By Joy Fisher
Undaunted by winter weather, a small contingent of intrepid writers from Victoria boarded the Clipper for its morning run to Seattle recently to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference.
Joined by a smattering of Canadian writers who rolled in from Vancouver and flew in from points east, the Victoria group claimed their space among some 12,000 other writers, most from the United States, who attended the three-day conference.
The number of panel discussions devoted to playwriting were also in the minority at the conference–just three out of more than 500 offered. The dismal status of playwriting was reflected in the title of one of the three: “Playwriting: the Bastard Child of Literature?”
The two minorities came together memorably, however, in a panel entitled “Playwriting in the Pacific Northwest: A Specialized Craft in a Unique Region.”
Moderated by Bryan Wade, associate professor of dramatic writing at the University of British Columbia, panel members considered whether playwrights from the Pacific Northwest on both sides of the border had more in common with each other than they did with their compatriots to the east.
Joining Wade were two Canadian playwrights, Kevin Kerr and C.E. Gatchalian; Oregon-based playwright Andrea Stolowitz; and native Alaskan playwright, Cathy Rexford. Each examined the disadvantages and advantages of playwrights situated at a distance from the theatre centres of their respective countries.
One disadvantage was what Kerr characterized as a “battle against theatrical loneliness.” He recounted a conversation in which a Toronto colleague happened to mention that he had always thought of Vancouver as a “cultural backwater.” At that moment Kerr realized “we are on our own.”
Perhaps because of this isolation, west-coast playwrights have, in recent decades, pioneered theatre companies in which members collaborate on the writing of plays. Kerr, an associate professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, co-founded the Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver and has worked to bring collaborative companies together for conferences to share their respective processes.
Gatchalian called this collaborative model the “Vancouver esthetic” and distinguished it from what he termed the “Toronto esthetic” which he described as the “text-based” model of the individual playwright working alone on a script. Gatchalian also noted the comparatively “financially precarious” position of the Vancouver theatre scene, which he attributed, in part, to the fact that theatre-going is not as ingrained in the population because it must compete with easy access to a wide variety of outdoor activities.
Stolowitz acknowledged the relative financial insecurity of working in places that are not theatre capitols, but argued that the trade-off is “a certain freedom to dream.” She is a member of Playwrights West, a new professional theatre company in Portland focused on presenting top-level productions of its members’ work. Playwrights West produces work for local audiences and Stolowitz says her writing is often inspired by “place.” “But there are no rules—I can do what I want,” she said.
Rexford, the most geographically isolated of all the playwrights on the panel, had perhaps the most defined mission. Following completion of an MFA in playwriting at UBC, she returned to work in the Alaska Arctic, where she labours to adapt traditional stories and revitalize the native language of the Inupiat people through performance theatre and native dances. “It’s the narratives of the people that connect Alaska natives involved in theatre,” she said.
Joy Fisher graduated with a BFA in writing from the University of Victoria. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.