Interviewed by Sarah Higgins
Catherine Banks is a renowned, award-winning Canadian playwright. She received the Nova Scotia Established Artist Award in 2008 for her body of work and has won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama twice – in 2008 for Bone Cage and in 2012 for It is Solved by Walking. The latter was translated into Catalan by the Tant per Tant theatre company and toured Barcelona in 2012. Her other works include Three Storey, Ocean View and Bitter Rose (which also aired on Bravo! TV’s Singular Series). Her latest work, Miss ‘n Me, will premiere as a Sarasvati Theatre production in Winnipeg in May, 2015.
Banks’ plays reflect the rhythm of life in rural Nova Scotia with humour, pathos and poetry. Through the particularities of specific lives, she expresses universal stories – and through the universal stories, she highlights the particular highs and lows of life in the Maritimes.
I had the pleasure of hearing her read from It is Solved by Walking at an event in Halifax several years ago, and the beauty and breath of her work enthralled me. I was grateful to be able to chat with her, over email, about her craft.
Let’s start at the start – how did you get into playwriting? Or, what was your first experience of theatre, and did that inform your choice of genre?
I grew up around my father’s family of storytellers and wits. I acted in high school and university and even wrote a monologue for my one theatre class ever (acting) but it really wasn’t until I saw Michel Tremblay’s Les belles soeurs that I understood that I had something to write about—up until that point I thought writers lived exotic lives. Tremblay characters were so grounded in real life that I understood that I had lots to write. I have said many times that the first time I sat down and wrote dialogue I felt I had come home.
Are you, or have you been, drawn to write in any other forms? If so, which?
I wrote a lot of bad poetry for a very long time from grade 5 until my early twenties. I don’t have the kind of brain that is suited to writing poetry—but if someone calls my work poetic that is pretty near as important to me as it being referred to as theatrical.
Can you describe your process?
Oh dear. Well I don’t write every day—that is I don’t write on my play every day but I do write every day. I faithfully write morning pages, and letters to friends (yes, every day) which I think have been very important to my development as a writer. When you write down how you really feel about things in private writing or to very close friends you learn to express your deepest self and that makes it possible to reach deeply inside of the characters that are walking around in your creative work. I also walk—a lot. From early on it became a very necessary part of my writing life.
There’s a collaborative element to playwriting that doesn’t often come into other forms, like poetry or fiction. Is there a balance of solitary and collaborative writing that you strike when creating a play? At what stage do the other voices come in to play?
I have said that as a playwright I am more like a novelist. It takes me a long time to write a play and I don’t show any work until I have a first draft. Then I show it to Tessa Mendel, a director/friend, and she usually says something like “I love it,” “keep going”—then she adds some small thing like “I don’t understand what you mean here.” That sends me back to the page again. I never send a play out until I know it is solidly there. By that I mean I have the journey of the characters–this may be a handicap in these times of in-house dramaturges who like to be “in on the ground floor” but it is the only way I know how to work. Then I have to really trust that a director gets my play but of course when there are many layers to the story some things don’t get the weight that is essential to a fully realized production. I always know what I want but I often feel that I fail to advocate for my plays because I lack the confidence to express myself. BUT I am determined to learn these skills.
Your plays not only have a poetic voice to them, but the formatting of the lines themselves is very similar to poetry – line breaks, in particular. How does this formatting affect how you approach stage directions? (For example, one naturally pauses at a line break, thus eliminating the need for (a beat)).
Yes I don’t like to use (a beat) because it breaks the reader’s attention and the actor’s as well. The directions in It is Solved by Walking in terms of breaks are rather complicated yet so essential to Margaret’s expression of pain. There are three levels that she must express and spaces and dropping down to the next line seemed the clearest way in the end. In Bone Cage in Jamie’s final monologue I use (This is Jamie’s most deeply felt moment—it is of a fox forced to chew off its own leg to escape the steel trap) then I let the line formatting tell the actor when to take a breath to create weight and emotion. I just think it gives the writer enough control while allowing the actor an uncluttered path through the emotion of the monologue.
