By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“How did we get here?” Playwright Jason Chinn remembers a night four years ago, a night like no other in Alberta.
And since he was volunteering with the campaign that swept Rachel Notley’s NDP into office, in a province where political change is generally measured by the half-century, it was the backstage view of a dramatic landscape no one really expected to see. Except perhaps in the mind’s eye.
“The stakes of waiting for those phones to ring, for results to come in,” muses Chinn. “Your heart stopped beating … until you started to see how it was going. Tense. The most tense environment. Every vote mattered. We didn’t know how it would turn out till the very end.”
E Day, the new large-cast Chinn play premiering Thursday in Theatre Network’s Roxy Series — in a Serial Collective production directed by Dave Horak — can trace its lineage back to the inspiration of that spring night in 2015 when Alberta surprised itself mightily. “I worked backwards from that,” says Chinn, who stopped for a pre-rehearsal coffee with Horak last week en route to the theatre. Back to the campaign. Back to campaign workers who invested their time and juggled their lives, anything but confident of victory.
“I never thought a change of government would happen in my lifetime,” muses Horak. “We were so used to being the underdog. Jason’s play captures an intensity I remember in 2015. It was building. More and more orange signs. More people talking about it. They were cautious, but they felt a momentum. A feeling of possibility?”
“I thought about all the people who came together, a community of people who volunteered their time, and worked on it,” Chinn remembers. “It was my first campaign. And every campaign I worked on after that was a losing one….”
“For me, it took days to sink in…. Even after the victory party I’d hear ‘Premier Rachel Notley’ on the radio and it seemed surreal,” says Chinn, a soft-spoken, wry sort.
“I didn’t think I’d like going door to door; I’m a pretty shy person. But it just felt good to talk to people about politics. OK, sometimes the reception was ‘get off my f—ing step!’ But sometimes you’d have a really great conversation.”
Both playwright and director find politics a compelling subject for theatre. Horak, who grew up in Calgary, says his parents were “pretty political, both Conservative for a long time until they switched when I was in high school and started working on Liberal campaigns,” motivated by Ralph Klein’s cutbacks to education. “We always talked about politics around the table.” The years he spent living and working in New York honed a fascination with American politics, in all its gruesome reaches..
Chinn, born in Newfoundland, grew up here when the family relocated in search of work. “When my mom took me to Edmonton we had two Safeway bags with all of our belongings…. She worked in child care for many years. And it wasn’t financially supported.” He has views on the correlation between political engagement and financial stability. Chinn is “not one of those people who live and breathe politics,” as he says of himself. “I’m a theatre person on the periphery. But it’s not good enough to just vote. You need to participate, donate time, and money if you have any: that’s how things get accomplished….”
Nearly everything about E Day represents a departure for Chinn. One of the country’s true originals, his signature is very black comedies in which placidly familiar surfaces peel back or crack open to reveal abysses of lurking violence, madness, chaos, maybe even the apocalypse. Bitches, set in an office typing pool, introduced us to the Serial Collective, an indie company that exists to produce Chinn’s plays in something of the way Teatro La Quindicina’s raison d’être is to produce Stewart Lemoine’s.
Happy Kitchen took us into the cheerful domesticity of the ‘50s, where a housewife goes completely bonkers. In Lavender Lady, the life of an listless slacker is shaken up irrevocably with the arrival of a servant who turns into a dog. In The Ladies Who Lynch, the end of the world happens while Judith and her chic well-heeled girlfriends are having lunch in their favourite bistro. Murderers Confess At Christmastime turns seasonal festivity on its head (it premiered in May of 2014) in a triptych where someone dies in each scenario.
E Day doesn’t sound much like any of the above — except that the campaign office setting, the petty irritations about the office coffee or the snacks or the work load, will ring a bell. “I’ve always liked the absurdity and the banality of workplace environments,” Chinn says, “the contrast between bickering with a co-worker about office supplies and huge high-stakes problems that jeopardize the campaign.…”
As Chinn describes it, E Day is a play in which a disparate community comes together. “I do think it’s unexpected in this environment that’s so divisive and so angry, to present a friendly, community-based play that’s grassroots, not top-down. It’s so going against the grain.”
“The majority of theatre about politics is about the top-down. And I want audiences to see the positive, inclusive elements of this process, not just the scandals of people high up…. This is the kind of legwork that needs to happen for change to happen.”
The grassroots gathering of a community that fuels the political campaign in E Day is Horak’s rationale for staging the play in the round. The cast of 12 — veteran stars like Sheldon Elter, Beth Graham, Lora Brovold, Candace Berlinguette (who’s been in all of Chinn’s plays) alongside newcomers — “keep moving and keep talking, just as it would happen in an office.” And they’re “surrounded by an audience that sees each other as well as the characters. It feels a little interactive since they’re so close. It feels right.”
And, inspired by a real-life event that ended in celebration, there might even be a happy ending, though Chinn and Horak refuse to confirm that. “There were some unhappy endings in drafts,” says Chinn. “It’s been a challenge for me to balance the excitement of (potential) victory vs. the reality of how much people put into efforts that don’t always end up in stability or a job.” Or a win.
“When you write a play hooked into an historical event, people have expectations,” says Horak, who was in the cast when E Day was workshopped as part of the Citadel’s erstwhile Playwrights Circle.“Should I leave it a secret whether or not we subvert those expectations?” grins Chinn, currently doing a master’s degree in theatre practice at the U of A. “Will it end in a musical number?” Horak teases.
Never before has Chinn written for so many actors. And he adjusted his script to fit them, draft by draft. “I wanted to make sure the text isn’t one-person’s voice but everyone’s voice.” His most recent draft has them using their real names. Horak thinks “it gives the actors real ownership when they’re playing versions of themselves.… We’re watching people working, overhearing snippets of conversation, and then a play emerges every so often. I’m still figuring out what the tone is; people still have to follow a story.”
“All the characters have a history, and lives outside the office that they bring in,” says Horak. “Actually, it’s a lot like putting on a play. You know you have an opening night. You form bonds quickly and in some cases deeply. You become friends even though you know it’s sort of ephemeral and will disappear or become different once election day happens.”
Theatre Network Performance Series
Theatre: Serial Collective
Written by: Jason Chinn
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: April Banigan Candace Berlinguette, Lora Brovold, Asia Bowman, Sheldon Elter, Sue Goberdhan, Beth Graham, Linda Grass, Ian Leung, Shingai David Madawo, Amena Shehab, Kiana Woo.
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Oct. 27
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca