Marjorie Chan: The yawning chasm of ‘unkkn’.

This week, we’ve invited writers from the 2014 Banff Playwrights Colony to guest blog about their experiences here. Marjorie Chan will be posting each day.

Where I am at the Moment ….

Marjorie Chan: “The majesty of the mountains reminds me of the insignificance of my scripts.”

I’m at the Banff Centre. I’m the Senior-Playwright-in-Residence for the Playwright’s Colony 2014. I don’t really know what that means, particularly the ‘senior’ part. I don’t feel senior in any sense of the word. Every time I sit down at the computer, it is completely new. The blank screen is always a yawning chasm of unkkn.

At dinner the other night, another playwright was challenging the definition of ‘emerging playwright’ as used by a writer, who is quite acclaimed. I wouldn’t describe the writer in question as ‘emerging’ but I certainly can’t deny her impulse to describe herself that way.

Give or take a month, my first professional play premiered 10 years ago. In that time, I’ve had 5 major premieres and dozens of smaller projects. So, I acknowledge that ‘emerging’ is not an accurate definition, and would never describe myself as such. But if I am not ‘emerging’, then, if one follows that logic, am I ‘emerged?’ Where on earth have I ‘emerged’ to?

My main bodies of work as a writer could be grouped as either text-based plays inspired by Chinese history or libretti for chamber operas. As well, I have worked as a writer on things that have no real classification—works of non-fiction theatre, plays for cellphones, text for music, text for dance etc.

I am working on 3 different projects while here in Banff. Each one is completely different than the other, and each offer a multitude of unique challenges, which I have never faced before. It’s all new. And it’s scary.

And as you probably know, Banff is nestled among the Rocky Mountains.  Have you seen these mountains? Well, when I see them, this is what goes through my head (in roughly this order):

First, various doge-like comments, such as ‘wow’, ‘so high’, ‘amaze’, ‘omg snow’.

Then my brain kicks with better vocabulary, ‘majestic’, ‘jaw-dropping’, ‘stark’, ‘impressive’

And then…and then I think…

How small am I.

I’m small.

I’m really small.

Theatre is small.

Theatre is not rocket surgery.

Finish the damn script.

And really, that is where I am at the moment. The majesty of the mountains reminds me of the insignificance of my scripts. In the grand scheme of things, they do not matter.  However, these projects will get finished, because I want to finish them. The question of where might have I ‘emerged’? Well, I’m here, at the Banff Centre.

Marjorie Chan is a multi-disciplinary theatre artist and the artistic director of Cahoots Theatre, an intercultural theatre company based in Toronto. Her plays include China Doll, A Nanking Winter, and The Madness of the Square. At the Colony her projects include Lady Sunrise, a re-imagining of Cao Yu’s classic Chinese play Sunrise.

Photo by Jenna Rodgers.

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Productivity’s a Funny Word

This week, we’ve invited writers from the 2014 Banff Playwrights Colony to guest blog about their experiences here. Today’s second blog post is from Elena Belyea.

Confession time: Ever since I was a bowl-cut wearing, zit-ridden teen, I’ve salivated at the thought of attending the Banff Playwrights Colony. This means I can honestly say this past week has been a teen dream.

Cliff Cardinal and Elena Belyea, NTS students at the Playwrights Colony.

Cliff Cardinal and Elena Belyea, NTS students at the Playwrights Colony.

Since my arrival last Sunday (bleary-eyed, fuelled by Tim-Hortons), I’ve been working on two projects—wrapping up a play I’ve been writing over the past year as part of the National Theatre School’s Playwriting program, and beginning another which will take me into my third and final year at NTS. Throughout the past seven months, my curriculum has left little breathing room, jam-packed with weekly deadlines, workshop readings, and regular classes. I figured my time at the Banff Centre—a glorified school field trip with no obligations other than reading, writing, and r&r—would mean endless productivity.

Turns out: productivity’s a funny word. I spent the first couple days flailing in my newfound “free time,” before making the realization my “work” as a writer isn’t always going to be through writing. More than half the time, it’s not. It’s through reading, walking, and exercising, fanning heated conversations, getting lost in the woods, or escaping into the city for a night of cheap wings and Banff’s annual “Rock, Paper, Scissors” competition.

For the most part, that’s what I’ve been up to. Brian and Jenna of the Colony were generous enough to provide me a studio that I’ve been using to do physical explorations to help focus my writing. I’ve also been collaging, painting, and finishing a mask I’ll be using to generate new material for my upcoming play.

Also, I write. I mean, obviously I write. But so far, one of the most significant parts of my journey from ankle-biter to big kid playwright has been, and continues to be, figuring out how to provide for myself, so when I set out to create, I’m equipped emotionally, physically and mentally to tell the stories I want to tell.

Elena Belyea is attending the Banff Playwrights Colony through a new partnership between the Banff Centre and the National Theatre School of Canada, where she is a second year playwriting student. Her participation in the Colony is funded in part by The George Ryga Playwriting Scholarship Endowment, a fund established in recognition of Ryga’s role in creating Playwrights Colony. Many thanks to the George Ryga Centre Society for their generous contribution to The Colony.



