Movin’ On Up

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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.

CAST

Yoshie Bancroft, Georgia Beaty, Emmelia Gordon, Allan Morgan and Deb Williams

CREATIVE TEAM

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.

PUBLICITY

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).

Solos and Duets

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Through her involvement with the Wet Ink Collective, CJ McGillivray was featured as an emerging playwright and actor at the BC Buds Spring Arts Festival in May 2015. Nearly thirty interdisciplinary performing artists inhabited the Firehall Arts Centre, creating a massive arts factory for several days of inventive and innovative site-specific performances from emerging and established local artists.

Solos and Duets was a cabaret evening of monologues and short scenes written by members of the Wet Ink Collective, reflecting on the theme of longing and belonging. The evening featured a medley of script excerpts exploring the motifs of love, laughter, sensuality and spirituality.

During the festival, CJ McGillivray premiered her solo dramatic play Monkey Bars featuring the talents of local actor Yvette Dudley-Neuman. She also performed excerpts of The Good Bride by Rosemary Rowe and Missed Connections by Pippa Johnstone. She was honoured to perform alongside her fellow playwrights Yvette Dudley-Neuman, Virginia Gillespie, Pippa Johnstone, Gabriella Klein,  Liesl Lafferty, Kim Larson, Dawn Milman, Yumi Ogawa, Rosemary Rowe, Kim Seary, Elissa Vann Struth and Veronique West.

Meet Me Tonight

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Everyone deserves a chance to smile. Take off your shoes and stay awhile.

– Meet Me Tonight by CJ McGillivray and Jacob Wolstencroft

December 2015 was filled with incredible inspiration and motivation for CJ McGillivray and her creative collaborators over at Square One Entertainment. The weeks were spent writing and workshopping an original one act musical in preparation for the holidays. The experience was both challenging and heartwarming for everyone involved. The resulting script for Meet Me Tonight evolved into a contemporary holiday classic conceptualized by Jacob Wolstencroft and written by CJ McGillivray.

The holiday musical premiered for an incredibly engaged audience on the evening of Monday, December 22nd, 2014 at Vancouver Theatre Sports on Granville Island. The venue was decorated with holiday cheer for an evening to remember and all proceeds were donated to local charity Project Limelight on behalf of the Vancouver theatre community.

Meet Me Tonight featured the talented ensemble cast of Katherine Alpen, Sharon Crandall, Paige Fraser, Jessica Mona Marshall, Ranae Miller and Erin Palm. The premiere production was directed by Jacob Wolstencroft with musical direction by CJ McGillivray and assistant musical direction by Sharon Crandall. The creative team was rounded out with stage management by Tessa Gunn, whimsical costume design by Rose McNeil and stage photography by Kai Bradbury.

The script explores delicate themes of love and acceptance for a young mother reaching out to reconnect with her lost child. The girl was shuffled around in the foster care system from an early age but soon finds brightness and contentment within her imagination. The score features heartwarming holiday music including The Holly and The Ivy, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Auld Lang Syne with complimentary tunes written by Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin. One such highlight from the score is Play A Simple Melody which was arranged to feature dual harmonicas, a colourful toy xylophone and bright piano accompaniment.

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The City Never Sleeps

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I fuck her with the sun on our naked backs. We lay in bed with the taste of burnt coffee on our lips. I try to speak but she tells me not to.

– The City Never Sleeps by CJ McGillivray

In September 2014, CJ McGillivray participated in the Wet Ink Collective Fall Playwriting Intensive led by acclaimed dramaturge and director Jane Haymen. The participants included a diverse group of emerging and established artists including Yvette Dudley-Neuman, Virginia Gillespie, CJ McGillivray, Leslie Stark, Maureen Robinson, Rosemary Rowe and Veronique West.

The Wet Ink Collective is a local initiative supporting female playwrights to develop and produce stage plays with strong female protagonists. The collective asks vital questions and looks to find more female playwrights in professional theatres around the globe. This insight and empowerment is driven by founding members Loretta Seto, Lynna Goldhar Smith and Susinn McFarlen.

During the intensive, each playwright takes on the development of a full length script with strong mentorship and the support of her peers. CJ McGillivray was inspired to create a fresh dramatic work, The City Never Sleeps.  Although she has never been there, she draws inspiration from the New York skyline and the starving artists who live within the city limits. The play has an essence of romance and lilting, unfinished melodies. CJ looks forward to experimenting with the notions of insomnia, indecision, romance, creativity, loss and music. Her desire is to combine a passion for classical music with a surreal understanding of the thoughts that keep us awake each night.

Inspiration Board for The City Never Sleeps

White Picket Fence

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Do you honestly believe that I share a soul with that old cunt?

