Today is International Judith Thompson Day, as the National Theatre of the World kick-starts their Script-Tease Project at the Theatre Passe Muraille tonight (Tuesday May 24th) at 8pm. Thompson is the first playwright who has written 2 pages of a brand-new play for them to perform tonight- and once they run out of lines, they will triumphantly make up the rest in her distinctive style.
Today is Judith Thompson day! A day to celebrate a woman who has written internationally acclaimed plays that are among the best known, most highly respected, most frequently produced, anthologized and taught plays nationally and internationally. A woman who has won the Governor’s General Award twice, in 1985 for White Biting Dog; and in 1989 for a collection of her plays, The Other Side of the Dark, who has won several Chalmers Canadian Play Awards, several Dora Mavor Moore Awards, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, in 2008 became the first Canadian to be awarded the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which recognizes the achievements of outstanding female playwrights from all over the world and also won an Amnesty International Award for her play Palace of the End. Today is a day to celebrate a woman who is passionate about creating high quality theatre, whose warmth and fascination for humanity radiates from her every time she speaks, always poetically, but also candid and from the heart. A day to celebrate a director who has the ability to bring her own work, many plays that break dramaturgical and narrative conventions, to the stage in creative and artful ways that allow them to live theatrically for the audience and who also, most recently, has become a dedicated director/teacher in the creation of two plays Body and Soul and Sick: The Grace Project, in which she worked helping mostly non-performers tell their own true stories in poignant, often humorous, and always imaginative ways.
I keep thinking that I was introduced to Judith Thompson backwards. So many people, especially in Ontario, have followed her rich and vibrant works relatively chronologically, beginning with The Crackwalker (1980) or White Biting Dog (1984) or Lion in the Streets (1990) and then progressing from there to more recent plays like Sled (1997) or Perfect Pie (2000). For this reason, I heard a lot of reaction from these chronological followers of Thompson regarding the stark departure from her earlier work in the construction of Palace of the End (2008).
I saw Palace of the End first, in its inaugural production at Canadian Stage, and I was utterly and magnificently blown away. I remember this production so vividly, even though it was one of the first that I saw in Toronto, very soon after I moved here and before I was writing consistently for TWISI, although it is one of those few plays I saw at this time in my life that I keep wishing I had written about because my initial gut reaction certainly would have been a dramatic and passionate one. In a way, it is actually appropriate that Palace of the End was the first Thompson play I saw, because I think that my reaction to it was similar to the reactions of audience members in 1980 after seeing The Crackwalker. Palace of the End was like a revelation to me because I had never seen theatre being used in such a hard-hitting political way, focusing on contemporary and immediately relevant issues. I remember feeling so proud as I walked out of the Berkeley Street Theatre (I think it was the first show I ever saw in there too) thinking, “Wow. How brave of David Storch to do this play here and now and for this subscription-based audience at a regional theatre. This is what theatre should be. This is what should be being produced everywhere.” I basically floated home by the sheer power of the inspiration of Judith Thompson and David Storch (and I would be remiss not to add here Maev Beaty, whose performance in this play haunts me to this day and stands as an example for me of what truly extraordinary acting can be). Palace of the End remains my favourite Judith Thompson play to this day and it is one that I will always consider to be a pinnacle of courageous, poetic, heartrending Canadian theatre that needs to be seen.
A few months later I saw Staged and Confused’s production of The Crackwalker and had another epiphany when I realized that when most people in the theatre think about “Judith Thompson” this is what comes immediately to mind. What was so great about this production was to see a Canadian play from 1980 being produced so zealously in 2008 by young performers just out of theatre school, and Thompson’s words and the iconic tragic characters that she created gave them a strong foundation for memorable performances and a solid production. The next thing I did was something that I recommend you all doing, I went to Theatre Books and picked up a copy of Judith Thompson’s Late 20th Century Plays (1980-2000) and I read them all from cover to cover. I also had the chance to perform her Pink, which I hope I will have an opportunity to reprise because it is one of my favourite things that I have ever done as an actor.