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Leading Ideas: Yoga in Sierra Leone

Last month Global News reporter Jayme Doll brought an incredible evening of conversation here, speakers and video on the subject of humanitarian work in Sierra Leone as part of Doll’s Africa Project. One of the speakers, Canmore-based occupational therapist Heather Weaver, talked about a yoga class she facilitated in Freetown:

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Puppet Theatre Intensive: Playing on stage

Peter Balkwill, director of the Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive.

Peter Balkwill, director of the Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive. Photos by Rita Taylor.

Puppets have an advantage over human performers. They can achieve the impossible. Need a boy to jump off a cliff and fly away? A puppet can do that on stage and be much more captivating than a live actor. But you have to keep in mind that puppets are a very visual art form. If you want a character to stand around talking on stage, actors do that better. There has to be a reason to work with puppets, and telling a story based in physicality and movement seems to be just that thing.

The Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive is a 15-day crash course in all things puppet — ensemble work, hands-on building, articulation — led by Peter Balkwill of Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop. It all wraps up with a public presentation featuring puppet plays we collectively create in groups.

During the intensive, I loved figuring out a puppet’s personality based on the way it moved. Our group’s protagonist was a girl with deep-set eyes, moveable shoulders, and long, spindly arms that reached to the ground. We knew she was young and brooding right off the bat, and the story we built developed out of the natural character of this girl, Adeline. Our groups were made up of actors, writers, designers, builders, educators, and enthusiasts, so the unique talent that everyone brought into the process varied so much that the possibilities for both building and performance were endless.

My group continued to play, even once we’d found our story. We had four theatre types and one visual artist in our group, and she created a gorgeous seagull puppet, though we hadn’t written much of a role in the story for that character. When we were addressing notes from an open rehearsal, the visual artist in our group offered a hilarious and fitting solution to a plot point that needed focus, and in doing so she fleshed out the character of her bird and gave it a purpose, and more stage time. Now, after doing the final presentation in the Margaret Greenham Theatre, my group has been figuring out how to come together for a residency to continue working on the piece.

Mika Laulainen is a freelance theatre artist based in Vancouver. She is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s Theatre program. While her focus is on directing, she also writes, acts, puppeteers, and produces plays. She currently produces her own work under the banner star star theatre.


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Hello Banff Centre Radio!

Banff Centre Radio is set to hit the airwaves this summer, broadcasting content about mountain culture, Banff National Park, and the arts and ideas created at The Banff Centre. Here are a few before and after shots of the new revamped studio space that will be home to Banff Centre Radio 101.1, 103.3 (French) and 107.9 fm in the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Building. We think the transformation is pretty amazing!

All photos by Rita Taylor.

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Séan McCann: The creative gift of -30°

Séan McCann, formerly of the band Great Big Sea, was finishing up a two-week residency at the Leighton Artists Colony. I asked him about his time at The Banff Centre, his recently released album Help Your Self, and how the mountains influence his songwriting.

Singer / songwriter Séan McCann in the Cardinal Studio, in the Leighton Artists Colony. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Singer / songwriter Séan McCann in the Cardinal Studio, in the Leighton Artists Colony. Photo: Rita Taylor.

“I just kind of do solitude in the mountains and write.” Séan McCann has been escaping to Banff for alone time for more than 20 years. About ten years ago, he started using The Banff Centre music huts, perfect practice spaces for musicians, but this March was his first occasion here as an artist in residence. As a member of rousing folk-rock band Great Big Sea — the band he spent 20 years singing and playing with — he never had the opportunity to do a residency. But after leaving the group at the end of 2013 and releasing his solo album Help Your Self in January 2014, he had time on his hands.

“At a certain point, in the growth of a song, I love to wash it through Banff.” As a Newfoundlander, whose home is near the sea, Séan relishes the time he spends in the mountains. “There’s a different energy at this altitude that can really push a song in a different way,” he says. Two weeks in the Cardinal Studio, with no interruptions, meant his brain was free to roam without distraction. “There’s really something to be said for the mountains. The energy up here is different, it has an effect on me, on my body chemistry, and I let it happen. It’s kind of like a weapon. I don’t need it all the time, but at a certain point, in the growth of a song, I love to wash it through Banff.”

“When you’re having a good writing period, the worst thing you can do is ignore it.” Séan, who wrote some of the songs for Help Your Self in Banff two years ago, left his two-week residency with a suitcase full of new music— more than 20 songs — that he’ll work on throughout the next year. His intention hadn’t been to write enough music to fill an album while here, or even enough to tell a story, but an unexpected prolific writing streak, coupled with -30° weather that kept him indoors, allowed him to generate plenty.

“I drank a lot for years just because, honestly, I was so frustrated in the situation I was in, singing the same songs over and over again, saying nothing.” After 20 years with Great Big Sea, Séan hit a creative wall and was unable to steer the band in a direction that worked for him artistically. He was tired of repeating the same message. “If you’re up there and you’re not believing what you’re saying or you’re not compelled to do it… If you’re a for-real artist, that is death for you. And I couldn’t do it anymore.”

»Read more…

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