– White Picket Fence by CJ McGillivray

One wistful springtime afternoon, a pair of teenagers break in through the window of an old and decrepit haunted house. In White Picket Fence by CJ McGillivray, the suburban misadventure of Chelsea and Cooper Evans brings them closer to a lingering and familiar presence. In her sophomore full length play, CJ McGillivray was honoured to be featured as a resident playwright with Delinquent Theatre.  She was joined by brilliant local artists Christopher Cook with his family drama Quick Bright Things, Mily Mumford with a twisted duet Love is for Superbeasts and Sebastian Kroon with his suspenseful solo show Wolf.

Under the direction of Laura McLean, her intimate drama was brought to life by a stellar cast of local professionals. Daniel Doheny portrayed Cooper Evans with Yoshié Bancroft as his foul mouthed younger cousin, Chelsea Evans. The instant chemistry and banter on stage was a credit to the amazing talent that was brought on board. Mack Gordon took on the challenging role of Richard Evans as a haunted presence who unknowingly whispers the darkest of family secrets. He was accompanied by local actress Genevieve Fleming in the role of his beloved but tormented wife, Marianne Wakefield.

 

Rogue Horizon

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Our mother is out there somewhere, far off in the desert talking with Jesus. She tells him that she loves him but he cannot be with her because his soul is meant for the good Lord in heaven. Just look how sad she is. Her eyes are all misty.

– Rogue Horizon by CJ McGillivray

Sum Theatre recently announced the chosen playwrights for their third annual Pull Festival this coming January and Rogue Horizon was selected out of over 120 submissions this year. CJ is sincerely delighted to be featured alongside the work of local thespians Ryan Beil, Scott Button, Pippa Mackie, Jose Hiriart, Sebastian Archibald, Odin Riter, Christine Quintana, Mishelle Cuttler and Kayvon Kelly. Directed by Evan Frayne, this new comedic drama by CJ McGillivray tells the story of a dysfunctional runaway who finds herself stranded on the side of an unfamiliar road. Her only company is a lovingly uptight sister who cannot understand why she was dragged kicking and screaming halfway across the country. The Nevada desert is cold and lonely but their laughter is unconfined, echoing out into the night air. For information on show times and ticket pricing, the Pull Festival can be found under event listings in The Georgia Straight.

31 Plays in 31 Days

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The 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge is an initiative for playwrights to push themselves to write a new play every day for the month of August. The project is based on the idea that to become a better writer, one must write. The pressure of a monthly goal allows playwrights to set aside preconceived notions of what they should be writing and how they should be doing it. Created by playwrights Rachel Bublitz and Tracy Held Potter, the initiative inspires playwrights around the world and creates a sense of community for artists.

In an interview with Play Cafe publicist Adrienne Pender, CJ McGillivray talks about her artistic experience, her struggles and where she finds her inspiration as a playwright. She also touches on where she found the insanity and motivation to participate in the 31 Plays in 31 Days international playwriting challenge in August 2013 and again the following year in August 2014.

INTERVIEW EXCERPT FROM PLAY CAFE

Is there an overall theme to your work as a writer? 

I am attracted to morbid drama interlaced with absurdist humour, innuendo and sarcasm. I am deathly passionate about the ethical portrayal of mental illness on stage and exploring the complications of loving something or someone wholeheartedly. I personally feel that our character flaws and our struggles are what make us beautiful, so when I am crafting a character I tend to focus on their imperfections.

Our character flaws make us beautiful… Yes! When did you start writing, and when did you consider yourself a “writer?”

I wrote my first short story about a magical bowl of soup when I was seven. That thing should never see the light of day. When I was fifteen, I wrote a surrealist play for a tenth grade social studies class. It took several years of rough drafts before I felt comfortable identifying myself as a playwright. Graduating to university was where I came more into my own. Focusing on personal growth and discovery gave me the confidence that I needed to commit to the work. Now I can say without hesitation that my playwriting is a talent and a passion I will never give up on.

Some say the drafting process is where the real writing is.

Sometimes I cringe when I reflect back on past writing but it can also be an exhilarating feeling. In those moments I am tempted to streamline everything and be ruthless with cutting banter that fails to further the story. If I am passionate enough about a past idea, it can be so rewarding for me to put in the time and effort on those necessary improvements.

What do you struggle most with as a writer?

I love developing a niche and having distinctive voice in my writing but at the same time it can be limiting to write within those confines. I adore dramatic, morbid humour but I have to fight back against narrowing my creativity. Some of my greatest breakthroughs only happened because I stepped into unknown territory and risked failure. What I love most about pursuing an artistic career is that art feels limitless. I can ignore the rules of gravity, the laws of physics and whatever it might be that wants to hold back my creativity. As an audience member, I am constantly reminded that expression is most beautiful when it is raw and unashamed. Because the theatre is such an intimate space, drama is one of the most beautiful and disturbing ways to affect an audience. When art is genuine and uncensored it is impossible not to illicit an emotional response from those who share in the experience.

I’m not sure I understand the struggle – is it being too comfortable?

Yes. Too much comfort can strangle creativity.

Are you a full-time writer? What do you do during the day?

