In August 2015, Staircase Theatre Society presented an evening of staged readings entitled Movin’ On Up. The event took place at CBC Studio 700 and featured two scripts from emerging playwrights Christopher Cook and CJ McGillivray.
Yoshie Bancroft, Georgia Beaty, Emmelia Gordon, Allan Morgan and Deb Williams
Directed by Brian Cochrane with dramaturgy by Maryanne Renzetti
SYNOPSIS FOR ROGUE HORIZON BY CJ MCGILLIVRAY
A dysfunctional runaway finds herself stranded on the side of an unfamiliar road. Every passing car could mean rescue or perhaps something vile and dangerous along the highway. Her only company is her uptight older sister who cannot understand why she was dragged kicking and screaming halfway across the country. What happens when push comes to shove and the sisters undoubtedly find blood on their hands?
SYNOPSIS FOR STRIP BY CHRISTOPHER COOK
What better occasion to stage your daughter’s intervention than the night before she marries her dream… bride? In Vegas? Cassandra is determined to give her daughter, Jena, the perfect wedding – and if the whole thing’s under 500 bucks, that’s an added bonus. But can she keep Jena away from the, ahem, party table? And can she keep the fiancée – who just so happens to be the most successful female Elvis personator on the strip, thanks for asking – away from the mic? No matter the budget, it’s bound to be a good show.
Leading up to the event, playwrights Christopher Cook and CJ McGillivray were featured in an exclusive interview with Sad Mag. In the following excerpt, the playwrights shared insight on their writing process and the staged readings of their plays:
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your experiences with theatre?
Christopher Cook: I grew up here in Vancouver, and I swore I would never live here as an adult. (I’ve lived here for the majority of my adulthood so far–I really do love this city.) I studied theatre in Montreal, at Concordia University, and in London, at LAMDA. My focus was always performing, and I came to writing later–I’ve been writing plays for about five years now. At the moment, I am working on an MA in Counselling Psychology by day, and playwriting by night.
CJ McGillivray: I am a young interdisciplinary artist who was born and raised in Vancouver. I went to theatre school at Capilano University because it allowed me to keep writing, acting, directing and making music. I was able to combine all of my creative passions with an interest in behaviour, psychology, interpersonal relationships, and human nature. Theatre has always been a platform for me to explore compassion and absurd thoughts.
What got you both into theatre in particular? Did you have your own local theatre moments to inspire you when you were younger?
Christopher Cook: I was desperately shy in high school, and closeted–it was the 90s, and I knew I was gay, but I didn’t feel comfortable letting anyone else know. I felt incredibly isolated. I got involved with the students that were rehearsing plays after school so I wouldn’t feel so alone. It really helped. I made some of my strongest teenage friendships through theatre.
CJ McGillivray: I enjoyed expressing myself through music and saw theatre as a way to explore my creativity further. I found that studying drama in high school could be a positive method for developing confidence and empathy. Theatre is the one place where anyone can feel at home in a strange environment.
How have your writing styles changed since first starting writing? Did you have any ‘aha’ moments that changed your perspective? CJ, can you speak to the influence the LEAP program has had on you?
CJ McGillivray: I have so much gratitude for the playwriting mentors who have supported me so thoroughly in the past number of years. Through guidance and experience, I now focus less on being clever and put more emphasis on the value of honest writing. So much of that insight and self-awareness was developed under the mentorship of Shawn Macdonald through the LEAP playwriting mentorship in association with the Arts Club Theatre. When I was younger, I pushed away from the absurdity of my writing but then it occurred to me that I could cultivate the quirkiness instead. I stopped apologizing for being poetic.
Christopher Cook: My “aha” moment as a writer is still happening–I feel like my “aha” moment is lasting for years. With each play I write, I become more and more comfortable with myself as a writer, and get a little more courageous. I am beginning to question assumptions I always had about my writing, particularly about structure and form. I am asking myself questions like: “What shape is the story I am telling?” “What sounds does it make?” “If I took it out on a first date, what would it wear, what would it be like, and where would it want to go?” I find these are the questions that now interest me, compared to questions like: “What’s the rising action?”
Describe your ideal writing set-up. Do you have a favourite writing location or music playlist?
Christopher Cook: A room in the woods with skylights and huge windows. No music, but the sounds of running water and nature. I usually settle for my East Van apartment–an old chair by a window and a good cup of tea.
CJ McGillivray: I create a playlist for each script that I am working on. The playlist for Rogue Horizon features contemporary blues and alternative folk music from Pokey Lafarge, Mumford and Sons and Jasper Sloan Yip.
Where do you grab inspiration from for your plays and their subject matter?
Christopher Cook: A lot of my inspiration comes from personal experiences–my plays aren’t autobiographical, but at the heart of their stories is always a personal experience. My way into my plays is through the characters–they are what I start with. I hear their voices in my head, see them together in various environments, and start writing. A version of this play, Strip, and these characters, first came up for me three years ago, after I took a trip to Vegas with my partner.
CJ McGillivray: I am often inspired by imagery, song lyrics, old photographs and moments of observation from people all around me. With Rogue Horizon, having an older brother gave me support and laughter throughout my childhood. But the concept of sisters is so foreign to me. I wanted to explore the tensions and beauty of a relationship that I have never personally had but have embraced through close friendships.
Both of your plays seem to centre around complicated and dysfunctional women. Is there something particularly appealing to either of you in writing about flawed characters?
Christopher Cook: I don’t see my characters as dysfunctional – I think they’re all functioning pretty well, given their circumstances. As for flawed characters, I don’t think I would ever want perfect characters in my plays. I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I wonder if perfect characters might be reserved for commercials, and selling products. Flawed characters are the ones I want to meet, cry and laugh with, and maybe carry with me. When I am writing a play, it’s like a romance–I fall in love with the characters, each of them, all at the same time. Really, I do. I look forward to spending time with them, and getting to know them better–and if I could meet them at a bar for a drink, I would in a heart beat.
CJ McGillivray: Our character flaws and personal struggles are what make people individually beautiful and compelling. People are complicated and dysfunctional by nature. People run away from vulnerability and connection. People kick and scream. Theatre reflects our universal flaws in order to strengthen our compassion and understanding of the human condition.
What’s it like to be able to showcase your work locally in a space like the CBC?
Christopher Cook: I really believe that opportunities like Movin’ On Up are essential for emerging writers, and for the play development process. To be able to work with actors and a director, and share my work with an audience before ever thinking about the logistics of a full production allows me to really focus on the script, and gives me the chance to take risks and experiment. I never really know how an audience is going to respond to my work, and getting the feed-back of a live audience is so hopefully in the development process. To be able to do so in the CBC space, with a company like Staircase Theatre is thrilling–I count myself very lucky!
CJ McGillivray: There is nothing more valuable than hearing how an audience reacts to something.
What do you hope people will get out of your plays?
Christopher Cook: If someone has never asked questions about gender and the many assumptions around gender we have in North American society, I hope this play offers them a way to start asking some questions, if they want to. I also hope that this play reaches out to people and says, “Yes, loving your family can be one of the most challenging things. And loving your family may often require a leap of faith–faith in them, faith in you, faith that you’ll all still be there in the morning. But still, why not leap? Go on, I dare you. Try some faith.”
CJ McGillivray: Curiosity? I want people to embrace the feelings of escapism, aimless confusion, nostalgia, compassion and the feeling of longing for home in an unfamiliar place. I want people to feel for my characters even when they are brutal to one another.
In five words or less, what can people expect from your play?
CJ McGillivray: Heat, sarcasm, nostalgia and escapism.
Christopher Cook: How to love strangers (and family).