Listen, Listen: a new Teatro Live ‘Muzak-al comedy’ by Elyne Quan. Meet the playwright in this preview

Farren Timoteo in Listen, Listen. Teatro Live. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

For five years or so, a character has taken up residence in a back corner in Elyne Quan’s writer brain. He’s an ideal renter. He lives quietly; he doesn’t play his music loud.

Montague Gray, who has a name as grand as he isn’t, is modest and unobtrusive. But he has a passion, “a much-maligned interest,” as Quan puts it. “He’s a Muzak enthusiast.”

“I didn’t know what to do with him,” laughs the Edmonton-born playwright (cum television/ film/ digital media writer) on the blower from her Toronto home base. And now, thanks to a Teatro Live commission, Montague has a Quan comedy to star in. In Listen, Listen, premiering at Teatro Live Friday on the Varscona stage, Montague is faced with a crisis, and a call to action. Muzak, the music he loves, as mild-mannered as he, is under threat in the world. In a mall in 1986, heroism is called for: Montague must take a stand.

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“I’d been thinking of the odd things people become obsessed with,” says Quan. And obsession is a great comedy driver, as the Teatro archive of Stewart Lemoine plays demonstrates. Think, for example, of Lemoine’s 2015 comedy Hey Countess!, in which an ordinary guy, irritated beyond measure by the atrocious dubbing in an art house Italian film, impulsively undertakes a quest.

The Teatro commission, which came during the pandemic, was delightful, and unexpected, says Quan cheerfully. As Teatro co-artistic director Belinda Cornish explained, the company founded by playwright Lemoine, “was re-structuring and re-branding, ushering in a new era by wanting to include some new voices.” Witty and droll as Quan is in conversation, comedy, the Teatro specialty, counts as a departure for her. “I was so flattered. But I don’t really write comedies,” she says, of a playwriting resumé dotted with award-winners from her time here at Concrete Theatre and Workshop West and in New York, where she graduated from NYU with an MFA in dramatic writing in 2005.

playwright Elyne Quan. Photo supplied.

“Besides my kids’ stuff (including the hit two-hander Lig & Bittle, with Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull), most of my plays are dark and very firmly drama.” Amused, she remembers talking about one of her plays with the drama department chair at the U of A (where she graduated with an honours B.A. in drama). “He said ‘So Elyne, how bad do you want to make your audiences feel?’ (Laughter). I want them to feel something: that was my answer at the time.”

The proposition from Teatro wasn’t prescriptive, she says. And after all, the Teatro “comedy-forward” thrust has been to expand the usual boundaries attached to comedy. Quan didn’t have a story in her pocket, but she did have the Muzak-obsessed Montague, “the kind of character who’s so concerned about not being fussy that he’s fussy.”

“Coming out of the pandemic there was a shift in the kind of TV I wanted to watch,” Quan muses. The urge “to see stuff that’s lighter, that’s not so emotionally draining” had started earlier, during a couple of years of illness. And the pandemic changed the tonal palette for everyone, she thinks.

Her entry point into theatre was acting, back to the era of the Citadel’s Teen Fest, and roles in Brad Fraser’s Blood Buddies and Conni Massing’s Terminus. Edmonton audiences saw her in Marty Chan’s Forbidden Phoenix. “If I was still in Edmonton, I’d still be acting, probably,” says Quan who moved to Toronto in 2007 — post-New York and post-teaching at the U of A — feeling the need to be in a bigger city.

Studying at the Canadian Film Centre was a helpful way to get started again. And gradually TV, film, assorted digital media projects, including interactive website with games, began to happen for her. “It took a long time,” she says. And the pandemic was immensely destructive. “But the reality of being in this (writer’s) career is you have to do a lot of different things,” as she says. “There a reason theatre people, playwrights, are really good at television. We’re used to wearing a whole bunch of hats all the time. We’re  able to think on our feet, do a whole bunch of jobs, be flexible….”

She noticed “a real difference between the U.S. and Canada about “who gets to be in the room.” At NYU, “the energy was that TV was always looking for the next hot young thing, willing to give young inexperienced artists an opportunity….” In Canada, “there was way less of that, a lot of resistance to it. It was ‘we’re going to give it to the seasoned TV guy, usually a guy, who’s going to run the show, who knows how to work with our budgets, who’s a known quantity’. And he’d have his own group of people to work with, young versions of him who looked liked him…. It was very very difficult.”

“Things started to shift in a big way a few years ago, before the pandemic,” she says of cultural attitudes in the wake of seismic events like the murder of George Floyd. “A lot of people were talking about visibility and diversity in rooms, demanding more, seeing the value in it.”

Quan had been exploring ethnic diversity long before that, in many of her early plays (including her contributions to Triptych and Rice: Stories With A Slant, at Concrete Theatre here). But “it all changed when I got into the Netflix-sponsored “diversity in voices” initiative at the Banff Media Centre,” she says. She brought a project to pitch, and though it wasn’t produced, “out of it came a new agent and a nice confidence boost…. The ball started rolling.”

One of her biggest supporters and mentors, in a diversified, multi-limbed career, has been playwright/ screenwriter/ story editor Mark Haroun, a friend from Edmonton theatre days whose kids play A Giraffe in Paris premiered at the Citadel. He gave Quan her “first writing room TV job” for the CBC series Heartland. “Fun, and extremely instructive,” she says of the experience. “You learn so much, so fast. That show has been around for a long time, a well-oiled machine.”

“I didn’t have an episode in that season. But that job has led to every other TV job I’ve had. And I’m busier than I’ve ever been!” says Quan gratefully.

It’s taken time, she sighs, and laughs. “That’s the difference between Edmonton and Toronto. In a bigger city where resources are really scarce, it’s ‘who are you?’. Edmonton energy is ‘we’re all here; let’s make the best of it!’”

She quotes the great American playwright Tony Kushner, who told Quan’s NYU class that he’d written American theatre’s most produced play, with multiple productions, translated, around the world. “And one night of Angels in America on HBO, more people saw it than the entire history of the play.” The moral? “You can’t afford to be just a playwright any more.”

Right before the pandemic, Quan worked on a 10-episode Snap project in which your bitmoji avatar is placed inside an animation, “a real engineering feat at the time.” The viewership of the first two-minute episode? 10 million. The economics of TV writing and the imminence of newer digital technologies and AI creation have all contributed urgency to the current WGA strike, as Quan points out. “If we don’t protect these (writer) careers now…”

Which has made the writing of Listen, Listen,  even more special, she thinks. “I did enjoy it, the chance to stretch different muscles!” says Quan of her excursion into comedy. “Forced out of his comfort zone by everyone he meets and his circumstances, Montague undertakes a journey to have his innocuous music restored in his workplace.”  For Quan it’s been a journey from dark into light.


Listen, Listen

Theatre: Teatro Live

Written by: Elyne Quan

Directed by: Belinda Cornish

Starring: Farren Timoteo, Nadien Chu, Alex Ariate, Nikki Hulowski

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Friday through Jun 11


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