Republic of Inclusion, a short play written and performed by me.
Presented by Alley Theatre at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in September 2020
RealWheels Playwriting Circle Short Doc, by Sophia Courage
Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Newsletter 2020
Freelancing the Pandemic, by Liesl Lafferty
Things were already bad in China. Prior to the pandemic hitting the west coast of Canada, two of the writing groups I facilitate had already started. Then, as though the women could sense imminent danger on the wind, a strange thing happened; the members of both groups began to individually meltdown. Without knowing what was going on for each other, every single one hit their own personal wall. In the past, occasionally one person would have an issue, or, sometimes there would be a conflict involving two members, but this was an unprecedented landslide of emotions. Each time I propped one person up, the next one would falter. The personal circumstances were slightly different, but the fear was the same; they could not write. Perhaps the timing was a coincidence, but a new world was already upon us.
I listened to one after the next, until they were finished expressing their concerns. Then, I told them they could quit and have their money back at anytime, but first, they must try. I presented strategies to coax them into carrying on. For example, I encouraged a few to abandon their projects and write a short instead. Shorts are fast and fun to write because they are full of dramatic action, and they are often in demand. They wrote the short pieces and the results were astonishing. There was a turning point and we could all feel it. Suddenly, the widespread trepidation was replaced with confidence and clarity.
Concurrently, at the university where I recently received my MFA, we produce one of the oldest running short play festivals on the west coast. It is a playwright-focused event featuring up to thirty scripts annually for the last thirty-four years. In March 2020, of course, we had to cancel the day before tech, breaking the hearts of our crew of nearly one hundred theatre artists and volunteers. In a flash, we noticed that some theatre companies around the world had started to do readings online. We decided to turn our frown upside down and join the pioneers at the forefront of expressing in a new way. We fearlessly launched our established festival onto the World Wide Web with two unique advantages. The plays had been rehearsed, so they adapted surprisingly well, and we were able to add an enhanced element. We let the audience peek behind the curtain by inviting the playwrights and directors onto the screen to entertain with their favourite stories about rehearsals, the lessons they learned, and the wild ride of this innovative process. Ultimately, everybody rallied together resulting in that unmistakable feeling of creating theatre. Before long, the audience numbers doubled our in-person venue capacity. It was another resounding success.
As our realities transformed into an online realm, I could see that other folks were feeling stagnant in their isolation. Ergo, I presented a strategy to help them as well. I offered dramaturgical and story editing consultations free of charge for one hour every Monday, fifteen to thirty minutes per person. I posted notice on social media and requests poured in. I began to coach writers from Alaska to Los Angeles, Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island, and Paris to Nigeria! We talked about plays, films, television, and web series, everything from the traditional to the wildly experimental. It was exhilarating as people from half way around the world brought forward their ideas to a complete stranger. I asked hard questions and gave rigorous feedback, with a genuine smile on my face. A week later, I sent each of them a follow up message, ‘just checking in’. The responses were unanimously and overwhelmingly positive. These writers were facing our collective adversity and they were still eager to work.
In my playwriting circle for people with disability, adapting to the online world was truly an advantage due to the ease of accessibility. This fall, we were able to accept applicants from across the country, St John’s, Montreal, Toronto, Nanaimo, and Vancouver. The writers were never late, we had record high attendance, and they produced a vast and varied amount of excellent material.
It has been nine months since the pandemic spread globally. We are only guessing as to when we will be able to return to live theatre and how it will look. Some writers are in no mood to create and have dug in their heels, insisting upon waiting until the pandemic is over. But, they do not hang out with me. Between my contract work and freelance gigs, I have facilitated, dramaturged, story edited or consulted on one hundred and fifty five scripts in 2020. I remain committed to my new mantra… make art now!
Canadian Theatre Review – Spring 2005
Stage Ability: A Terrific Theatre Experience, by Liesl Lafferty
In April 2001, when I became the artistic director of Theatre Terrific Society, western Canada’s oldest theatre company for people with disabilities, the company had been dormant for over a year. I had no previous experience in the disability field, so I really had to start from scratch. My only assets were the habits I had developed as a dramaturge/director to question the things that were unclear and follow the things that flowed. I hoped the same rules would apply here.