In the fall I am returning to Capilano University to complete my final year of the Acting for Stage and Screen diploma program. My professors are incredibly supportive of me as an artist and my aspirations across the board whether that be playwriting, music, acting or journalism. In the future I hope to have an artistic career that is constantly evolving, fostering connections and finding new direction.

How do you balance being a full-time student and acting/rehearsing, with finding time to write?

A lack of sleep? I will get back to you on this one when I have it all figured out.

Fair enough! How does where you live impact your writing? Or does it? What is the playwriting community like in your area, and how much are you involved with local playwrights/theatre?

I have been incredibly fortune to work with some amazing professional playwrights in my city. A couple years back I participated in a playwriting intensive at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, led by Amiel Gladstone. From there I continued my education at the Arts Club Theatre Company as part of the LEAP Playwriting Intensive. Thanks to that experience, I was fortunate enough to have Shawn Macdonald enter my life as a major support and playwriting mentor to me over the past three years. More recently, I studied writing for the stage with Hiro Kanagawa at Capilano University and I was fortunate enough to work with an absolutely hysterical and compassionate playwright, Dave Deveau, during my mentorship with the IGNITE! Playwriting Festival this past spring.

What made you decide to participate in this year’s 31 Plays challenge?

I have a slight addiction to challenging myself and testing the limits of art. When I heard about this challenge I felt like there was no other option but to throw myself into it. No point looking back.

Is there anything specific you hope to achieve while writing in August?

When I started this challenge I made a commitment to my friends and family that I would get the hell out of my comfort zone. I have a number of incredibly supportive people in my life who are keeping me honest and holding me to it.

You’re a new playwright too, but what one piece of advice would you give a new playwright?

If you can find a unique voice and personality within your writing it will help you develop the confidence you need to pursue your art fearlessly with an unapologetic presence.

IGNITE Festival

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After a tragic death in the family, a dysfunctional quartet of friends come together for an endless night of indulgence and amusement that will forever change their lives. What starts off as carefree evening of drinking and dancing soon takes an unpredictable turn for the wild side. In a few short hours, the friends find themselves submerged into a raunchy and ridiculous world of drunken debauchery. Fine lines are crossed as identities unravel and confused fondness is suddenly replaced with casual fondling.

Blood Orange Scotch Seawater by CJ McGillivray premiered at the Vancouver Eastside Cultural Centre running from May 6th through May 11th, 2013. Under the direction of emerging artist Marie Farsi, the play featured an outlandish cast of liars and sweethearts who are unwittingly caught up in their own selfish and absurd mishaps. The diverse, talented ensemble was lead by Katie Stuart alongside Stephanie Wong, Joel Montgrand and Ridley Wallace.

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The Waiting Line

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Just because someone can make your heart spasm and seize up in pain, doesn’t make them your soulmate. We don’t have some tragic romance. I am just really good at breaking your heart.

– The Waiting Line by CJ McGillivray

In her sophomore year at Capilano University, CJ McGillivray was pleased to be selected as a featured playwright for her work on the short dramatic comedy The Waiting Line. Directed by Heather Hansma, the play was featured in the Sacred Space Festival alongside twenty short plays written by students in the creative writing and theatre departments at Capilano University. The creators worked under the mentorship of acclaimed playwright and actor Hiro Kanagawa.

The Waiting Line tells the story of two suburban teenagers who are intimately conjoined in a toxic and dysfunctional high school relationship. Everything comes crashing down after a late night of drinking when chemistry, stability and a morbid sense of humour are all put to the test. Nina Tischhauser plays the deeply troubled and seductive Marie alongside Burak Ranger in the role of her long time admirer and antagonist, Ethan. For more information on the upcoming Sacred Space Festival, Stephen Thomas has a preview featured in The Georgia Straight.

LEAP Intensive

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The Arts Club Theatre Company has been incredibly supportive of CJ McGillivray in her artistic education and creative development. Under the mentorship of acclaimed playwright Shawn Macdonald, her work with the LEAP Playwriting Intensive for Young Writers was a fundamental component in her artistic education. Over the course of three years, she had the opportunity to start from scratch as an emerging playwright and work her way up to the development of a full length dramatic script. Her third and final year of the program encompassed mentorship during the early stages of script development in addition to extensive dramaturgy and workshopping that culminated in a professional staged reading of her script, Pity Old Flame. The reading was directed by Shawn Macdonald with an incredible cast including Luisa Jojic, Jay Hindle, Briana Buckmaster and Jeff Gladstone. CJ McGillivray was honoured to receive a scholarship of excellence from the Arts Club Theatre, in recognition of her playwriting.

SYNOPSIS FOR PITY OLD FLAME

In the dead of night, a young couple entertain themselves with childish, crazy antics. They tease, kick, scream and fall carelessly in love. Time stands still in the space where silence meets darkness. But something is off about tonight. A deluge of horrific memories and resentment invade their space and the couple fear they may not be alone. What starts off as a romantic night turns into violent outbursts and a battered consciousness.