Interviewed by Indu Iyer
Judith Thompson is one of Canada’s foremost theatre artists. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School, a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama, and a recipient of the Order of Canada. Her most noted plays include The Crackwalker, White Biting Dog, and Lion In The Streets. Alongside playwriting, she co-creates and directs independent theatre projects, is a professor of Creative Writing at Guelph University, and on occasion, also performs.
A fellow thespian, I have long admired her work for its melange of humility and audacity. It was a huge privilege to pursue this dialogue with her. We corresponded via email.
Because theatre is now. Because theatre combines the music of the human voice in spoken word, the text that is every movement, and a concentrated space. And it has an ancient tradition.
Is theatre dying? I mean, sure, for us and our circles it isn’t, but for Canadian society at large?
They say audience numbers are declining, but look at the fringe—packed out. And a hit is still a hit, and Soulpepper is still packed because the audience loves the venue.
Canadians are known for being polite. Your work is not polite. What or who would you say supported the formation your raw, unapologetic voice?
I have always been compelled to tell the truth. The emperor really has no clothes.
What are the unique struggles you’ve faced as a woman in your field? Many pretend that discrimination doesn’t exist, because it’s an uncomfortable discussion, but it’s a very real issue – isn’t it?
When I wrote a lot for film the verbal harassment was constant – male producers would just bring up sex for no reason, i.e. “My last girlfriend wouldn’t swallow…what is with that?” or “how often do you have sex?” I answered with such hostility they would stop. In theatre I haven’t noticed too much, though there is a condescending attitude from some male artistic directors.
I feel many theatre artists are afraid to get political in their work, for fear of making the ever dreaded “soap-box theatre,” but you’re not afraid of going there. For example, Rare very forwardly made the case for not aborting Down’s Syndrome bearing fetuses, and it was very powerful. What do you have to say to artists who want to have strong messages but are worried about being pigeon holed as “political”?
I never have a message. I try only to ask questions that lead to more questions. I try to be authentic. In the case of Rare, I asked the cast what they thought of the reality that 95% of parents choose to terminate when they learn their child will have Down’s Syndrome. Nick said, “That’s discrimination, that’s wrong, that’s against our right to be who we are…we’re unique, we’re rare…” I wouldn’t dream of silencing him.
How does a playwright start getting their work out there? What was your journey like, from an anonymous face to one of the faces of Canadian theatre?
I started with a teacher from NTS who knew people in the theatre, and showed my play around. Otherwise, the best way is to get into the emerging playwrights’ groups that every theatre offers.
What were your biggest obstacles in playwriting?
Process, process, process. I hear this talked about a lot, but don’t think I know what it means. What does it mean to you?
Art is much bigger than any one individual. It reflects a collective unconscious. The PROCESS is about discovering what the art is, and once that is apparent, using craft to make it accessible in a theatrical way.
I find starting on any piece to be the most difficult step. What’s the hardest part of writing for you, and how do you deal with it?
Starting also. The only way I deal is deadlines.
You teach playwriting at Guelph. Are there any big misconceptions that emerging playwrights often have that hurt their work?
They don’t value their own life experience, and the places they live.
Indu Iyer is a benighted soul, traversing between the realms of acting and writing. Taking a hiatus from the demands of the theatre, she is currently completing her BFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Her writing largely gravitates around her experiences with psychiatric disturbances, and male violence against women. Outside of performing, writing, and activism, her other passions include Louis C.K, dogs, and her mom’s cooking.