To begin with, I designed a performance-based program that provided students with the freedom to create, while training them in theatrical skills, such as mask, movement and storytelling. There were five people in the first two-month summer camp. One of the disciplines that was challenging to this particular group was improvisation. I tried a few times, without success. Then, I brought in a couple of “improv experts” and still no luck. The day the second expert was there, I could hear the frustration in her voice from across the room. She was trying to teach Freeze Tag, but the students would not switch topics. And, if they did, it was the person who stayed on stage who sparked the new idea, instead of the person entering the scene. The expert persisted in shouting instructions from the sidelines. Finally, I asked her to let them go, just to see what would happen. They kept going and going. They were doing it, or something like it. They yelled “freeze” and switched partners – and the rest, well … they improvised. Once the actors were freed from restriction, they flourished. Most importantly, they took care of each other on stage beautifully.
The second summer camp culminated in a fringe show. One of my favourite performance stories stars Margo Brisdon. When I first spoke to Margo, she didn’t respond, so it was hard to tell whether she understood. When she did talk, she mumbled very quietly in half sentences. It occurred to me that a microphone would help. Once she held that mike, she would not let it go. Being heard brought so her so much joy, I had to create a spot in the show to give her the chance to say whatever was on her mind. During the first two shows, the volunteer cut Margo’s cue because she paused too long before she spoke. On the third night, Margo’s parents were in the audience. I implored the volunteer to hit Margo’s cue no matter what and to keep believing. The moment arrived and Margo received the mike. There was an excruciatingly long pause. A voice from the audience exclaimed, “They are giving Margo a microphone!” The room silenced in anticipation of what would happen next. More silence. The volunteer was ready to bail and tried to retrieve the talking stick, but Margo pushed her away and very slowly began a striking impromptu speech in her piecemeal fashion. She thanked her parents and the audience for coming. She thanked the other actors for sharing the stage and she invited me for coffee. Then more silence. Suddenly, she was holding the mike like Dionne Warwick and she broke into an a cappella version of her mother’s favourite song, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Complete with the “Do, do, do, do, do, do, do’s …” As she finished, she bowed her head and the audience erupted. She really looked like a rock star. The only place I could hear her voice was on stage.
Every student benefited from freedom of expression. When George Lawson signed up for summer camp, he said that, due to his disability, he was not allowed to take drama or creative writing in school. Now, he wanted to tell his life story, paralleled with The Elephant Man. I asked him to relate five of his impressions from the classic play. Then, I had him connect those images to five events from his life. He told me of being picked on and laughed at. He told me of his low body image and his first kiss. He told me things he had never told before. As he spoke, I jotted down a line from each of his stories. Then I encouraged him to write it all out. He returned the next week with five monologues, called The George Man. The piece was dark, but funny. We removed some repeated words and massaged a few sentences. The night of the performance, George stood on stage and shared personal, often painful revelations. He had worked through his low self-esteem and achieved his ultimate goal of having people laugh with him instead of at him. After the show, George’s father shook my hand, “You did more for George in the last nine weeks than forty-two years of therapy.” All I really did was type up his story and pester him to memorize his lines.
Now, Theatre Terrific holds performance-based classes three times a year in four communities throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Hundreds of actors have been through our program, and each of them was freed from restriction and allowed to express herself. As the student numbers increased, so did the pool of talented teachers and generous members. Eventually, the gods were granting money to us again. Our dedicated Board of Directors and vibrant volunteers contributed to all activities, from fundraising to production. As a result, the theatre company was revived.
When I resigned from Theatre Terrific in November 2004, I realized that I had learned a lot about accounting but still knew very little about people’s actual diagnosed disabilities. It never really came up. We were too busy rehearsing and following the things that flowed.
Dedicated to the memory of Margo Brisdon … as an angel, she is surely singing.
