What do you get when 8 playwrights are embedded in diverse communities across Edmonton for 21 days?
8 short plays that will open people’s eyes to what’s happening in communities around Edmonton – whether they’re communities you’re already part of or ones you don’t know much about.
The project is This is YEG: New Plays for a Changing City, presented by Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre April 22 – 24, in conjunction with Fresh Ink (readings of plays by two new playwrights in Edmonton), Theatre Blitz (plays written by students of Victoria School of the Arts), and Tell Your Story (a workshop that participants will walk away from with the start of a play).
Vern Thiessen, Workshop West’s Artistic Director who worked on a similar project in Pennsylvania, says the project’s intent is to profile the diversity of communities across Edmonton, but what he’s seen in the past and hopes will happen with This is YEG is that presenting readings of the eight plays all in one night tunes people into what’s happening in pockets outside of their own that they may not even know exist. “This is a community-building exercise that uses playwrights as a builder of communities… I wanted [Workshop West] to reflect the city itself more and use playwrights as investigators or lightning rods for discussion. Giving them a chance to really become almost activists for that community.”
In addition to the wide array of communities represented in This is YEG, Vern says he intentionally picked a cross-section of playwrights to represent the city’s artistic community and so the list of playwrights will ensure audiences hear from a diverse group of playwrights representing women, non-Caucasians, a spectrum of sexualities, people who experience disabilities, and those have varying levels of experience with playwrighting, including some for whom it’s not their primary art form or what they’re known for.
The playwrights and communities participating in This is YEG are:
- Jason Chinn – Councillor Ben Henderson’s office at City Hall
- Megan Dart – Edmonton Transit System
- Minister Faust – Happy Harbor Comics
- Dr. Heidi Janz – Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital
- Conni Massing – Edmonton Valley Zoo
- Nicole Moeller – The Neighbour Centre – Open Door Program
- Cat Walsh – South Side Memorial Chapel
- Kenneth T. Williams – University of Alberta Department of Mathematical and Statistical Science
In chatting with two of the participating playwrights, it’s clear both were intrigued by Vern’s proposal of embedding themselves for three weeks in a community of their choice. Nicole Moeller (who followed her passion for social justice and embedded herself with The Neighbour Centre’s Open Door Program) says, “I do a lot of research for my plays, but I’ve never spent time in a community in order to write something. That sounded kind of terrifying but also really cool – such a good way to get to know the ins and outs of a community, much more than you could ever get from a book or a newspaper article.”
Dr. Heidi Janz (who chose the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, of which she has been a lifelong client and is an alumna of the school that was once attached to it) agrees, “I was really intrigued and excited by the notion of writing about a community. I knew instantly that I wanted to write about the disability community, because (a) it’s a community that I’m a part of, and (b) it’s a community whose experiences are largely unrepresented – or, at least underrepresented – in mainstream theatre. Hence, I wanted to go somewhere that most Edmontonians with disabilities would have some experience of.”
The time Heidi spent embedded at the Glenrose focused on two programs the hospital offers for youth – the ICAN Centre and Station 201 – as well as interviews with staff who have spent most of their working lives at the Glenrose. “The ICAN Centre… serves a lot of young people attending regular schools in the community. Consequently, many clients of the ICAN Centre are kids/teens who would more than likely have gone to school at the Glenrose 30-40 years ago. (Ouch!) I found it extremely fascinating to listen to the stories of some of these young people and to realize that, although these young peoples’ experiences growing up are, in many ways, very different from what mine were, the role that Glenrose plays in their lives in terms of providing them with the support they need to set and achieve their own goals is similar to the role it played in my life. Likewise, I chose to spend part of my time embedded at the Glenrose on Station 201 because it is both an in-patient nursing unit for kids/teens who are recovering from surgery and/or receiving intensive treatment at the Glenrose. So, again, these are kids and teens who, in a different era, would probably have had at least some of their schooling at the Glenrose. Also, Station 201 is rather unique in that it’s one of the few parts of the Glenrose that still has a mandate which is very similar to the one it had when I was a student at the Glenrose. So again, I was fascinated and inspired in talking with some of the current staff, clients, and families on Station 201 and discovering that the same kind of rapport and comradery among and between patients, families, and staff that existed on Station 201 when I was a patient there is still very much evident today. In a lot of ways, the ‘lifers’ were my favourite group to hang out with, largely because I share a personal history with some of them. Interestingly though, it was this group that had more somber and melancholy reflections about what the Glenrose has lost over the years in the midst of technological advances and increased social inclusion of people with disabilities. You’ll definitely see some of those thoughts reflected and explored in the play.”
