December 8th, 2015
Behind the Curtain: The Pipeline
Leopold St-Pierre, Playwright of Two Piranhas
Louise Arsenault, Playwright of Burning Tongues
Michael Milech, Playwright of Honesty Rents by the Hour
Oren Safdie, Playwright of Lunch Hour
QDF: When starting a new play do you start with real a world event and surround it with imagined circumstances or do you start with imagined circumstances and fill in from realistic experiences?
Leopold St-Pierre: In the case of TWO PIRANHAS, I had been sitting around one day thinking about something from my own past (a small betrayal about a decade earlier) that was, despite being relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, not exactly my proudest moment. The part of the whole thing that troubled me most was that in the whole ensuing decade, I’d never really ‘owned up’ to it, or felt any guilt – and I started thinking about small betrayals and how they a) can sometimes cause real ripple-effect damage – and b) how those who perpetrate them rarely even realize the damage they have semi-inadvertently done.
I have, for better or worse, very little interest in real world events, but a bottomless fascination in the sub-texts of relationships and how hard it is to make them work. And (as is often stated) writers often best work out their issues through their writing… so I figured in writing about it all (using a fictitious stand-in for my own past event), I might better understand it and maybe grow from the experience…
On a completely other level, I was also just coming off a nightmare experience having written a noir film called A HEADFUL OF SNAKES that had become one of those multi-country ‘Euro-pudding’ co-productions… with 6 partner countries, with 6 chiefs & few Indians, which ballooned in budget from $3 million… to $7 million… to $14 million – before (after 13 months of work & 8 drafts juggling everybody’s needs) finally crashing and burning under its own excessive eight & bloated budget – collapsing right after the 6 producers announced to me “The project is finally ‘green lit’ — but we need to take your name off as screenwriter (I’d written all the drafts 100% alone) in order to maintain the business deal’s points…” When I refused & the whole thing all collapsed – I was bitching to my good UK friend Paul Marcus (producer-director of Helen Mirren’s PRIME SUSPECT), and Paul said, “Leo, you write wonderful dialogue – why not just do something super-simple between a few people yakking away?” And, as such, Two Piranhas was born – partly as free therapy dealing with my own past small regrets…. Partly as a simple & (hopefully) easily produce-able antidote to overelaborate big productions that sink under their own weight & pretensions…
Louise Arsenault: Probably a bit of both. In the case of this play I started with real life characters and shaped fictional ones based on them. There’s usually a protagonist who is not too far from my own character but by the time the play ends there’s a big divide between the real life influences and the made-up characters. The events are based mostly on real happenings but I extrapolate and exaggerate quite a lot so that the final product does not really resemble reality.
Michael Milech: It happens differently every time. When I try to write a new play the same way I wrote the last one, it’s a recipe for writer’s block. Now that I think about it, though, I’m not sure it’s possible to imagine anything that doesn’t have some foundation in real-life experience. I’d say imagination is collage and exaggeration of experience, not creation from scratch.
Oren Safdie: I tend to start with a real world situation and let it evolve from there. Characters are also usually based on people I know.
QDF: How present is the stage in your mind when you write; does it shape your work or do you leave the directors/designers to figure it out?
Leopold St-Pierre: I have worked in film 90% of my adult life (& have a Master’s degree in Film & Communication) – so I have a strong understanding of the film vocabulary, natural strengths and weaknesses, etc… I am a novice at plays, so I strongly depend on directors/designers, etc… to best figure it out – while I retain my own deep-rooted feelings about heart, soul & content on the character level…
As a film-maker, the biggest shock (& a key learning tool) was seeing director’s cut DVDs… which are rarely superior (& often self-indulgent crap) to the overall production cut – which benefits from 4 or 5 key creative decision-makers yin-yang working together. I once read a book about Hollywood in the 1930s & 40s called The Genius of the System. I really believe that, ideally, a small knot of creative brains working together creates the best results, benefitting from diverse knowledge & strengths.
Louise Arsenault: I always try to visualize a stage and the characters moving about. I usually have a definite design in mind and picture key elements but am willing to collaborate when a director and designer get on board. With this play I always keep seeing the hammock that the father cocoons in and the daughter’s old suitcase she arrives with.
Michael Milech: I get really excited when a director or designer or actor does something with my words that would never have occurred to me. It means that my writing had life in it, it gave them ideas, and I take it as a compliment. I suppose I write with a sense of what the play might feel like to an audience, but even if only for the enjoyment of being surprised, I don’t think too much about how things will look and sound.
Oren Safdie: The presence of the stage only enters my mind once I establish the structure. Initially, I just write out several scenes without much thought to sets and costumes. But once I find the way to tell the story, the setting and audience start to play a more integral role in the play’s development.
QDF: How fixed is your world; do you prefer it to be produced as is or are you comfortable with adaptation?
Leopold St-Pierre: In theory, I believe in exploring (or at least not being automatically closed to) adaptation – though, conversely, I think too often some collaborators go too far in adding their touch where unnecessary. Great camera work in a film is not usually camera work you NOTICE & go “Wow, what a cool crane shot…” If you do, you’re probably not as wrapped up in the characters, emotions & story as you should be.
Similarly, I believe great adaptation should always be rooted in a key understanding of the heart of the piece… and then approaching presenting this in a perhaps fresher & more unexpected way.