I Can’t Get Warm, a true short story
It was November 1st, 1999. I arrived home from work in a delightful mood, ready to relax for the evening, workout, hangout with some friends. The phone rang. It was my eldest sister. I am the youngest of five. She never calls, so I knew right away there must be trouble. “Your brother was in a terrible accident in his transport truck.” Before her words sunk in my first thought was, “He’s your brother too, weirdo.” As she spoke, the gravity of the situation became clear. “He’s in surgery now. If he lives, he will never walk again.” My knees buckled and I melted to the floor. It was one of those ‘life will never be the same’ moments. “Somebody will call you back in a few hours after the surgery.” After we hung up, I stayed on the floor and cried a bit. Then, I started to focus on what I could do to help him… in that moment. What did he have to live for? He was a single dad with two boys, 8 and 10. I imagined myself inside his head and began to roll through images like a slide show of the two best things that had ever happened to him. As the hours passed, I occasionally slipped back into myself and burst into short bouts of tears. Eventually, my roommate came home and found me in a lump. As hard as it is to respond to tragedy, he came up with a perfect reply, “Do you want some hot chocolate?” “Yes, yes I do.” He encouraged me to get into my bed to wait for the call. As soon as I crawled under the blankets, I started shivering. I thought my body would heat itself up, but it didn’t. I added blankets, but I couldn’t get warm. At one point, I decided to quickly call another sister. When I ask her how she is doing she said, “Fine, but I’m shivering like crazy, I can’t get warm”. “Me too! It must be shock.” Then, back to waiting. Finally, the phone rang. It was my stalwart mother. “He lived, but he did die three times today.” After more words and details she closed with, “There is one weird thing that they can’t figure out… he’s covered in a huge stack of blankets, because they can’t get him warm. “
He lived. He lived. Those were the most important words. There was only one way to go from here… forward. The weeks that followed were filled with hospital visits, gathering family and talking with friends. There were stories of the sister who heard about the accident on the news before she knew it was happening to us and the neighbour who was stuck in the traffic the accident caused. Then, there were the heroes that saved him, the two guys who pulled him from the fiery wreck. They probably deepened his injuries, but definitely saved his life. The woman at the scene, who really wanted to go back to her car to get her sensible shoes, but instead made her way to my brother’s side and knelt by his head. She whispered gentle and positive things into his ear, becoming the only voice he responded to. There was a young fellow, the first on the scene. He took one look at the mess and disappeared.
By mid-December, my brother was out of Critical Care. My siblings all had young children, so I volunteered to spend the holiday shifts in the hospital. Christmas Eve was very quiet in his wing. Around 9:00 pm, my well-drugged brother began to drift off into a deep and peaceful sleep. I called my best friend to wish her Happy Holidays, and by a wild twist of fate, her plans had fallen through and she was going to be alone on Christmas. “I think he’s down for the night. I’ll be there in an hour.” Suddenly, a complete stranger appeared at the door and my brother woke up. The young fellow began to speak, “Hi, my name is…” Whatever his name was… “I can’t stay for long. My mom is waiting in the car, but I wanted to come see you. I was there the day of your accident. I was the first one on the scene.” Our mouths dropped open, as he unraveled his story. “I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I work for a delivery company, so I ran to my truck to call dispatch. They called 9-1-1. By the time I got back, they were pulling you from the truck, seconds later it burst into flames. I just wanted to see you and tell you that you are a soldier. I think of you every day. I can’t believe you lived through that. You are a soldier.” When he paused for a breath, my brother replied, “You are the soldier. I wondered what happened to you. I thought you just took off, but you… you saved my life. You are a soldier.” Soon, he disappeared again. This time for good. The second coming of our saviour… and on Christmas Eve!
My brother drifted back to sleep and I spent the rest of the evening with my dearest friend. The next morning, I went to the hospital early. To my delight, the first visitor to arrive shortly after was my friend. Of course, she was good pals with my brother too, as we had been so tight for so long. She was in the hallway, crying and fearful to see what was on the other side. I re-assured her, “He looks good. Seeing him is going to make you feel better. Besides, it’s our job to bring joy”. As she entered his room, she took one look at his smile and then lifted her shirt, giving him a quick flash to break the ice. We all busted out laughing. That set the tone for the rest of the morning as the three of us shared stories for hours. It was one of those ‘ah, so this is the new normal’ moments. When more company arrived, my friend and I split. As we drove, I felt waves of gratitude for his life being saved and the laughter she brought. The best gifts I had ever received. Out the window, I marveled at the bright blue Ontario sky and the sun sparkling like diamonds off the freshly fallen snow. After a lifetime of delightful Christmases, my heart was as full as it could be and, even without extra blankets, I felt warm.