Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Sunday Feature: Mansel Robinson on II/Two Rooms

Elkahna Talbi and Jean Marc Dalpé (photo credit: Mathieu Girard)

Reflections from Mulligan's Bay
The journey from Two Rooms to II
by Mansel Robinson

You write a play to give it away.

Two Rooms has been on the road since last Spring, in a French translation by Jean Marc Dalpé, and produced by Sudbury’s Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario and Ottawa’s Théâtre de la Vieille 17. 15 cities and towns. A cheque arrives from time to time, like a post-card from Moncton or Montreal or Sept-Îles. Lovely. 

There is a lot of mileage between this play and myself. It was first produced in English at Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon in 2011. Set in a large urban centre, it touches down briefly in the deserts of North Africa, a tourist town in the South Seas, the Muslim region of Thailand. I live in an old cabin on the Chapleau River, in Northern Ontario. Winter neighbours: 17. As I type the temperature has been hitting 30 below, and that’s without the added delight of wind-chill. We had a chimney fire two mornings ago, and I cracked my ankle shovelling our rink on the Bay. I’m just saying that the desert sounds pretty good about now. Sitting in a warm theatre would be nice, too. But not about to happen.

Still, in spite of the distance, a few reflections from Mulligan’s Bay.

feeling disappointed in myself, ashamed of my suspicions of old ladies and teen-aged boys

Some people like to ask a writer, “where does the idea come from?” Since I’ve written or re-written three plays since Two Rooms my memory is faulty, or damaged, or at least very cluttered. But I remember sitting in an airport departure lounge, searching the faces of other fidgety passengers for the one who was a potential terrorist bomber. Paranoid of “the other” in the post-9/11 world, enduring the endless so-called “war on terror.” And feeling disappointed in myself, ashamed of my suspicions of old ladies and teen-aged boys. I must have thought, “Now there’s something to explore …”

But if the piece may have almost hiccupped to life in an airport, it only began to truly breathe on Via Rail between Vancouver and Foleyet, Ontario. After many false starts, abandoned characters and discarded scenarios, a white cop named Murdoch (Mercier en français) startled me awake in my coach seat one night with a simple declaration: “I’m prepared to talk.” And yap he did, filling page after page on my clipboard, an outpouring that almost never happens when I write. When he was done, I passed out. And when I woke, his Muslim wife, Maha, started to talk. And that’s how I discovered that it was a murder story I had on my hands, that it was not going to be a who-dunnit, and that it involved a sad love story to boot. Mostly, I just stayed out of the way. Mostly, I just let them drive the train. (cont'd)

Dalpé (photo credit: Mathieu Girard)

Some people like to ask a playwright, “aren’t you afraid to give your play to people who will try to change it?” (I think they really mean “screw it up” but we’ll let that pass for the moment since I can screw up my plays all on my lonesome, thank you very much.) But the short answer is no, no fear, or not much. Since the very first table reading of a play of mine, I have only been grateful to what my comrades bring to those black marks on white paper: their enthusiasm when I am sick of, and bored with, the boulder I have been pushing up the hill; their collegial “been around the block a hundred times” humour which reminds me not to take myself so goddamn seriously; their punk rock energy and investment during workshops, trying to reveal in every line and scene what is drivel and what might stick. And I’ve come to trust (or at least to hope) that if I do my job properly, even the most determined rogue behaviour can’t drive us too far into the ditch. (And that’s more than enough metaphors for one short paragraph.)

You write a play to give it away – even, if you’re lucky, as I am, to be asked to give it away to another language.

Jean Marc Dalpé has translated two of my previous plays: a French version of Ghost Trains was commissioned by André Perrier for his company Théâtre Triangle Vital in Montreal, and a translation of Spitting Slag was commissioned by Geneviève Pineault for Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in Sudbury. Both productions were terrific, beautifully directed, designed and performed.

And working with Jean Marc on those plays, I knew from his very first email that I’d found a new comrade. He had a list of very specific questions about images, words, references and it was clear he had done his homework before checking with me. He asked permission (!) to change a name, or to make an accommodation between a French rhythm and the original. And I was honoured by his respect for my work and his sensitivity and his own poetic skills. (He was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in translation for this artistry.) And so, because of the trust developed over earlier translations and productions, when we came to discuss Two Rooms with director Geneviève Pineault, we were able to quickly agree about a few judicious cuts and structural tweaks. (Ok, there are a couple of bad jokes I sort of miss, mais, c’est la vie.) And more than tweaks: the original Maha was a Muslim Uyghur from the deep western deserts of China – for the purposes of the Francophone production, they had compelling reasons to give her a Muslim background from North Africa, the Maghreb, which has a French colonial history. As of this week, Canada has military personnel in Mali, in operations against a group called the Islamic Maghreb. It appears that Geneviève and Jean Marc are not only great at their jobs, they’re sooth-sayers, too.

Two Rooms won the 2010 Uprising National Playwriting Award in Alberta and the 2010 John V. Hicks Award in Saskatchewan. Mr. Robinson’s recent work includes Thea, which premiered at Blyth Theatre in 2011 as part of a group show, Hometown: Six Short Plays. Muskeg & Money will premiere at North Road Theatre in Sudbury in 2013. He was short-listed for the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize in Playwriting in 2011.

Two Rooms by Mansel Robinson: January 30 to February 3, 2013.
Théâtre français de Toronto at Berkeley Street Theatre – 26 Berkeley Street, upstairs.
Previews: January 30-31, 8 pm
Evening performances: Wednesday to Saturday, 8 pm
Saturday matinee: 3:30 pm – Sunday matinee: 2:30 pm
English surtitled performances: Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Tickets: Adults $33 to $48 | Seniors (65 and up): $28 to $41.
Special rates: PWYC Wednesday evening and Rush Tickets ($20) Saturday evening. Special-rate tickets are available at the box office one hour before performance. Cash payment.
Box Office: and (416) 534-6604 or 1-800-819-4981

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