The building of Pressure, at Nextfest. Meet playwright Amanda Samuelson

Playwright Amanda Samuelson, Nextfest 2022. Photo by Mat Simpson

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Amanda Samuelson remembers the moment Pressure began to build. 

Her play, which gets a workshop reading at Nextfest Saturday and then becomes Nextfest’s first-ever official Fringe show in August, began in the winter of 2018. In a playwriting course at NYU, where Samuelson went to school (and got her BFA), the pressurized assignment was “to incorporate three ingredients into a two-page scene…. Hunger,  astrology, a synthetic body part.” What could be more playful, or more impossibly daunting?

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Pressure has changed, and grown, and expanded incrementally from two pages to a fulsome 80 since then, as the playwright, now in her mid-20s, describes. But that first two-page scene, between protagonist Grace and her non-binary ex-partner Ricky, is still in place; in fact, Pressure opens with it. And, amazingly, “all the ingredients are incorporated,” Samuelson laughs.

In its non-chronological scenes — present-day Grace, Grace at 15, the last time Grace spoke to her father, Grace and Ricky break up … — Pressure charts “one woman’s  experience of depression” Says Samuelson, it’s “based on my own experience,” says Samuelson. “I tend to do that, to get inspired by real life, and fictionalize .” 

“In your mind, having thoughts like ‘everyone hates me’, or ‘this person must think that about me’…. It’s living too much in your head. And your thoughts take you into some other reality, the worst possible scenario. It’s not true, but you convince yourself to believe things that are bad about yourself.” 

Astrology? “It’s incorporated through the entire play,” says Samuelson of the “fake horoscopes,” written by Grace herself and reflecting her state of mind. “Today’s horoscope: you’re a big fat failure.” 

Synthetic body part? When her partner leaves to go to school, they give Grace a hand to hold while they’re gone.” 

In this, Samuelson has flipped the real-life experience of a long-distance relationship when she left her home town of Grand Prairie, and her boyfriend of the day, to go to NYU to be an actor. And like Samuelson, Grace is an artist: “I made her a struggling writer,” whose lack of confidence prevents any enjoyment of success. “When her play is selected for production in New York, she doesn’t want to get her hopes up; she’s sure something will go wrong.”

In successive incarnations, Pressure gained not only length but a third character, Grace’s mother, who’ll be played by Kate Ryan in the Nextfest reading directed by Emma Ryan. And the play’s mother-daughter relationship is fraught with push-pull tensions.

It was in the course of her studies in New York that Samuelson discovered herself as a writer. In the NYU studio where she happened to be placed,  Playwright Horizons, “you take all the classes — acting, directing, movement, design, playwriting. So I got a full (theatre) education, and that’s where I took my first playwriting class. After the first year I found I liked playwriting a lot more, and I started focussing on that. I realized hey, this is something I might actually be good at and really enjoy!” 

By the time Samuelson got back to Edmonton, she was a veteran creator of very short plays. Gate D-98, about two people in an airport, and My First Greek Sunset, about a sexual assault, were chosen for successive years of EdmonTEN, an annual showcase of that very difficult achievement of storytelling in a 10-minute span. Pressure, which had started as a two-page scene, became a 10-minute play, then a short one-act play which would have premiered at the U of A’s Stagestruck Festival in 2020 had it not been for The Great Pause. 

“I took a break from it for a while; I was feeling a bit stuck,” says Samuelson. Then came an invitation from Workshop West’s Heather Inglis to bring Pressure to the Springboards Festival in March. The 20-minute excerpt Inglis chose  “happened to be the newest scene I’d written…. I ended up changing the entire scene.” 

“Being able to hear it out loud, this play that had been inside my head, was super-helpful,” Samuelson says. “And now it’s at a point it really needs an audience,” so Saturday’s Nextfest workshop reading comes at the best possible moment…. I know it’s not perfect, but it’s as good as I can get it for now.”

Trained as an actor, Samuelson has been in both Fringe and Nextfest casts. But as for Nextfest’s debut venture into presenting at the Fringe, Samuelson is happy to not to be in Pressure herself. “I want to be able to experience it from the outside, to watch someone else bring the character to life in their own way. That for me is the most exciting part.”

Pressure happens in Nextfest’s Workshop Reading series Saturday at 6 p.m. in the Roxy’s Rehearsal Hall. Look for it in the Lorne Cardinal Theatre, a BYOV at the Fringe. 

Further information, tickets, full schedule at nextfest.ca.

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