By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“There was something quite magical,” says Belinda Cornish, “about having us all come together, to be a community together that one night…. It felt very special. And I felt lucky to be there.”
She’s talking about Friday the 13th, March 2020, the last dress rehearsal of Cornish’s new play The Garneau Block, a stage adaptation of Todd Babiak’s best-seller Giller-nominated satirical novel of 2006. It was the fateful night before its first preview on the Citadel’s Maclab stage.
The curtain was about to come crashing down on live theatre, and the performing arts industry. Productions were cancelled mid-run, even mid-rehearsal, or postponed indefinitely. And the Citadel had reached out to the casts of every cancelled show and show-in-progress in this theatre town, and invited them to a one-night-only performance of a play about wildly disparate characters in an Edmonton community who come together to save something: their ‘hood. It was a gesture that might have come from The Garneau Block plot itself.
The cast of the Mayfield’s production of Noises Off came. So did the casts of Edmonton Opera’s Candide, and the Citadel’s Beatles-themed As You Like It…. “We knew we had to stop,” says the playwright. “But the one and only performance of The Garneau Block had an audience that was so supportive, so warm, so loving.”
The End that night was really the end, for a whole industry, and “the theatre community watched together.”
“We turned out the lights and locked the door, and left the theatre. For a year,” leaving the set on the stage, the costumes on the racks, the props table laid out. And there it all was, gathering dust and waiting — till now. “It brought it home,” she says of the graphic way the pandemic stopped time for an entire industry. Last one out, turn off the lights.
Eighteen months later, The Garneau Block goes into preview again this weekend. Director Rachel Peake has reassembled most of the original ensemble of nine actors, — among them Edmonton faves Julien Arnold, Rachel Bowron, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, George Szilagyi, Stephanie Wolfe — and one small dog (Koko, with his own understudy).
“There’s something very special about coming back to theatre this way,” says Cornish of a play about us and for us, in which the idiosyncratic, ill-assorted denizens of an Edmonton neighbourhood band together to fix things, after a traumatic event. A sense of community saves the day — which, when you think about it, is the way theatre operates all the time. And it’s an apt thought in this devastating, traumatizing moment in our collective history.
“It’s about how, if we come together, are kind to each other, hear each other, are truthful with each other, pull together, we do better,” says Cornish. “I think at its heart this is what this play is about.… People who take the self-serving path, it doesn’t end up serving them.”
Cornish, the co-artistic producer of Teatro La Quindicina (along with Andrew MacDonald-Smith) is a playwright (Little Elephants, Category E, Diamond Dog). She’s also a director, actor, Die-Nasty improv star. And this summer — “a bit of a bonkers summer” she notes casually — Cornish has taken multi-tasking to an extreme. She’s directed the three film productions (Lost Lemoine Part 1, Lost Lemoine Part 2: A Second Round of Seconds, and (with Lemoine) A Fit, Happy Life, now all online) that opened back to back in Teatro’s highly compressed 2021 season. Her live in-person production of Fever Land, the Teatro season finale, previews on the same night The Garneau Block officially opens (Sept. 23), and has its own opening night on the 24th.
What was it about a much-loved novel from the 2000’s, a novel of its time, that drew Cornish to adapt it for the stage? “Honestly, the characters,” she says. “The full rounded people Todd has created breathe off the page. They’re complicated, multi-layered. And the idea of putting them on the stage, giving them life and bodies to inhabit … coming up with dialogue for them, putting them together in a room and just letting them chat, was so much fun!”
There’s mystery attached to the people of The Garneau Block. Take the apparently mismatched couple David and Abby. He’s so conservative that he’s the president of the Strathcona Progressive Conservative Riding Association. She’s a leftie of the “armchair liberal” stripe, as Cornish puts it. “In the novel she’s a bit more gentle; I’ve wound her a bit tighter…. There’s an Abby in every neighbourhood, the person who believes they’re incredibly enlightened and woke, but doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by progressiveness. She won’t go into Starbucks but makes her husband get her caramel macchiatos. She was very fun to write!”
How is a couple like David and Abby together? Cornish laughs. She points to the election campaign in her Queen Alexandra ‘hood, and “Re-elect Heather McPherson” and “Vote Mike Nickel” signs co-habiting the same front lawn. “What is happening in that house? Fascinating. Two very distinct voices existing there. They probably have separate bathrooms by now….”
“In character development and themes, I’ve remained true to the book pretty much,” Cornish says. “Some aspects of the plot will be different. I’ve focussed more on their interpersonal relationships than the external forces pushing the community together to solve the crisis.”
In the novel, a tragic event that has happened in one now-deserted house on the block catalyzes the plot, including the university’s drive to buy up all the properties at a reduced price. In the play we’ll see, as Cornish describes, “the symbolic decaying house in which a terrible event has occurred, is looming over them…. But it’s the characters’ own foibles and mistakes, the mysteries and secrets they have from each other, that are actually creating the crisis. It’s more active between them.”
When she was first working on the play, Cornish remembers that Babiak had said “you solve the house, you solve the play.”
Adapting The Garneau Block wasn’t without its challenges. “The novel is very beloved, for a reason. I wanted to honour that,” says Cornish of the balance between “the changes that needed to be made, the changes I wanted to make, and how to remain true to it.”
“It’s not pure invention. Working with somebody else’s work, being inspired by someone’s else’s work … I don’t have to make these people up; I get to expand on what Todd has already done, which is joyous, and figure out how to take that arc and those themes and build them into a play.”
Cornish, who came to Canada in 2000 from London — a love story directly involving her actor/improviser husband Mark Meer — brings an outsider’s eye to the portrait of Edmonton that gathers momentum in The Garneau Block. But the powerful notion of what it means to live in a neighbourhood, to be home there, is part of Cornish’s own thinking, too. She grew up in Willesden, in the northwest of London, a ‘hood with its own particular accent (“read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; she encapsulates it perfectly”).
“Very much a neighbourhood. On a street. Five or six families, having barbecues together in summer, taking care of each other’s kids, popping over to each other’s house, the sense that the tiniest little infraction between two people that already have friction can blow up into something much larger than it needs to be, absurd from the outside….”
In a flurry of bravado in seasonal timing, Cornish arrived on Jan. 3, 2000. “When I emailed Mark I was coming he wrote ‘Oh dear. I’m so embarrassed for my country’…. He knew it would be horrifying,” she laughs. “I didn’t have proper gloves, or the right anything. The cold used to make me nauseous. Weird physical response, I know.” Some “desolate moments” did ensue, she admits.
It was a test case, but Edmonton passed with flying colours. “A strong pride in your home city and a great love for it, and also a great sense of humility, it’s very Edmonton,” she thinks. “I think Edmonton really sees itself. It’s one of the things I loved about the city, and made me want to stay!”
“I guess I’m making my own politics explicit here, but we’re a brave little goldfish in the big blue sea. It’s a feeling of being a cultural island in a way … progressive, hopeful.”
The Garneau Block
Theatre: Citadel Theatre
Written by: Belinda Cornish, adapted from the Todd Babiak novel
Directed by: Rachel Peake
Starring: Shelly Antony, Julien Arnold, Rachel Bowron, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Alana Hawley Purvis, Andrew Kushnir, George Szilagyi, Stephanie Wolfe, Koko
Running: Saturday (in preview) through Oct. 10
Tickets and masking/vaccination requirements: citadeltheatre.com