Following that train of thought, how does the poetry of your characters (voices and language) affect the physical staging of the story?
Well it can be pretty amazing. Matt White directed a wonderful production of Bone Cage at Hart House in Toronto literally set in clear cut. The table, chairs, even the fridge were stumps—it made my heart leap.
The subject matter of your plays, the stories you tell through them, are often rooted very strongly in the lives of east coast Canadians. Why that location? What is it about the Maritimes that inspires you?
I was born and raised and have continued to live here. I have lived in 13 rural communities in Nova Scotia and currently live in Sambro, a working fishing village. I recently listened to an interview by Robert Lepage and he said something that is at the root of why I set my plays in Nova Scotia. In the interview Lepage talked about a conversation he had had with Michel Tremblay in which he asked Tremblay why his plays have been translated into 35 languages and Tremblay replied that it was because he set his plays in a very specific place and that made them universal. I think there is a feeling right now in the Canadian theatre world that we did the rural stories with the Farm Show in the 70’s. There are vibrant real stories to be told in every community in this country—rural as well as urban. In fact rural communities just like Sambro are on the front lines of the impact of what is happening to our environment (the dying of the ocean as an example)—so yes I feel very inspired by this place.
Can you speak a bit about the place of Eastern Canada in the national theatrical canon? How do you see Eastern stories fitting in with the work coming out of Toronto, or Vancouver, for example? Is there a geographic balance in the theatre in Canada? If not, why not?
Toronto dominates Canada’s theatre scene. If you don’t physically live in Toronto I think it is very hard to be on their radar. Maybe I wouldn’t be anyway however I see it happen to wonderful western writers as well—they just don’t get done in Toronto. I do think it has to be that we are not seen (not there) so we remain unseen on the stage. Again there is an idea that rural Canada doesn’t matter or perhaps doesn’t exist. This is not exclusive to Toronto. When Bone Cage won the GG I got interviewed by a local newspaper and as background the reporter had asked a member of my theatre community what they thought of the production of Bone Cage and the reply was “Well I guess I thought, haven’t we done this already?” And of course there is a movement just now away from text in other areas in Canada and it is happening here too—so that is also creating a movement away from stories rooted in a particular place I think. So all that means I think there isn’t a balance at all—our stories are big beautiful stories but it is hard to move them across the country. I would say 2b theatre has had the most success—great success moving their work nationally and internationally but I think that their stories are not particularly connected to this region.
There are many wonderful writers in our Eastern Canon—some that left to work of course but have work rooted here. Wendy Lill, Jenny Munday, Wanda Graham, Daniel McIvor, Mike Melski, Mary Vingoe, Robert Chafe, Janice Spence, Michael Cook, Kent Stetson, Norm Foster, Anthony Black, George Boyd, Bryden MacDonald, Don Hannah, and young writers emerging Step Taylor, Meg Coles, and Lindsay Wilson.
I would like to say that I am so pleased that my work leapfrogs over Toronto and gets done in the West. Urban Curvz (Calgary) premiered It is Solved by Walking, Saravasti Theatre (Winnipeg) is premiering Miss ‘N Me in May, Downstage Theatre Society (Calgary) did a production of Bone Cage and there is another western production coming up in 2015.
You also have strong, realistic women in your plays. With them in mind, and as a female playwright, how do you see the role of women in Canadian theatre? Are there areas of strength? Areas that need addressing?
