actually hear anything. These characters, an amalgam of real and imagined, calm and vitriol, east and west, make for a family reunion that is immediately recognizable, but rife with unpredictability. And that is precisely what makes for good theatre.
The next article in this two-part series will introduce GCTC’s playwright in residence, Vishesh Abeyratne.