Meet the finalists of Panfish Productions New Play Contest: Toronto theatre’s promising new playwrights
Panfish Productions is more than a theatre company. Yes, yes, they make theatre—but more importantly, they incubate it. Every Panfish production is an opportunity for emergent artists to mix with more established and professional mentors: to network, to polish, to develop and to grow. Results so far have been promising, and when Mooney on Theatre heard about their latest project, we got very, very excited.
The Panfish Productions New Play Contest (November 26th to 28th) showcases three young playwrights. Each of them will present a one-night-only workshop performance, and the most successful will receive a full mount as part of Panfish’s 2013 season. It’s an exciting opportunity for three of the city’s most promising new artists, and MoT is pleased to present an inside look at what’s in store for audiences.
Nina Kaye opens the festival with Unspoken, a bold look at sexual assault and abusive relationships. Through a series of vignettes and monologues, a small company of actors will challenge the audience’s assumptions, plunge headfirst into the gray areas, and—hopefully—provoke thought and intense discussion about this complex area.
As Kaye explains, “When I wrote the play, I was very frustrated with the misrepresentation of this issue in the popular media. It’s a wide-reaching problem, but because of social stigma and taboo, it’s rare to hear people speak honestly and clearly about the issue.” She’s especially interested in tackling what she describes as mixed messages, which serve to obscure, compound and even actively perpetuate these forms of violation.
The universality and timelessness of her message will come to life in the finale, in which the action jumps between settings and characters in a series of poetic monologues. Everyone from Medea to the thirteen-year-old next door will get a moment in the spotlight, adding their own voice to the choir. As a dramatic conclusion to her work, Kaye couldn’t be happier: “The actors are so talented, they really shine in these short solo pieces. It’s a joy to see them perform.”
While she hopes people will find her work similar to Pamela Sinha’s (extremely successful) Crash, this is much more than an exercise in emulation. Kaye credits playwright Linda Griffiths with giving her a key piece of early advice: “She told me that you can’t just write during those inspired moments. You have to write all the time. I just worked every day until I had a play. It’s my baby. Seeing a company like Panfish take an interest in it [is] like seeing your toddler take her first steps. It’s such a proud, gratifying moment.”
And as she tells it, while writing Unspoken was a deeply personal adventure, her real goal is to make her audience think. She wants you to argue your way home, she wants you to engage with these ideas; these themes; this message. And she wants to change how you, I, the media, and our society view these extremely important issues.
It’s a tall order, but her clarity of purpose and her willingness to go out on a limb are to her credit. An earlier workshop of this production was an award-winner, and Kaye’s personal devotion to her work shone through in our conversation. I’m eager to see how she does.
Stephen Joffe’s Offers of Home is an abstraction. In Joffe’s own words, he has prepared “a theatrical exploration into North American ideals of Home and Self-Security”, which uses poetry, song, movement and visual metaphor to explore these tightly-wound and interconnected ideas in three short pieces.
In writing Offers, he felt it was extremely important to stick to issues near his own heart and relevant to his own life, rather than merely producing a morally-satisfying polemic. This depth and personal understanding is key to his work: as he puts it, there’s joy in “exposing the bugs beneath the dirt beneath the foundation”, rather than merely scraping the surface and dealing in generalities.
This emphasis on depth and a personal relationship to his work carries over to his creative process. As he explains, “Keep writing, and working, and writing, and working, and sleep if you have to but then get up and get back to it. What you create may seem like crap, but that’s because you have standards—which is a good thing. Eventually the disparity between your standards and the work you create will get smaller, but the only way to get there is to keep at it.”
Joffe’s confidence in his work sometimes borders on cheekiness—I asked him what audience members should know about his show; he answered “[It] is a play worth seeing”, and said nothing more—but this confidence just might be warranted. A recent graduate of the National Theatre School, Joffe is already an award-winning performer and playwright, and has assembled a company of similar acclaim.
This production and Joffe’s budding career both hold a lot of potential; an opportunity to watch it all coalesce on a stage is unlikely to be wasted. The self-awareness he brings to the creative process also bodes extremely well. His greatest challenge—getting a piece so deeply rooted in his own experiences (as he puts it, “close to my own heart”) to resonate strongly with audiences—is formidable, but not impossible.
As to whether Joffe has successfully balanced his confidence against the quality of his production, we simply won’t know until Tuesday night.
Adam Abbas describes Instead of Meals as both wonky and ambitious: our protagonist, inspired by a piece of urban detritus, begins thinking about recycling—its meaning, its futility, and its implications for human relations. Before he knows it, he’s questioning some of the most basic assumptions we all make about urban life, about the cities we inhabit, and about how we ourselves relate to them.
Abbas, in his own words, goes further: “What the play explores is how people just go with the flow, and how destructive that can be. How ignorance and denial are valued. [H]ow pride can dominate our actions, and how absurd it is that pride is valued over humility”. He relates these questions specifically to Canada and Toronto, encouraging us to move beyond what he characterized as “bland, uncomfortable stereotypes” and towards a more honest, accurate self-image.
That emphasis upon honesty appears to be a hallmark of his work and style. The other finalists use language like “exploration” and “investigation”; Abbas is blunter. As he explains, “[My work is] truthful”. Others want us to meander and join them on a journey; Abbas is, perhaps, more focused on our destination. His greatest wish is that he’ll push his audience to stop avoiding uncomfortable realities and instead to engage with them; to confront them; to own them.
He also stands apart from the competition in his creative approach. This play isn’t the result of dramaturgy, workshopping, table readings and collaborations, but of one brain working alone. While he’s grateful to friends, family, his girlfriend, and the rest of his support network, he doesn’t flinch from taking credit: “I wrote Instead of Meals myself”.
This zeal for self-expression is unsurprising: Abbas’ writing background is predominantly in poetry, novels and prose, rather than collaborative expression. A regular guest at poetry readings, already published in various formats, and the author of a new chapbook, this appears to be Abbas’ first full-length play. While he does have some theatrical background—including an appearance at SummerWorks—it remains to be seen whether his unconventional approach will be more of a help or a hindrance against more seasoned competition.
In some ways, this one-man writing process might be the best decision Abbas could have made. Wouldn’t it be disappointing if a show which is explicitly about challenging norms and assumptions were to meekly follow every single theatrical convention? Breaking a few rules is surely the point! But while he clearly believes he has some uncomfortable truths with which to confront his audience, we’ll have to wait until the 28th to see if they’ll stick.