Whew what a question. The stats for Canadian theatre and women playwrights/directors/designers suck. In real terms it is very hard to be a woman in theatre and keep slogging year after year after year. It is depressing as hell. It isn’t any different in terms of women at the decision-making table in theatre than in corporate Canada. When I went into theatre it never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be equality. I mean this is theatre for goddsakes, to me, that should mean progressive, outside the box and out in front, being something more, even leading the change. Only in Newfoundland do I see female theatre professionals treated equally but as the late Janice Spence said, “Well, Newfoundland society is matriarchic.” However I do see big changes coming for women. The 20-year-old young women that are up and coming, well, I think they are up and steam rolling. Change is coming and I celebrate it! In the meantime we need to continue to keep the pressure on theatres to produce work by women—after all their audiences are mostly women. This was my GG acceptance speech in 2012:
My wish for Canadian theatre is that it will embrace our current audiences. So often I’ve heard “65% of our audiences are women over the age of fifty.” As if this is a terrible thing. Does a Chiropractor look out at his waiting room and say, “I wish there were more people in their twenties waiting to see me”? Theatre offers the realignment of the soul and sometimes it takes, oh, 50 years to realize you need exactly that. Don’t preach to these women (they are compassionate) or feed them pabulum (they’ve survived births, deaths, loss) or talk down to them (they are thinkers) or give them a steady diet of never seeing their own lives authentically reflected back at them (only 23% of plays on Canadian stages are written by women). Our audience isn’t going to die out because, right now, those “twentysomethings” are out crashing into things, literally and metaphorically, that will one day send them to the Chiropractor’s office and our Theatres; provided that our current theatres survive by producing work that is complex, beautiful, honest and richly engaging for, dare I say it, their mothers.
That pretty much sums up how I feel. After I made that speech I had so many women at the GG event come up to me and thank me for my speech and Linda Spalding the novel laureate said, “When you finished your speech I wanted to stand up and cheer.”
In an interview with The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, in a discussion about feminism you said, “I think so many women use walking as a way of processing.” This is very interesting – can you expand on that sentiment?
Oh, on rural roads all my life I have watched women out walking. It’s time alone for one thing, something a lot of women never get. Walking is a place to decompress and then to dream. Women have a lot of balls to keep in the air and the walk is thinking time. When I walk before writing my walk away from the house is filled with thoughts of to-do lists and problems in the family and plans for the day but when I turn to walk back I begin to enter the world of the play and lines begin to form, solutions to problem scenes get dreamed up which I scribble down as I walk. Process.
It is Solved by Walking was translated into Catalan. Can you describe that process a bit – were you directly involved in the translations? How did the final product feel to you, as the creator of the original story?
I was so lucky that Tant per Tant chose my play for this amazing three play translation project. When we arrived in Barcelona the translator Elisabet Rafols had done a rough translation. Then we set to work with the director and the two wonderful actors (both female—interesting to have Wallace played by a female) to rehearse and in the process refine the translation. What a lovely joyful time as we talked endlessly about the meaning of words and the intent of lines. I adored the process. Some things could not be translated. The “So long” phrase as I use it meaning both time and as a slang for goodbye just couldn’t be translated. It was three weeks of the most wonderful nurturing and satisfying time I have ever experienced and although it was only a staged reading I felt that the essence of the material was beautifully rendered. I knew the line was working when I could feel the emotional through line coming at me—an expanding discovery for me of my work. What an absolute gift this time in Barcelona with this company was to me.
What do you think are the benefits of self-producing plays, as opposed to other means of production (commissioned stories, festivals, etc.) – particularly for emerging playwrights?
I had to co-produce Bone Cage with Forerunners and if Barcelona was heaven, co-producing was my hell. I have a theory that playwrights today come out of a very different education practice than I did and that helps them with self-producing. When I was in school everyone did every project on their own whereas for the last 30 years increasingly group projects became the education norm. So all the young theatre professional know how to work in a group, assign roles, get their own part done and have the group make suggestions, etc.—how to socially work in a group. Meanwhile I am off in a corner trying to do everything without asking for help. HA! So it is very hard for me to feel a benefit to self-producing. I say do what you need to do to get your work out there—but try not to overstay in that system. Although one of my mentors, Maria Irene Fornes, always self-produced so I could be just be a huge coward. I am likely just a huge coward.
Do you have any advice for emerging playwrights?
Write, write and write. Find that one person, a mentor—someone whose work you admire, and have them be your first reader. Never censor or judge the first draft no matter what happens. Never show your work until you have a first draft. Read poetry.
Sarah Higgins is a playwright whose works have been produced in Halifax, Fredericton and Vancouver. She is undertaking an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, writing stageplay, fiction and screen.