This week, The Room Temperature Collective and The Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies premiere a workshop presentation of Arthur Milner’s play, Getting To Room Temperature, at the Robert Gill Theatre. The play, about end-of-life issues in Canada and the right to die, is based on a true story and promises audiences laughter through tears. We caught up with playwright and director Milner, assistant director Jenny Salisbury, and Maureen Labonté, production dramaturg, to ask a few questions about the upcoming show.
Can you briefly describe your show and how it was inspired?
Maureen Labonté: In the summer of 2013, I got a phone call totally out-of-the-blue from Arthur Milner. I hadn’t heard from him in years. We’d met in the late 70s in Ottawa, where we were both working in theatre. We got together for a coffee. We talked about theatre, playwriting, translation and, strangely enough, about mothers and dying. His mother had passed away a month earlier and he was in Montreal to settle her estate.
It turned out we had a lot more in common than theatre. My mother had been battling Alzheimer’s for four years. It was gruelling and painful. But it was when Arthur started telling me how his mother had asked him to help her die and how he had dealt with that request that I realized his was a very special story. How do you go about helping someone to die? No. I’ve got that wrong. Not “someone” but your MOTHER?! How do you go about helping your mother die because she’s asked you to.
I found the idea astonishing, staggering. On impulse, I seem to remember saying, “You’ve got to write about this, Arthur.” We left it at that. A whole year went by. Arthur sent me a number of stories about his mother and father, the eulogy he’d written for her funeral, and some jokes about doctors, death and dying. It was provocative, sad and funny. He also attached a copy of the last voicemail message his mother left him, the week of her death. It was moving and ghostly.
What can audiences expect to see?
Maureen: The play is a solo piece for an actor. It tells a powerful, intimate and very personal story about how a man deals with his mother’s death and her request that he help her die. She’s 94 and tired. Very tired. She believes it’s time to go. He’s an intelligent, mature man who takes her request seriously and starts investigating how he would do it. More importantly, he starts asking himself questions about how we die and how we would like to die.
What is the significance of the title?
Jenny Salisbury: Well, one of the reasons why this play is so important is that we, as people, are bad at talking about death. It makes us uncomfortable. As part of the play says, the more uncomfortable something makes us, the more euphemisms we have for it. Death has a wide variety of pseudonyms: kicked the bucket. Shuffled off this mortal coil. Gone to a better place. Getting to Room Temperature. Can we have conversations about death, without being embarrassed?
What sort of conversation are you hoping to spark with this production?
Arthur Milner: I want people, even young people, to talk to each other about how they would like to die.
Why is it important to tell this story? What about it grabbed your attention?
Jenny: Right now, our country is engaged in a new debate about of aging, mortality, and the right to die. This year, for the first time, Canada has more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15. The Supreme Court of Canada has declared that desperately suffering patients have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide. I have held the hand of people as they have prepared for death. And I found extraordinary humour and warmth in those moments, as well as grief and sorrow. Arthur has found that energy with this play. And as Arthur says, “It’s a play for our time — for everyone who’s going to die or knows someone who will.”
- Getting To Room Temperature, by Arthur Milner, is playing November 11, 13 and 14 at 8:00PM and November 15 at 2:00PM at The Robert Gill Theatre, 214 College Street, 3rd floor, Toronto
- Preview tickets for November 11 are Pay What You Can; tickets for November 13-15 are $20, or $10 for students. For tickets, please contact UofTTix online box office, or call 416-978-8849
Promotional image provided by the company