This is the entertainment bargain of the undercurrents festival. You get to see excerpts of new work by three Ottawa playwrights for the ever-affordable FREE. These staged readings are cheap ways for writers to try out new material on a live audience. The audience is asked to provide feedback to the writers. But introverts can rest easy; there are enough extroverts to provide cover.
New Play Tuesday yielded material from three new plays by writers J. Katrina Wong, Joanne John and Pierre Brault.
Two women, Sarah and Lacey, wake up on a sofa bed, suffering from severe hangovers. They have limited memories of the night before, but their semi-nudity suggests something more than tea and biscuits. As they piece together clues of the previous night’s proceedings, playwright J. Katrina Wong slowly reveals her characters. Sarah is young and experienced with female lovers. Lacey is middle-aged, married with two kids, and has limited college experience of amorous connections with women. Sarah and Lacey euphemistically circle around what has happened, trying not to explicitly put a name to their mutual attraction.
More is revealed. Both of them know that Lacey’s marriage is on the rocks. They work at the same place, where Sarah has noticed Lacey’s glances. Is this a one-night stand? Or something more?
All well and good to this point. And just a tad boring. But not for long. As they discuss how they will act at work together, we find out that Lacey is Sarah’s boss.
For me, that’s when the alarm bells went off. Now the play has genuine tension. All sorts of possibilities open up. How will the power dynamic between manager and employee affect their amorous emotions? The second scene presented Tuesday night upped the stakes without answering the question.
It’s called a cliff-hanger, folks. Wong got my attention, and the attention of the audience. I’d like to see (Un)resolved get resolved in a full length production.
four whores and a pro
The play opens at a women’s drop-in centre. A social worker, Cathy, is answering phone queries. She takes another call. Dead air. She tries to elicit a response. No words? Breathing? Nothing. She takes another tack: “Elly?” The other end hangs up. Cathy breaks down. Playwright Joanne John has struck hook #1 home. Who is Elly?
Besides Cathy the social worker (the pro), the other four main characters are prostitutes who use the drop-in centre as a respite from the streets where they ply their trade. It’s a place where they don’t have to give coffee-shop owners free hand jobs in order to hang out.
They’re not a very sympathetic crew. Geneva is a bitter hardcore veteran of the streets who, at 43, still peddles her ass to fund her lover’s drug habit. Ally is trying to raise a pre-school daughter while funding a university education with her hooking. Geneva and Ally trade insults at the least provocation. Chantal is a flamboyant transgender who tries (and fails) to get everybody to get along. Cathy steps in to break up cat-fights and help clients fill out necessary forms, but the big picture is out of her control.
Enter Donna, delivered by the police, with bruises on her face and an emaciated body. She’s from a small northern town and lacks big city smarts. When the others question her about her attacker, she doesn’t realize that they’re trying to add him to their “bad johns” list.
Donna is hook #2. Chantal takes Donna under her wing. Cathy feeds her coffee and doughnuts. The audience wants to give her a warm bed for the night.
The neighbouring citizenry and the city bigwigs want to shut down the centre. It’s likely they will succeed. This is just a collection of individuals, and any union or community organizer will tell you that there is nothing weaker than the power of one.
So are Donna, the elusive Elly and the threat to the drop-in centre enough to draw the audience into the rest of the play? I don’t know.
Aside: Performing in Arts Court Studio
A word to performers and play readers in Arts Court Studio. The Studio is a great space for mime (Macbeth Muet) or power tools (Forstner & Fillister…). It’s a tough acoustic for spoken word. The HVAC system is an efficient white noise generator. Seated at the back, both Pierre Brault and I were straining to hear the performers in the first two plays.
The answer is to project. Projection does not mean shouting. Shouting can be done (with risk) with the vocal cords. Projection requires the whole body. For example, baritone Russell Braun teaches his master-class to use the quadricep muscles to support the voice.
This is a particularly tough space for new play readings. Normal reading posture bends the throat, constricting air flow and aiming the voice low. Full body support of the voice becomes even more important.
Coach of the Year
Pierre Brault needs no lessons about projection, having performed in noisy comedy clubs and theatres large and small. From sotto voce to shouting, Brault’s words come through clearly.
The strongest piece of writing on Tuesday night was the first ten minutes of this show. No surprise, as this scene was performed at the 2013 Extremely Short New Play Festival to much critical acclaim.
In this scene, Junior A hockey coach Daryl Conners has just received a Coach of the Year award. Back in his motel room, he places a curfew phone call to the team to tell them it’s time for lights out. A knock at the door interrupts him. He doesn’t recognize the stranger, named Glen, but Glen seems to know a lot about Daryl.
It’s powerful writing about an explosive topic. Glen was a protegé of Daryl’s, before Glen turned 16. Glen implies that their relationship was less than savoury, but Glen does a lot of booze and uppers, and his memory of that period is fragmentary. Who’s right?
The original 10-minute production in 2013 made my skin crawl. Even just hearing the script read, with Brault supplying all the voices, had the same effect.
Brault is now fleshing out the original script into a full-length play. He presented two new scenes. The first was between a younger Daryl and Glen’s single mother Marina, a minimum-wage waitress distraught that she can’t afford to keep young Glen in hockey. The other is between Marina and Glen when adult Glen discovers that his second wife has left him and taken their daughter with her.
Both scenes provide some of the backstory that leads to the original scene. The material may be less polished than the original, but the whole package becomes even more compelling.
This is definitely a work in progress; Brault still doesn’t have an ending. But Brault has stated that he does his best work under the pressure of deadlines. Someone give this man a deadline, please. What happens next? As the punk in Dirty Harry says, “I gots ta know!”
New Play Tuesday played in the undercurrents festival at Arts Court Studio (2 Daly Avenue) on Tuesday February 13. Admission was free.