Plays to the Audience(s)
- Rory Runnells (Editor)
A Map of the Senses: Twenty Years of Manitoba Plays. Scirocco Drama (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Glenda Stirling (Editor)
NeXt Fest Anthology: Plays from the Syncrude Next Generation Art Festival 1996-2000. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mark Blagrave
Anthologies generally lend themselves to being read both as representative samples of larger positions, trends or situations as perceived by the anthologist, and as invitations to compare their component works with one another. In addition, printed anthologies of plays typically appeal to three natural audiences: souvenir readers who want to be reminded of a performance they saw; literary critics and theatre histo rians keen to produce, through close analysis, a secondary literature based on the plays and their production histories; and directors and performers looking for new scripts to produce. Serving all three does not prove easy.
Both Glenda Stirling and Rory Runnells have produced volumes of plays that are described as representative samples of larger bodies of work (Stirling’s volume collects the plays presented at Edmonton’s NeXt Generation Arts Festival between 1996 and 2000, and Runnells’s assembles the scripts developed by the Manitoba Association of Playwrights—the "Map" of his title—over a period of twenty years). Demographically, several conclusions might be suggested by the selections. In A Map of the Senses, male playwrights outnumber female by a factor of two to one, while The NeXt Fest Anthology is slightly more predominantly male. Both volumes contain gay-oriented material, but Aboriginal issues are addressed specifically only in plays in A Map of the Senses. Chronologically, the selections may be less representative: Runnells prints plays that had productions in only eight of the twenty years promised by his volume’s subtitle, while Stirling chooses three of her five plays from the first festival in 1996, though her volume’s aim is to "highlight five plays from the past five years."
Stirling’s volume contains two monologues, one play that was a monologue before it reached NeXt Fest, and one play that may best be described as a kind of narrative duologue. Four of the five are the work of recent alumni of the University of Alberta. No doubt, the homogeneity of this volume is a function of the NeXt Generation Arts Festival’s focus on young Alberta talent, and of the editor’s decision to feature only plays from this multidisci-plinary event. In this sense, the collection is probably representative, but its potential for comparative analysis is severely limited. Moreover, Stirling’s claim that it offers "a look at the first steps of the artists who will be the future of Canadian theatre" raises questions as to the value of publishing juvenilia prior to the establishment of a substantial career. On a more positive note, none of the five plays printed in Stirling’s anthology appears to be available in print elsewhere, making the volume a worthwhile prospecting-ground for directors and performers. By contrast, five of the twelve plays printed by Runnells are available in other editions, which limits the collection’s "prospecting" value although it may guarantee variety, substance and the potential for some meaningful comparative analysis. Both anthologies feature extended introductions by their editors, outlining the immediate contexts in which the scripts were written and workshopped or produced. In addition, A Map of the Senses includes a preface (described on the cover as an introduction) by Doug Arrell of the Department of Theatre, University of Winnipeg. This contribution is limited to less than one page of text, one half of which, in turn, is given over to introducing Rory Runnells as a personality ("the heart and soul of the Manitoba playwriting community"). An academic audience may be further frustrated by the anecdotal approach of Runnells’s introduction, and by his idiosyncratic style ("Back to the story"; "But to continue"; "One more item and then I tell all"), and would certainly question whether the trends in Manitoba playwriting identified in the introduction are actually borne out in the plays that follow. It is impossible, however, to doubt the anthologist’s keen personal involvement and investment in the events he describes. Glenda Stirling’s introduction, which includes contributions by Bradley Moss (first festival director and ongoing producer of the Syncrude NeXt Generation Arts Festival), is similarly personal in nature. Like Runnells’s, her account, which sometimes reads more like an extended set of acknowledgements than an actual introduction, is most likely to appeal to an initiated crowd of those who were there too and want to remember the exciting first steps of the enterprise. Although Stirling’s general introduction may disappoint the more detached reader with such statements as "I can clearly see the impact of the festival on my career and personal life," her decision to introduce each script individually does help to shift emphasis back to the works themselves.
Both anthologists have chosen to document initial production circumstances of the plays, including venue, date, cast and direction—information of interest to the souvenir reader, and potentially of real value to the academic reader; however, it is not always clear how reliable the information is. Runnells’s volume offers (in three separate places) three conflicting dates for the first performance of one play, and leaves the reader to guess at the year of another’s production by Prairie Theatre Exchange. Stirling’s mislabels a 1996 photograph as 1998. In some cases, the production histories acknowledge that the text that is printed in the anthology is not the text originally (perhaps ever) produced. This is true of both Worm Moon and Zac and Speth in A Map of the Senses. The NeXt Fest Anthology fails to make clear whether the texts ofSuperEd and The Key to Violet’s Apartment are those of their NeXt Fest readings or those of later Fringe productions, and chooses to print the Nightwood Theatre (1998) version of Benedetta Carlini rather than the NeXt Fest (1996) version.
The decision to print stage directions in italics but not in parentheses in The NeXt fest Anthology poses problems, particularly in the monologues; however, the running footers, play by play, make Stirling’s volume as a whole more friendly to use than A Map of the Senses, where no such orientation is provided. Performing groups are also likely to find Runnells’s collection an unwieldy volume to hold and work from.
Information on how to apply for performance rights is clearly provided for each play in The NeXt Fest Anthology, while in A Map of the Senses there is only a blanket statement of retention of rights. Given that only four of the twelve playwrights represented in that volume are listed as members of the Playwrights Union of Canada, obtaining royalty information for the other eight plays represents a significant challenge for the would-be performer. Similarly, anyone interested in producing or seriously studying Alf Silver’s Thimblerig will look in vain either for evidence of the original music that figures so highly in the piece, or for information on how to obtain the music.
In the end, then, these two anthologies are most likely to find their audiences in the souvenir reader. Neither collection is fully able to serve the other two of its three likely audiences. The would-be performer will encounter a range of practical obstacles, and the academic reader will be both disappointed in the unreliable apparatus and discouraged by the lack of potential for serious comparative analysis.
- A Couple Pairs of Shorts by Owen Percy
Books reviewed: Pardon our Monsters by Andrew Hood, Once by Rebecca Rosenblum, Reckoning by A.S. Penne, and The Butcher of Penetang by Betsy Trumpener
- Missed Opportunities by Malcolm Page
Books reviewed: From Fire to Flood: A History of Theatre in Manitoba by Kevin Longfield and 7 Cannons by Martin Bragg, Per Brask, and Roy Surette
- Redefining Alberta by Katherine Durnin
Books reviewed: Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta by Aritha van Herk
- Family Secrets by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa and Miracleville by Monique Polak
- Back to the Future by Norman F. Cornett
Books reviewed: Watching Quebec: Selected Essays by Ramsay Cook
MLA: Blagrave, Mark. Plays to the Audience(s). canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 177 - 179)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.