Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Block P takes on the world, via Vancouver's Eastside

Following an announcement from Wet Ink, a new writers’ collective, that they had secured the Culture Lab as a BYOV for the upcoming Vancouver International Fringe Festival, Dramaturg Heidi Taylor sat down with founders Loretta Seto and Lynna Goldhar Smith to learn about their journeys from writer to producer. Both participated in PTC’s 2010 Block P: Self-production for emerging writers with Ilena Lee Cramer.

HT: Where were you before Block P?

Loretta Seto (LS): I was pretty green in the theatre world as a playwright. I took Block M with Aaron Bushkowsky, that was my first formal entry into theatrical writing. But I am a published writer of fiction and screenplays. Theatre was new – unlike cinema or fiction, you have to take into account the physical limitations of a stage. For Fringe – since we’ve rented the Culture Lab – I have to keep it pretty simple – one person can go on, and then the next show changeover has to happen within half an hour.

Lynna Goldhar Smith (LGS): The play itself is being informed by the place it’s taking place in.

HT: It’s all given circumstances?

LS: The possibilities in the space shut down some options and open up others.

LGS: For me – It’s different – I have a theatre background – writing and making theatre for and with youth, young adults. I have an extensive background, I’m familiar with theatre tech and the role of the director. But being a producer made me feel like a beginner – it forced me to ask different kinds of questions. It did affect the writing, going back in and thinking like a producer – it’s like putting on a different set of glasses.

LS: It’s interesting to be a producer and a writer – I usually don’t want to constrain myself – I want to write it, and then hand it over to someone else and say, Make it work!

LGS: I think increasingly artists are going to have to take more initiative at all stages – to be less dependent. It was really clear from the get go with Ilena – the days of handing scripts over to literary managers to get produced are over.

HT: And there’s some question whether those days ever existed in the first place. Martin Kinch and Ben Henderson, in their report From Creation to Production, discovered that of all the AD’s they talked to (in the US, Canada, and few in the UK), one had produced one script that was submitted cold. So the work of sending out scripts is actually the work of creating personal relationships with potential producers. Creating relationships is a core activity of producing.

LGS: With Ilena, the course was so dense – it was very informative – and the first thing was: this is not theoretical. It was about getting up and doing, just from the energy in the room. I don’t know that I was all that ready to produce when I walked into the room. I wasn’t really thinking about doing it, I thought I would just learn a bit about producing. But she challenged us to step up and do it, and put an edge on what we’re doing.

LS: I knew the piece that I used to submit to Block P was not really Fringe – so I ended up writing a new piece.

LGS: Ilena really hit home from the beginning the creativity of being a producer. As writers, we don’t think about the producing part of it being creative – phoning people, asking for things, that’s horrible! – but this is imagination, too. To get people to hear what you have to offer – that’s the underpinnings of what we went forward to do. Producing is creative.

LS: That’s true, but for me it brings out these other qualities that wouldn’t be my writerly qualities – being organized, reading contracts, having to convince people of things – they are different skill sets but still creative. We’ve come up with all sorts of different ideas, the concept of Vancovuer Fringe Eastside, Wet Ink Collective. It’s absolutely creative.

LGS: And the most important thing – carving yourself out the writing space – remembering: oh right, I was supposed to have a play to put on here! You go into that little cocoon and then come out to produce. Ilena really reinforced that from the beginning.

The other thing about coming to PTC and sitting in this library, surrounded by all these great works – we had each other and we had the leadership that Ilena brought, standing behind our own validity as artists. When you sit alone in your little office – the thought arises, who the hell do I think I am – but in Block P, here we were sitting here, validating each other.

LS: I don’t think I would have come this far without Lynna – if we hadn’t started collaborating with each other, I wouldn’t have rented the Culture Lab and come up with Fringe East.

LGS: Likewise, I needed Loretta’s support. And Susinn McFarlen, our colleague in Block P, is producing her own play in our BYOV.

HT: Tell me more about Wet Ink Collective and Vancouver Fringe Eastside.

LGS: With Wet Ink collective we’ve created a space to invite other people to come and initiate projects (see the full mandate here). One of the things that is important to me as an artist is anchoring in a community. There must be 10,000 artists there on the Eastside, it’s my home – we really embraced the idea of bringing something Fringe to the Eastside. We see how the neighbourhood can be involved. The business community, the residents – as Christina Price from the Fringe said, it’s now possible to have the quintessential Fringe experience on the Eastside, with the Firehall, Sun Yat Sen, The Cultch and Havana.

HT: It’s an interesting evolution – I worked for the Fringe the year they moved from Commercial Drive to Granville Island, and it was a bumpy transition. There was a real lack of theatre space on the eastside. The last 12 years has seen a strengthening of the Fringe, where they now have the capacity, and the audience, to have full Fringe experiences in more than one neighbourhood.

LGS: How we get together – how we make events, how we have fun – it’s such a big piece of this. I want a sustainable art revolution – now we’re working to convince other artists that this isn’t just another Fringe venue. Part of the impetus for Wet Ink is to present plays that are more barebones: this is a writer, imagining a play. There’s something really essential about actor with script in hand, the audience imagining the blood, imagining the fire – Fringe gives the chance to bring some of that early-process energy to the audience.

LS: Block P is like the foundation of the creative work that we’ve done – I encourage people to contact us to build Fringe Eastside. It’s good to have an awareness and let people know on the eastside that they can see theatre in their neighbourhood.

LGS: Yes, we thought, we’re going to “bring our own venue” and our own neighbourhood.

HT: Tell me a bit about the plays you’re producing.

LS: Mine is a monologue about a woman who has issues with weight and food and body image – I wanted to give it a lighter feel. It’s called Why weight? So it’s a comedy with a darker edge.

LGS: Mine is called Sally Lives Here. It’s about a dilapidated house in East Van, and the two lost souls inside facing an uncertain future – it asks what kind of a city are we making in Vancouver? Do we want to have a resort for multimillionaires or do we have other dreams? It’s part of a trilogy, and I’ll be performing in it too. I would like our BYOV to be a playwrights’ experience – for audiences to expect to see new work in progress at the Cultch. This year we’re just getting started.

LS: Block P has been really been empowering – I can write something and make it happen. Before, after writing something - you let it sit in your drawer or on your computer – this course has made me think, I can take this piece that is really great and make it public for everyone to see. Take a giant step.

Applications for PTC’s 2011 Block P are now being accepted. Now in its third season, Block P has seen five writers move on to BYOV spots at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival, under the mentorship of Ilena Lee Cramer.

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