I love the way Judith Thompson writes. I love that you can read her words aloud, and you don’t really have to do a lot of acting, because the characters’ distinctive voices are just there, inherent in the words and the way that Thompson has constructed their phrases. Read Theresa’s opening monologue from The Crackwalker aloud, it’s the geekiest kind of fun! I still haven’t gotten the opportunity to see most of Thompson’s plays onstage. I am looking forward ardently to Soulpepper’s upcoming production of White Biting Dog in August, featuring the stellar cast of Fiona Reid, Mike Ross, Michaela Washburn and Joseph Ziegler. Thompson has obviously written these plays to be performed rather than read, which I think most intuitive dramatists do, as they can be challenging to adequately appreciate when stripped of their performative concepts. Yet, they are also exciting for a reader because they offer so many possibilities, and perhaps this is why Judith Thompson’s works are so readily produced, because they ignite that spark of imagination in the minds of so many innovative directors the first time they read them.
I was lucky enough to see Judith Thompson speak at The Drama Centre at the University of Toronto, with David Storch, both of whom gave fascinating lectures on the use of violence onstage. Thompson’s lecture stood in, almost comical, contrast to her plays, in that she presents herself as a very peaceful person, who actually abhors violence, someone who likes to ride her bike and sit in the park, but she said that out of that hatred, she still finds herself exploring this vocabulary of the communities that she’s interested in, but never to glorify or exoticize violence or misogyny. She said that she sees that violence exists and so she feels compelled to write about it because she is horrified by it. This is exactly how I felt about Palace of the End, and how I’m sure initial audiences seeing The Crackwalker, who had never before seen a play give voice to this particular community before, felt, that as difficult as these stories are to watch and to hear, we do have a responsibility as theatre makers and theatregoers to not turn a blind eye to the horrific, but to confront the ethical questions, the complex and difficult ethical questions, that these plays raise. David Storch introduced me to Judith Thompson after this evening and I was struck by how generous she was with her spirit, she immediately buoyed me up and made me excited about my future as part of this glorious community.
The flip side of this, of course, is that Judith Thompson’s plays and her dramatic conventions, make for hilarious and unmistakable material for pastiche and homage by the genius improvisers at The National Theatre of the World. I saw a fantastic Impromptu Splendor in the style of Judith Thompson last year with special guest Jane Spidell (who was in Lion in the Streets at Tarragon Theatre in 1990), which was the perfect rollicking romp of sordid, angry, violent, lost souls trying adamantly to connect with one another and to make a better life for themselves, while the grubby, bloodied hands of the past kept dragging them back down to Hell by the ankles. Really, these photographs of past Thompson Splendors are worth more than a thousand of my words.
a production of The Crackwalker at Tarrgon Theatre & Kayla Lorette and Ron Pederson in a Improvised Judith Thompson Impromptu Splendor called Badger Hopscotch. Photo by Skye Regan.
matt baram, ron pederson
jane spidell and naomi snieckus
photo by frederic solenthaler
Tonight is Opening Night of The National Theatre of the World’s Script Tease Project at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto). It is SOLD-OUT, but there may be opportunities (Waiting List style) for tickets that become available ($20.00/4.15 (Students) at the Door. If it’s not raining torrentially, I would recommend getting to TPM early and lining up. Regardless, there will be Script-Tease Performances until May 29th so make sure to Catch Them While You Can. The Schedule is as follows:
Tuesday, May 24th 8pm Judith Thompson
Wednesday, May 25th 2pm Linda Griffiths
Wednesday, May 25th 8pm Daniel MacIvor
Thursday, May 26th 8pm Woody Harrelson
Thursday, May 26th 9:30 Hannah Moscovitch
Friday, May 27th 8:pm Brad Fraser
Saturday, May 28th 2pm Morris Panych
Saturday, May 28th 8pm Mark McKinney
Sunday, May 29th 2pm Norm Foster
Sunday, May 29th 8pm John Patrick Shanley
Got Splendor? Come see a play that will make you laugh with your heart.
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