By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Imagine: someone loony enough to believe that some unobtrusive terrorist gunman could go into a school and …
It doesn’t exactly take a paranoid with an apocalyptic persecution fantasy to imagine “a worst-case scenario.” Reality has seen to that.
Playwright Elena Belyea can thank the darkening, dangerous world we live in for ensuring that the what-if? currency of Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, created three years ago, remains white-hot. In fact, hotter than ever: in the time since Belyea’s solo play arrived here at the Fringe in 2015, gun violence has proliferated with alarming frequency; a world leader has actually proposed arming teachers, for heaven’s sake.
“The play has increased in relevance; we keep updating,” says Belyea. Her theatre company Tiny Bear Jaws (“a little theatre company with teeth”) is bringing a new, re-thought, version of Miss Katelyn to the TransAlta Arts Barns’ studio theatre starting Wednesday. “At least a third has been completely re-written.”
Bad things keep on happening to good people, as Miss Katelyn is hyper-aware. Parkland, Columbine, Sandy Hook…. On May 18, while this new version was running at Calgary’s Downstage, nine students and a teacher were killed at Santa Fe High School in Texas. “I had an audience member cry through the entire show,” says Belyea, who briefly wondered if she should address this in the course of the performance before deciding to let the man “have his private space for that.”
At another performance a Grade 3 teacher with seven years’ experience, exactly Miss Katelyn’s professional situation, had just experienced a lock-down at school. Belyea, who led a writing workshop for junior and senior high school kids last week, says the one student had been in three three-hour lockdowns recently.
Tiny Bear Jaws, a joint venture of Belyea and Tori Morrison, experiments with different audience/stage interactions every time out. Everyone We Know Will Be There, which occupied a suburban house in 2017, was an actual teen party, with the audience as guests. Cleave, produced here by Fringe Theatre Adventures, introduced a stranger into a family with secrets of its own. With Miss Katelyn we’re in school.
Belyea, this year’s winner of the RBC Emerging Playwright Award, traces the origins to Miss Katelyn back to her graduating year in the National Theatre School’s playwriting program — and to her moment of sudden and unaccountable panic and terror when she and her sister were at WEM, surrounded by crowds. “It scared the shit out of me. And I had to wonder ‘where the hell did that come from?’”
The play was the answer. Belyea says she experimented with a ski mask and fake gun. But “that was not what it was….” she says of the play.
Who is the grimly chipper Miss Katelyn talking to when she’s onstage, going through her five-step program for worst-case scenarios? Belyea credits the late great dramaturge Iris Turcotte with the inspiration that the show is “Miss Katelyn is talking to the kids.” Yes, class we are Miss Katelyn’s grade threes.
Belyea, who divides her time between Edmonton and Montreal, worked on the script with her close friend, actor/playwright/director Jon Lachlan Stewart, who’s lately produced a French language version of Miss Katelyn in Montreal. “I tried things on my feet. He’d ask me questions, and I improvised.” Its first outing was at the Fringe in Montreal, a city with “a raw relationship to gun terrorism,” as Belyea says. And she was apprehensive about its reception. It won prizes, and was invited back.
The new version is under the direction of Emma Tibaldo of Playwrights Workshop Montreal. And, says Belyea, “it feels better to act. The text does more work.”
Pay attention, class: a play for our time has gotten a new life.
Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable
Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws
Written by and starring: Elena Belyea
Directed by: Emma Tibaldo
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Wednesday through Saturday