By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“You try to make sense of things,” says Meg Braem, whose chosen line of work is the transmutation of real life — in all its perplexing, maddening, intriguing potential — into art. “You’re always searching….”
Braem is a playwright, an award-winning creator of theatre (and the University of Alberta’s Lee playwright-in-residence). And the Braem play that opens Thursday under the branches of the adventurous indie company The Maggie Tree is a prime example of the way her work springs off real life, her own, to explore.
Blood: A Scientific Romance is Edmonton’s onstage introduction to the Braem vision after productions in Calgary and Saskatoon. But she’s worked on plays as a resident playwright at Workshop West (about grave-robbing for anatomical research in 1860s Canada) and at the Citadel’s erstwhile Playwrights Forum (about the circuses that travelled Depression era Alberta.
In Blood: A Scientific Romance we meet twin sisters orphaned by a prairie highway car accident in which they sustain life-threatening injures. The twins survive; indeed their recovery is nothing short of remarkable. And that seems inextricably linked to their mysterious relationship, beyond biology and beyond environment. With a certain sinister Mengelesque resonance, a scientist takes them home for further investigation.
On the phone from her Calgary home where she’s on maternity leave (the sound track from her baby daughter is in the background) Braem, who’s originally from Victoria, traces the idea of Blood: A Scientific Romance back. Back to her own life experience with a twin, her sister Jen. “When we were young people were always asking us ‘can you read either other’s minds?’”
It’s not an outlandish notion. Though they didn’t come from an artsy family, there was a moment when the Braem twins together took a turn into left field, so to speak, and ended up in theatre. “We were theatre kids in high school; it was hard for Dad to accept what my sister and I chose.” Mr. Braem senior might have preferred a dentist, or a lawyer, “but all it took was one great drama teacher.”
Jen Braem was a professional stage manager for a long time before she got an MBA and became a chartered accountant (she’s the chief financial officer for Rugby Canada). Meg got a degree in acting at U Vic, before being onstage ceded to writing plays (“you get to talk about what you want to talk about”). When Braem moved to Calgary to get a master’s degree in playwriting — “it was a hub of new play production” — and left her sister behind, the separation was traumatic. “I was SO homesick,” she recalls. “It was brutal.”
When the Braem sisters get together these days, “we close off everything else,” Braem laughs. “We send our husbands away. And we don’t really DO much; we just sit in each other’s houses and talk….”
In Victoria, Braem’s first pro gig as an actor had been in a troupe that created theatre with the inmates of William Head Penitentiary. Braem’s Potentilla came out of that experience, not least because “we had a cousin who was murdered…. I wasn’t there for the purposes of social justice. But ultimately it was a very positive experience, spending that time. The circumstances were so much more interesting than the plays we did.”
Flight Risk, “about a 99-year-old war vet in an old folks home” according to its author, was inspired by the experience of “sitting with my dad, a vet on his death bed. He was never weak. And now he was…. I thought about how our culture doesn’t deal with old age.” Besides, she says, “the stories were amazing.”
In Braem’s The Josephine Knot, a grandmother dies, and a family who’s assembled to clean out her house begins to unravel secrets. “Very based on real life and my family!” says Braem cheerfully. “Before the (concept) hoarder was a thing, my grandmother was one …. She never even put food away. She was a canner, and the house was full of pickled cantelope, pickled eggs, all over the place.” Her later years were a declension into chaos, as Braem describes. “She had an affair with a married man and (eventually) showed up in Vancouver, eating peppermints for dinner….”
“My dad came to a reading of the play. And he was so embarrassed he never came to a play of mine ever again.”
Bream, whose gig as U of A work as playwright-in-residence includes mentoring young writers, muses on the attraction of theatre to her younger self. “High school is so brutal anyhow. And it was partly I liked being treated with so much respect,” she says. “The being held accountable for consequences. The collaboration.”
Not every kid drawn to theatre makes it a career, of course. “But I never think it’s a waste; it’s such a training in empathy, in listening….”
Come January, Braem will be back in Edmonton for the university term. And she’ll be working with the drama department’s student actors — eight women four men — on the new play commissioned especially for them as part of her writer-in-residence tenure (to be produced in the 2019-2020 season). “I’m looking at Greek tragedy, the Oresteia as a jumping-off point. “Family, betrayal…. Especially now, it’s a climate where Greek tragedy really works.”
Blood: A Scientific Romance
Theatre: The Maggie Tree, in Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Program
Written by: Meg Braem
Starring: Jayce Mckenzie, Gianna Vacirca, Liana Shannon, Jenna Dykes-Busby
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Oct. 27
Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca