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Emerging at 52

by Claire Ross Dunn

It’s a funny thing to be able to be called an emerging artist at the age of 52. To be able to say, with no shame, I know very little about this thing (playwriting), but I am approaching it with a beginner’s mind (a wonderful Zen Buddhist concept called Shoshin), and I’m not worried about how it looks, how badly I’ll perform, or how embarrassing the result may be. Fail Forward and all that.

To come clean, I went to theatre school at Toronto’s York University in the 80s, spent 10 years as an actor, have published a non-fiction book, and have spent the last twenty years as a writer, story editor and producer in film and TV. But a confluence of events has brought me back to the theatre to write two plays, The Women of Casterbridge and The Knitting Pilgrim, both of which Ergo Arts Theatre has so awesomely stepped in to develop.

Don’t get me wrong. Being emerging has its terrors. But it seems that the antidote to said terror is the beginner’s mind. 

And having company. That can mean:

1) a life partner who suffers through brainstorms while making dinner, reading multiple drafts despite the pile-up of laundry, and the necessary debriefs while driving the kids to soccer. Can you follow the character’s arc? Will the audience follow that time jump? Is scene 7 clear? (Or more likely, I loathe scene 7. How can scene 7 do everything it is now, but in a completely different way?) Ah, the lot of those who live with a writer…

2) a dramaturge who holds your hand, especially when you pivot entirely between drafts, from doing a straight-ahead adaptation of an 1886 novel about a man with a huge personality – the fulcrum of his world - to a retelling of the story from the point of view of the novel’s secondary characters, the women, who, at least in the book, are mostly reactive. (If you want to read more about my first stab at a theatrical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s book, The Mayor of Casterbridge, it’s here.) I’ve been so lucky to have dramaturge Bev Cooper with me on the journey between drafts. Bev has been able to give me options where I could see few to none. Or encourage me to keep exploring when I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for.

3) a theatre company that is willing to underwrite the painstaking, slow, not-necessarily-linear work of writing development. Ergo Arts Theatre has been great. Artistic Director Anna Pappas has let the writer and dramaturge shape the direction of the draft so that the play ends up being what it was meant to be – sort of like when my kids were born, and I’d spent 9 months wondering what they would look like, and then they emerged in the world and I remember thinking both times, oh, there you are! And, of course you look like that – you look like you, exactly the ‘you’ you were meant to be. Which is not an easy thing in writer terms, because, when faced with the blank page, the writer is more likely to feel fear than curiosity.

4) a chance to show the work. Leonardo da Vinci said that a piece of art is never finished, only abandoned, and that is true of writing. But an event like Ergo Pink Fest provides a rest stop on the long journey, a place to pull off the highway, check at the roadmap, and eyeball the vista at the scenic lookout. Because the festival involves readings, there is less pressure to stand on a theatre rooftop and declare this piece ‘done.’  There’s also a feeling that the writing, wherever it is on the path to finished-dom, is being given the best crack possible, because Ergo Arts has committed to hiring experienced dramaturges for Ergo Pink Fest like Bev Cooper and Marcia Johnson, professional actors, and extraordinary directors. In the case of The Women of Casterbridge, Ergo Arts has brought on Governor General’s Award-winning director Diana LeBlanc.  Goodness. I am incredibly thankful, and beyond excited to see how the reading rehearsal process informs the writing.

Blessed with all this company – a dramaturge, a theatre, a director, actors, and my stalwart life partner – I am feeling great as a baby playwright at the age of 52. I’m embracing the term ‘emerging’ because it reminds me to stick with the beginner’s mind, where curiosity can replace judgment, possibility can replace closed-ended conclusions, and play – in all senses of the word – can exist.