The play Heidi will be presenting at This is YEG is Inside View, All Over Again: Back Beyond the Hospital Walls of the Glenrose, which she says is about, “Sharon, an OT with the ICAN Centre, asks her former client and longtime friend, Joey, a person who has Cerebral Palsy and a Ph.D., to meet with a teenaged client of hers, Kristy, and Kristy’s mom, Brenda, so that he can talk with them about how he handled some of the challenges that Kristy is currently facing. JOEY starts out as a somewhat reluctant would-be mentor but soon develops a lot of empathy for Kristy and her determination to become a writer. Kristy, who hasn’t met very many other people who share her disability, let alone people who also share her passion for writing, starts out in awe of Joey but is also puzzled by the apparent pride he takes in having gone to a “crip school” at the Glenrose. Thus, as Joey talks about challenges that lay behind him, and Kristy talks about challenges that still lay ahead of her, Kristy finds herself connecting with her history as a person with disabilities, and Joey realizes the importance of sharing that history with the next generation.”
Heidi hopes that Inside View, All Over Again: Back Beyond the Hospital Walls of the Glenrose will encourage audiences to have conversations “about what constitutes community, and how vital opportunities for mentoring are to ensuring that the history of the community is passed along to the younger generation.”
While Heidi chose a community she had a personal experience with, Nicole Moeller chose to be embedded with The Neighbour Centre’s The Open Door Program, which helps current and former inmates reintegrate into society – a challenge Nicole knew little about before she was embedded with the program. “I understand that there are reasons why people end up in certain situations… but I definitely didn’t know about how much you have to overcome when you’re getting out of prison in terms of little things like getting an i.d. and getting a bank account and finding a place to live, getting a job – all of that. And all of the work to get your parole and to get unescorted temporary absence passes and the anxiety around that. I didn’t know anything about that so it was hugely eye opening.”
Nicole’s time being part of The Open Door Program community included both one-on-one interviews with participants in the program as well as attending Saturday night get-togethers that include a potluck, group discussions, games and going out into the community together. Of the Saturday night groups, Nicole says, “I’ve never been part of a group like that before and I didn’t expect how rewarding being in a group like that is – the connection to other people. That was really surprising to me – I didn’t expect to be so moved… It is a shared experience that’s fascinating. You haven’t been through the same thing, but a lot of the time you’re just talking about where you’d love to travel to or what you would do if you won the lottery or your favourite movies, but if you are talking about bigger stuff like forgiveness and blame and the people who inspire you – those are universal things that we can all relate to. When you share those things with other people the connection you have is really powerful. It’s really important to have that. The people who are in the program are trying to start again – they’re looking for a second chance. That’s a universal thing as well, how many times have we all needed to start over and want to better ourselves and want a second chance?”
Nicole’s interviews with program participants were more like conversations – she didn’t take notes since she was looking for the overall feeling she got from her interview subjects, rather than the specifics of their situation. “It’s the feeling you get from people – like if you’re up for parole, the anxiety that comes up for people when they talk about that because it means so much to them and they’ve worked so hard for it and it’s, you can go to your hearing and if you don’t get it, it can be a year and a half until they can go again.”
The play Nicole created for This is YEG, Welcome, Fish takes place in a group setting similar to those Saturday night get-togethers she participated in and is a series of monologues that show different aspects of the reintegration experience. Nicole says, “One character tells a story – she’s incarcerated and on an unescorted absence pass and tells the story of meeting this woman on a bus and as she tells the story – she is up for parole – it goes through what she’s thinking about. There’s another monologue from a guy who’s on parole and who has been for a while going through what his experience has been and the things that are fundamental to surviving it… I hope that people see that we’re all so much more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. And to see people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated as human. That’s not to say that people aren’t responsible for their actions, but that there’s usually a back story. And to have your eyes opened to the challenges of getting out, getting back into the community and reintegrating yourself.”
The plays that will be read as part of This is YEG have already been presented to the communities the playwrights were embedded in. Vern Thiessen, Workshop West’s Artistic Director, says one thing he’s noticed in both This is YEG as well as the similar project he did in Pennsylvania is that when community members hear the plays read, “They are often deeply honoured that somebody would take an interest in their lives. They feel like who they are is validated. They feel like their story is being told. It may not be the way they thought it was going to be, but that’s the impression I get… Putting a playwright in a certain situation can make them proud of what they’re doing.”
This is YEG is presented in conjunction with Fresh Ink (readings of plays by two new playwrights in Edmonton – The Long Walk Home by Liane Faulder and Gray Forest Manor by Spasoje Ž. Milovanović), Theatre Blitz (plays written by students of Victoria School of the Arts), and Tell Your Story (a workshop with Vern Thiessen that participants will walk away from with the start of a play).