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I wanted to write a play about political apathy. In the Fall of 2011, I had just started working on my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. I was taking a class from the extraordinary playwright Judith Thompson and we students had to write a full-length play in a matter of months. Judith is a playwright who writes very instinctually, viscerally, and she encourages her students to let the writing flow. I had no choice but to jump into the writing pool and get wet.
I set the play in 1969 because the era is so evocative of political change. The world was changing quickly and radically: the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, Black rights, an awareness of the environmental damage being inflicted on our planet….a generation rose up to protest injustice and promote change, fighting for the same things we struggle for today.
Janet Wilson is a woman who is overwhelmed by the transformations happening around her. She manifests our desire to look at that which is bright and shiny rather than what is dark and difficult. Very early in the process, the title came into my head, but for the longest time I didn’t know if Janet Wilson would really meet her beloved Queen or not.
By the end of the term, I had a rough draft. As part of the MFA program, we workshopped our scripts with the acting students at Humber College. Hearing plays read aloud is so important to the playwright’s process.
The third term of my MFA allowed me to work with a mentor of our choosing. Judith suggested Leonard Berkman. I thought this might be like asking for a trip to the moon but to my great delight he said yes. Len is the John Lennon of dramaturges. He’s worked with everyone. He guides playwrights with wit, intelligence and enthusiasm. His detailed and insightful emails encouraged me to research the details, explore the ideas and nail down the structure.
I sent the second draft to Iris Turcott, the feisty dramaturge and great champion of the Canadian playwright. She had attended the Humber College reading and liked what she heard. For the next few months we would meet every few weeks and talk about a few scenes and how to push them further emotionally. I cut words mercilessly, and the play became tighter, funnier and darker. The dialogue began to evolve a poetic language of its own.
Factory Theatre hosted a public reading of the play in the spring of 2014. I was very fortunate to have some stellar actors lifting the words off the page: Sarah Dodd, Patricia Hamilton, Vivien Endicott-Douglas and Noah Reid. The reading was packed. The audience laughed, cried and listened. I knew then that the wacky world of Janet Wilson was telling the story I wanted to tell. The Artistic Director of GCTC, Eric Coates was at that reading and he called me shortly after to ask if he could program Janet Wilson Meets the Queen. I was thrilled. I performed at GCTC many years ago and always felt their audiences were the sharpest in Canada.
I have had a wonderful working relationship with Eric. We worked together on three premieres at the Blyth Festival, including Innocence Lost: a Play about Steven Truscott which went on to be a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and produced at the National Arts Centre. Eric likes challenging yet accessible work. He honours playwrights’ words and is able to assemble a cracker-jack team of creative minds.
A year before rehearsals began, the fresh, exciting and perceptive director, Andrea Donaldson came on board and we began our conversation about how the play would come to life. Roger Schultz was booked to design set and costumes, and he has created the most beautiful world that is both evocative of the period, while also somehow contemporary. Thomas Ryder Payne has not only composed music echoing the best of the time period but has also assembled a pre-show playlist that will have audiences grooving in the aisles. Martin Conboy’s gorgeous lighting delicately illuminates the story as well as the actors. And what actors. It is an extraordinary thing it is to see these characters come to life. Marion Day, Beverley Wolfe, Katie Ryerson and Tony Adams add a texture and nuance that surpasses my imagination. From box office attendants to the tireless crew members: stage managing, building, painting, sewing …. it takes a village to raise a play.
So here I am, it is opening day, April 21, 2016, four and a half years after I first began creating dear Janet Wilson. I am excited, nervous and proud. It seems fitting that today is Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, a day to celebrate her Majesty’s commitment to duty as well as acknowledge our own duty, to be engaged in the world we are living in.
And does Janet Wilson meet the Queen? Come and find out.