By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It was when the cast was rehearsing the kissing scene in Home Again that playwright/director Calla Wright knew, irrevocably, that Nextfest 2020 had created its own kooky creative wonderland.
For one thing Home Again, which runs Saturday night as part of the online 25th anniversary edition of the festival (at nextfest.org), is a podcast: it creates space entirely aurally. And as a particular challenge its narrative actually hinges on physical re-location: it conjures a journey between cities and into the desert. Besides, “how do you record a play when none of the actors can be in the same room?” as Wright says.
Which brings us to the kissing; there’s nothing about arranging that in the Zoom manual for times of isolation. “We had a lot of fun with it…. What does this sound like? There they are, the actors, slobbering over their hands. I remember asking them ‘is this more or less awkward than it would be in in real life?’” Wright recalls, amused, there was a certain divergence of opinion between the tentative “maybe eventually this will feel normal” and the declarative “this is going to be weird forever!”
At the centre of Home Again is an intersection of life crises. The protagonist, as Wright describes, has lost a baby; her wife has had a stillbirth. “She immediately drives off to see her best friend from years before — that’s all she can think to do — and arrives at his house to find he’s just tried to kill himself…. She saves his life and drives him into the desert with the thought ‘let’s get drunk and do a lot of drugs together,” as their younger selves used to do.
“It’s mostly about growing up and dealing with the intense losses that are not like anything you’ve experienced before — and wishing you could go back to the person you were as a teenager,” Wright explains. “It’s trying to figure out what teenage friendships mean when you’re an adult, how to continue them. Without quite so much substance abuse….”
The 2020 edition of Nextfest, all online of necessity, has been “a really fun challenge, to try and learn to use all the new technology on the fly. Without visuals. More in the realm of a radio play,” as she puts it. Her childhood friend, composer/playwright/Daniel Belland, wrote music and improvised cues that assist materially in creating space.
If times hadn’t propelled Nextfest online, the ebullient playwright, who has an experimental zest about her, could imagine her play (the June instalment of The Alberta Queer Calendar Project) as a site-specific piece, with the audience on the move. “Really cool! Find a way to have an audience drive somewhere we could light a fire, and have that intimacy with the actors…. I’d love to do more site-specific theatre!” declares Wright, a home-schooled kid by upbringing, who started writing at five and acting in Shakespeare scenes at nine.
“When I was 12, my mom and I rewrote a version of the Narnia books (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe et al).” It took the audience into the ravine, through the wardrobe they’d built, and into the woods. It wasn’t till Wright was 14 or 15, that someone suggested she try writing plays. “I wasn’t a big fan of of prose and description; I always wanted to jump straight to the dialogue….”
Wright, now 27, was in high school when a musical she wrote with Belland, Semi-Colon the Musical, was workshopped at Nextfast. “I was so impressed by the quality of the audience and their feedback. That can be very hit-and-miss….” Wright, Belland, and their pal actor Josh Travnik made their Fringe debuts with Semi-Colon. “I made just enough mistakes to learn from it. But I did just enough right that it was super-cool. A great introduction to Fringe world!”
She spent two years as part of the Citadel’s Young Acting Company, in plays like Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine and a stage adaptation of The Mill on the Floss. Those plays were, she says, “my big introduction to a lot of different styles…. Before that, it was lots and lots of Shakespeare; I really love adapting Shakespeare, reading it, performing it.”
Witness her play The Wind and the Rain, which she and Travnik toured to Fringes, puts together two of Shakespeare’s star Fools, Feste from Twelfth Night and the Fool from King Lear. In the playwriting program at Concordia University in Montreal, she adapted King Lear. The Blood Harmonic, she says, “has a similar premise to Queen Lear Is Dead (Jessy Ardern’s play which premiered last summer at the Fringe), but very different execution.”
Wright is less interested in “acting acting” and more focussed on playwriting these days, she says. But last summer, she and her younger sister did a Wright original, The Wright Sisters Present The Wright Brothers, an homage to the sibling aviation pioneers, “half biographical and half scenes made up of what they might have said to each other.” Wright played Wilbur and her sister Maya was Orville…. I shaved my head, one of those stadium cuts, and we looked remarkably like them, I’d say.”
Wright’s theatrical tastes “swing,” as she puts it, “between the super-old and the very very modern and experimental.” A university theatre exchange to Germany with a broad sampling of German theatre and its grand finale, a collective Canadian/German creation, were “a big influence.”
After Nextfest, the Wright project-in-progress is “what to do with my Fringe play?” Should it be on hold till Fringe 2021? Should it have an online incarnation of some kind before that? “Weirdly it’s a perfect play to transition to an online platform,” she laughs. The Truth, a title with an ominous reverb these days “is about a woman trapped in her apartment for six months…. I started writing it long before any of this happened.”
Theatre: Nextfest Arts Company
Written and directed by: Calla Wright
Starring: Josh Travnik, Chiara Tate-Penna, Daniel Belland
Running: Saturday night (full schedule at nextfest.org)