Louise Arsenault: I am open to collaboration and would be thrilled to have this play produced but I don’t compromise my voice. I usually don’t change lines unless there’s a good reason. Working with Ellen David, the director for the reading, I’ve learned a lot about making judicious cuts and listening to worthwhile suggestions.
Michael Milech: Go ahead and adapt it. Do whatever you want with it. Just don’t make it boring.
Oren Safdie: My first reaction would be to say that I’d like my play produced the way I thought of it when I wrote it. However, this does not mean I have a fixed way I see it being cast – only that the play’s intentions are respected by the director. Once the first production is produced, then it can be both surprising as well as mortifying to see how other directors interpret your work. It’s a crapshoot. But I do believe that the playwright knows what’s best for their work – and the notion that “You’re too close to the play to know what’s best for it,” told to me by numerous directors is a load of crap. (I spend months and months with my play – who knows it better than me?)
QDF: As a playwright, do you have an overarching objective when you construct a play? i.e: education, pure entertainment/enlightenment?
Leopold St-Pierre: I have very strong feelings about this. I believe art greatly benefits from being accessible & entertaining – but if it is nothing more than that, it feels (to me) like a profoundly wasted opportunity. There’s a huge difference between laughing because someone is tickling you – and laughing in a way that also has a point or teaches some small truth about humanity or life – in these latter cases, with the inner core moment staying with you long after the being-tickled laugh is forgotten.
So, as a writer, I try really hard to present a fun, dynamic, interesting (i.e., entertaining) surface… but I, as strongly, feel that if in the end the piece isn’t about something of a deeper nature or doesn’t at least trigger some deeper thoughts about life, love, struggles, or any of a million other themes…. then why bother?
Chaplin said he made his movies “for the 10 minutes AFTER you’d finished watching them”…. What he called “comic joy”. Though I don’t only write comedies, I very much subscribe to the same goal, and I hope that in some small ways I can achieve it…
Louise Arsenault: I try to ask questions and not necessarily answer them. However, having said that, I am usually concerned with rather heavy issues such as suicide, addiction and in the case of this play, the effects of growing up in an alcoholic home. I do try to impart any knowledge I have without being didactic and hopefully entertain with some comic moments, however satirical.
Michael Milech: My objective is to entertain myself as I write. I don’t write for a living, so if this is how I’m going to spend evenings and weekends, it had better be fun for me. And usually, if a play was fun to write, it’ll also be fun to read, fun to perform, and fun to watch. Fun is certainly not the opposite of thought-provoking, though. An audience that leaves the theatre without contemplating issues raised probably didn’t enjoy itself very much.
Oren Safdie: No doubt there is room for entertainment in theatre. And I believe every play should strive to entertain even if it strives to teach. (It stands a better chance to reach people.) But if there’s one thing theatre has the ability to do that film and TV rarely do, is make people think, debate important issues and actually change society. Part of this is because of theatre’s immediacy – it’s happening right before the audience with no artificial barrier. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to write a play if I wasn’t trying to change something or challenge someone. It’s what has driven me to write from day one.
QDF: Do you prefer to write to evoke questions from your audience or do you prefer to provide perspective/answers?
Leopold St-Pierre: A little of both, I guess. In the end, when it comes to many human and relationship issues, in the end “I’ll try…” is often the answer closest to the truth.
I think a play can be most effective in raising issues and perhaps weaving in the human and emotional context to make a viewer (caught up in the surface fictional story) invested enough to be pre-disposed to give a damn or at least to want to give it some fresh thought & maybe brush aside their own stale, long-standing philosophies, viewpoints or opinions…
I remember a few years ago, a friend who had done a film on the holocaust said to me, “Among those 6 million people killed, maybe there was another Beethoven, or someone who would have found a cure for cancer…” – and in that one sentence, he’d managed to revitalize my understanding of the scope of a great tragedy that had in a way been shifted to horrifying stats & statistics.
I think that is what art has a great capacity to do. To subtly yet profoundly re-focus, re-assess and re-awaken our humanity….
Louise Arsenault: I hope that some aspect of the play resonates with each audience member and they go away feeling that they have a new perspective on the issues at hand.
Michael Milech: Sometimes I’d like to provide answers, but I don’t have any, so evoking questions will have to do.
Oren Safdie: I feel very strongly that plays should always allow people to question and never try and give any answers. Let the audience come up with their own answer. This means never favouring one character over another and never leaning more to one side if it’s a political play. I am always trying to stride the line that different audience members will come to different conclusions at the end of the play. If I hear people leaving the theatre arguing, I know I’ve done my job. As for the playwright that thinks that they will sway anybody to think their way by stacking the deck in the favour of their point of view, the audience is smarter than that, and will always become suspicious. (Nobody likes to be told what to think.) I like to think of a playwright as a referee at a hockey game: the less you’re aware of their presence, the better they’ve done their job.
Each playwright has a reading of their play
Here is the schedule:
Thursday December 10, 2015 at 7PM: Honesty Rents by the Hour by Michael Milech
Friday December 11, 2015 at 7PM: Burning Tongues by Louise Arsenault
Saturday December 12, 2015 at 7PM: Lunch Hour by Oren Safdie
Sunday December 13, 2015 at 2PM: Two Piranhas by Leopold St-Pierre
Playing at Rialto Infinite Studio
Presented by Infintheatre