A happy accident drew Oak Bay’s Joan MacLeod to playwriting, and away from poetry and prose, but Canadian theatre is the better for it.
“I wanted to be a fiction writer ever since I was a little kid. I always loved writing stories and my dad was a great story-teller,” recalls MacLeod, a University of Victoria professor who grew up in North Vancouver and studied creative writing at UVic and the University of British Columbia.
MacLeod’s The Valley comes to the Belfry Theatre from Feb. 2 to 28.
Directed by former Belfry artistic director Roy Surette, The Valley stars Rebecca Auerbach, Matt Reznek, Luc Roderique (all making their Belfry debuts) and Colleen Wheeler.
MacLeod was attending Banff’s Advanced Writers’ Studio in Poetry when a chance meeting with playwright Alan William, paired with hearing an actor from the Playwright’s Colony read one of her poems on stage, planted the seed of a life in theatre.
“I started hanging out with the playwrights and started being intrigued by what they were doing. …(It was) very fluky my fall into theatre.”
Her first theatrical turn was a one-person show, Jewel, a monologue by a young Newfoundland widow addressed to her dead husband. Tested at Edmonton’s Fringe Festival in 1985, the script earned MacLeod acceptance to Tarragon Theatre’s Playwright’s Unit in Toronto, where she started working on her first full-length play Toronto, Mississippi.
“I enjoyed my time there and I ended up staying for almost eight years and premiering four plays during that time,” she says.
Working under artistic director Urjo Kareda, “Tarragon was kind of where I came of age.”
Moving west, first to Bowen Island, MacLeod has taught at UVic since 2004.
Translated into eight languages, MacLeod’s work has been produced around the world. Multiple simultaneous productions of The Shape of a Girl toured internationally for four years, including a sold-out run in New York.
Amigo’s Blue Guitar won the 1991 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, while additional Governor General’s nominations include The Hope Slide / Little Sister (1996) and Another Home Invasion (2009).
In 2011 MacLeod won the Siminovitch Prize for Theatre, which honours a professional director, playwright or designer who is an acknowledged leader in the theatre and whose work is transformative and influential. She’s currently at work on a new play, Gracie, which will premiere next year.
A common thread weaves through MacLeod’s work.
With a particular incident often sparking interest in a given theme, from extensive research emerge characters and story.
Amigo’s Blue Guitar dealt with refugee resettlement, for example, while The Shape of a Girl, explored the aftermath of a high school bullying tragedy.
MacLeod enjoys researching and finds theatre the natural venue to explore broader themes beyond her personal experience.
“For some reason, theatre motivated me to do that,” she says.
For The Valley, first produced in Calgary in 2013, the initial spark came from the case of Robert Dziekanski, who died after being tasered by police at Vancouver International Airport.
What emerged from her research, however, is a story about depression in many forms, related ideas and misconceptions, and its potential impact.
“Ultimately I think it’s a play about depression and everyday mental illnesses,” she says. “Learning about this was really eye-opening for me.”
Included was the changing role of today’s police, often front-line workers for those with mental illness.
“I became really interested in the police and just how their job description has changed since I was a kid,” MacLeod says.
Described by the Calgary Sun as “a gripping, emotional play that will have you shifting your allegiances from one character to another as the truth is revealed,” The Valley unfolds around a dramatic police encounter at a Vancouver SkyTrain station that binds four people together: Connor, an aspiring novelist who has just dropped out of university and suffers a psychotic break while in the throes of severe depression and anxiety; his mother, Sharon, who is dealing with his erratic behaviour; Dan, a new father and Vancouver police officer; and Janie, his wife, who struggles with the demands of motherhood and post-partum depression.
As their stories intertwine and unfold, we learn just how hard it is to do the right thing.
“I want to get people to reflect a little bit (about mental illness)…It might be a family member, it might be a friend. People are getting much more (aware) and it’s just a good reminder.”
And while MacLeod explores some darker themes, “I’m always trying to find the light – that’s always the goal,” she says, noting that in the case of The Valley, depression doesn’t need to be a life sentence.
“The end of the play has some hope in it, without a doubt.”
Tickets for The Valley range from $23 to $48 (plus GST) and are available at 250-385-6815 or online at tickets.belfry.bc.ca. A limited number of last-minute rush tickets are available at a discount for weekday evening performances.
Accompanying the Belfry’s production of Joan MacLeaod’s The Valley are several audience events:
• Tower Talks – Catch an in-depth conversation with an artist from each Mainstage production in the Belfry’s new video series, posted online and to the theatre’s YouTube channel.
• Free Childcare Performance, Sunday, Feb. 14 – Take advantage of free, professional childcare (for ages 3 to 10) at the Springridge Early Childhood Centre, 1222 Gladstone Ave. Limited number of spots available; reserve with the box office at 250-385-6815.
• Afterplay – Following every evening performance(except opening night and Talkback Thursday), this facilitated discussion series offers patrons the opportunity to share thoughts with fellow audience members.
• Talkback Thursday, Thursday, Feb. 11 – A 15 to 20-minute Q&A session following curtain call, when some of the actors return to the stage to answer questions and offer insight into the play.
• Booksmack, Monday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. – Fast, furious and fun, Greater Victoria Public librarians return to the Belfry for speed reviews of their favourite books.
• VocalEye Performance, Sunday, Feb. 21 – Trained audio describers provide descriptions of the visual elements of the show, allowing people with low vision to enjoy the theatrical experience without missing any of the details.