Every year Walterdale Theatre presents new one-act plays in its annual play development and showcase program, From Cradle to Stage. Draft one-act scripts are collected in September, adjudicated by a committee and selected to participate in the program, which includes working with a dramaturg and assistant dramaturg and eventually seeing a staged production of their script in May.
This year, the two plays selected for From Cradle to Stage are John Richardson’s Guenevere and Tessa Simpson’s Portrait of a Family Dinner. Both one-act plays are on stage at the Walterdale Theatre May 15 – 20.
Guenevere by John Richardson
Having interviewed a number of playwrights in my 8 years of writing about theatre, I’ve heard the gamut of plays being painful & difficult to write, all the way to the play flowing almost effortlessly out of the playwright. John Richardson’s Guenevere is closer to the latter than the former.
John says, “It was started in Cornwall on June 21, 1983. I believe it was pretty much all written that summer. I wrote it partly as an exercise just to see what I could do and sort of thinking of it as an artefact because it’s based on the Greek tragedy form, I wanted to write it like the oldest manuscripts we have, which are just the words, no stage directions. When I was writing it, I didn’t have any intention of it ever being on stage. One evening, for some reason, I pulled it out and re-read it and thought this is pretty good, maybe I should send it to From Cradle to Stage and the deadline was that night at midnight.”
Not only did John make the deadline, his play written 34 years ago was chosen to be part of the 2017 From Cradle to Stage festival at Walterdale Theatre. John says, “It’s kind of weird because the script itself is so distant from me now. It’s almost as if I’m seeing somebody else’s play and I’m getting credit for it.”
One of the things John and I remarked on in our conversation was how younger people have a peripheral familiarity with Arthurian legend, but the legends have faded from the prominence they once had in popular society. ” The whole Arthurian cycle has, for the better part of 1000 years, been a fundamental part of European literature and folklore and tradition.”
Written as a Greek tragedy and imparted in poetry, John describes the action of Guenevere as a reflection on Guenevere’s life and legend. In addition to the main action on stage, Guenevere also features a chorus of nuns that augments the main character’s storytelling. “Camelot is crumbling, and King Arthur is trying to fight back the Saxons, who are trying to take over. Because he’s been off at war and things have gotten so bad, Guenevere has gone to a nunnery and Lancelot has gone off to be a monk. [The play] really happens in the last few hours of Camelot. There’s a tension between what Guenevere and the nuns and everybody would have liked to have happened with their life and what they’ve had to do because of society and social responsibilities. That’s running through the whole thing. In the end, Guenevere basically embraces becoming a myth…. It’s a tragedy in an awful lot of ways because you can’t always get what you want.”
For more on Guenevere, I encourage you to read John’s excellent blog, Behind the Hedge, where he gives insight into the origination of this play.
Portrait of a Family Dinner by Tessa Simpson
“Girl goes home to visit her ageing parents but finds out that they’re actually paintings (or maybe just the dad).”
It was that note to herself that sparked the idea that eventually became Tessa Simpson’s play Portrait of a Family Dinner that was chosen for the 2017 From Cradle to Stage festival at Walterdale Theatre.
Of the play, Tessa says, “It’s a loose modernization or retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray… Christine goes home with her girlfriend to meet her older parents. This is the first time she’s introducing her girlfriend to her parents and she’s nervous about that, but it all goes well though, which is wonderful. But her parents are nervous because there were these other people in the house earlier and they’re worried they’re going to come back and meet the daughter and the girlfriend. The other people do come back and you find out they’re this glamorous young couple who are almost storybook evil.”
As the play progresses, Christine learns more about the bonds of family and creating things in one’s own likeness.
As you may be able to guess, Tessa was interested in exploring the genre of urban fantasy with Portrait of a Family Dinner, “I wanted to explore a fantastical setting on stage in a longer format – it’s a genre I feel isn’t explored enough on stage.”
Tessa says she’s drawn to the genre due to the “rigid flexibility” it offers her as a playwright. “The rules can be anything you want, but once you have them and you know what can and can’t happen, how does that change or how does the character’s understanding of the rules change throughout the story? That’s where things get interesting for me.”
Working with dramaturg Tracy Carroll throughout the From Cradle to Stage process was incredibly valuable to Tessa in strengthening the direction of the story, and especially strengthening and committing to the fantastical elements of the play. Being chosen for the program also allowed Tessa to focus solely on writing the play, unlike her usual double-duties as playwright and actor or director that she’s taken on in other productions of her play. As a result, Tessa notes, “The fantastical world is almost a seventh character in the play.”
For more information on the plays as well as one-on-one interviews with the cast and crew of both productions, check out the Walterdale Theatre blog.