Exploring the journey from grief to joy, Leaving Wonderland is set against the backdrop of a small Nova Scotia college town beset with student drinking and partying. Recently we spoke with playwright Shelley Thompson about the production, which runs from September 24 to October 4 at the Neptune Studio Theatre in Halifax.
What are your own roots?
I was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, but left when I was 19 to go to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in the UK after a year of teaching piano to raise the money. I'd always been an anglophile: travelled there with my choir when I was 14 and 17, obsessed with Shakespeare, in love with the literary history of that country. I still am. I came to Nova Scotia on holiday in 1991, fell in love with it, and when I had my child while still living in London, decided with my husband (Ed Thomason, AD at Festival Antigonish) that we wanted a chance to bring him up in a rural Canadian town. That was Wolfville - one of the loveliest towns in the country, I think. I live in Dartmouth now, surrounded by artist friends. Although I love Nova Scotia, I'll always be torn.
How inspired you to become a writer?
I've always written. Well - always. I remember writing my first poems when I was about 8 years old. I still have - somewhere- a letter from the folks at Chatelaine magazine, to whom I'd sent a copy of my poem CLOUDS. I still remember the poem. The letter was very kind, very encouraging, but of course, they weren't about to publish a poem from an 8 year old about giants, clowns, and lambs in clouds. Like many folks I had a couple very good teachers who encouraged me - in junior high, particularly. And one I'll never forget- Val Tompkins - Grade 5. She told me she'd be watching the Oscars for me. I think of her every time I sit down to write. I wonder where she is. I also had one very BAD English teacher, who didn't believe I'd written a particular piece. I was so determined to prove to him I had, that I wrote and wrote and wrote - crazy output that year!!!
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
Ummmmm Maybe. Certainly there's still a bit of "I can do this" proving going on. Mostly though, I feel surrounded by stories that I think are so interesting and complex I want to try and capture them. I'm upset by our world, I'm anxious, I'm curious - I need to process what's happening around me and I still do that by creating characters who feel what I do, or question what I'm questioning.
What inspired Leaving Wonderland?
I've been living in a university town - actually I've lived in two different, but similar sized rural university towns - that's struggled with various student-substance issues. My home in both situations was really impacted by students, and I often felt overwhelmed by the issue. News stories out of Nova Scotia about team hazing, and student casualties affected me. But grief, and how we cope, forgiveness and how we find it are very central to this story. Both are issues I've dealt with - as everyone has, I think. So I hope the story will resonate on all kinds of levels.
What are the challenges involved in mounting this particular production?
I'm away from the rehearsal process - as I'm in Toronto for six months, so I have only been able to be marginally involved - which I'm sure from Martha (Irving's) point of view will be a good thing!!! But the style of play presents challenges: it's very fluid, and that means the design and direction have to allow a certain space and movement, which needs to be imaginatively dealt with. From everything I've seen, Martha and her team are more than meeting the challenge.
What can audiences expect during the run?
I hope they'll get a compelling story of real people, struggling with things we'll all cope with loss, forgiveness, anger, searching. I'm very aware of how a middle aged woman can feel invisible once she hits a certain age, in our society, and how a double standard exists in terms of women's relationships with younger men - compared to men's relationships with younger women. There is a relationship that grows in this story which I think folks will have to adjust to.
What makes a good play?
Characters you invest in, emotionally. You need to care what happens to them, wonder about their choices, want them to be OK. Crises that reveal not only the characters of the play, but make us reflect on ourselves and our choices. Stories that, while they might not be our experience, connect directly with our emotional truths, and send us out of the theatre with some new thought, and, in an ideal world, with a perfect play, a new resolve, or action. Do plays do that anymore? I don't know. But when Ibsen wrote A Doll's House, and that door slammed around Europe, it created it new awareness of women's value in society. A good play makes us re-assess, re-define, re-imagine our world. I really believe it moves our society forward. Or should, somehow.
What are your thoughts on current the state of theatre in Canada?
I'm not a great person on that topic - my experience just isn't broad enough at present. I feel Canadians are still undersold, and undersell themselves to the rest of the world. I don't think we always have a real grasp on what makes the best theatre: but frankly, if anyone does, can you give them my number?
What's next on your creative agenda?
I'm presently at the Canadian Film Centre - one of five screenwriters in the CFC's Cineplex Film Program which has five writers, five directors, five producers and four editors working together over six months to hone their screen skills. So I'm writing and re-writing stuff there - including a screenplay version of Leaving Wonderland - and thickening my skin – which, frankly, is the hardest part. I thought I'd developed quite a hide as an actor, but as a writer it's another world, and you need an objectivity and sunny disposition that really has to be cultivated. That's my latest project: SUNNY DISPOSITION!
Sept 24 – Oct 4
Neptune Studio Theatre, Halifaxwww.neptunetheatre.com