The Texture of Words
Students were invited to speak to Board members and Governors at the School's Annual General Meeting.They have allowed us to reproduce their speeches on this blog. Here, Gillian Clark (Playwriting 3, Halifax, NS) tells us about the courage it takes to confront our own fears through writing
Gillian Clark (Playwriting 3, Halifax, NS) delivering her speech at the 2019 Annual General Meeting
I get asked a lot at NTS about why I make theatre and why I write.
I guess that’s probably a good thing, considering it’s a theatre school.
Sometimes it feels like I don’t know.
Sometimes it really feels like I don’t know.
And then sometimes I’m sitting in a rehearsal hall.
Or I call a mentor.
Or I’m sitting in a show.
And it’s something that is inexplicable. I think it’s a type of evolution in myself. I can’t put this feeling into words. I can’t. And maybe that’s why I write.
I think that writing creates a blueprint for a piece of work that is then transformed. I find this transformation, ultimately, inexplicable.
I think this is why I make theatre.
It makes talking about my work pretty difficult.
"I think I was afraid that they didn’t fit into the show that was about them"
I recently had to write a project description for the show I developed here in second year. I worked with Sarah Elkashelf as my dramaturg and Anosh Irani as my cultural consultant.
By Gillian Clark
Oh no. What is this seemingly racist show about?
The show is largely autobiographical. When I was 22 I was commissioned by a company in India to make a verbatim piece of theatre about violence in the sex trade. So—bright eyed, wanting-to-change-the-world Gill went to India and worked with girls who had been rescued from the sex trade to make this show. The first half of the show was performed by professional local actors and then the girls were supposed to dance in the second half, but they never did. The story I told myself is that it was unsafe for the girls to be let out of the collective home they were living in, when in reality… I think I was too afraid of them. I think I was afraid that they didn’t fit into the show that was about them.
"I question how I can create a practice that leans into and supports the discomfort of change"
Flash forward 5 years. I’m at NTS and I want to write something I’m really afraid of. I’m really inspired by the writing of Young Jean Lee. She’s a Korean-American playwright who chooses the thing she is most afraid of, and writes about it. One of my favourite pieces of hers is called The Shipment, in which she worked with a team of African-American creators to create a show that was about the stereotypes of blackness in mainstream media. In my opinion, her approach creates a piece of theatre where you feel the presence of the creators existing within the blueprint of the script. In her work, I find there are three stories being told: one is the plot of the play itself, one is the experience of creating the show, and one is the experience of the creators in their day-to-day lives and how it has informed the process. In Lee’s work, we don’t enter a theatre and leave the world behind, we take the world into the theatre with us. To me, it creates a palpable level of vulnerability and active examination in the texture of the words. Basically, it makes for really exciting and fresh work.
A photograph of Gillian Clark (Playwriting 3, Halifax, NS) at the Annual General Assembly
Being inspired by Lee, whom I was introduced to by my classmate Kalale Dalton-Lutale (Playwriting 3, Toronto, ON), I was determined to write what was I most afraid of. What was it? Confronting my inner racism and white guilt in a piece of work in the most diverse institution I’ve ever been a part of? Yes. What was I even more afraid of? Not placing judgement on myself for having these feelings. I’m not sure I ever got there. I don’t think I ever will get there. As multidisciplinary artist Marcus Youssef says, we should look at everything as a work in progress. Including ourselves. Including decolonizing. Nothing is finished or will probably ever be finished. I think the thing I took away the most from the process of writing this play is that evolution, whether of an institution, of myself, or of my work, can be very uncomfortable. I question how I can create a practice that leans into and supports the discomfort of change.
"How can I hold myself accountable? How do I acknowledge when I’m placing value on my whiteness and linear ways of working?"
I’m talking about my practice because I feel as though my experience is really all I have. Like playwriting, I hope you will see something that is reflective or meaningful to you and NTS as an institution in the specifics of my inquiries and examinations. Here’s where I’m at with my practice right now:
I write about really ugly things. I use my whiteness, my upper-middle-class upbringing and my femininity all as tools to investigate the grotesque nature of human beings. I feel as if all of these things are my strength, and also my weakness. More and more I can really feel the failings of my whiteness.
Being at NTS has ignited a curiosity in me of looking at alternate ways of working. Sometimes it’s because I’m exposed to new ways of creating, and sometimes it’s because a light is shed on my shortcomings in terms of how I’ve always thought about making work. I’ve begun to question how to open up playwriting beyond a writer sitting behind a computer, the writer writes and the actors act, and the writer has all the answers to her plays. I very seldom have the answer. I’ve also begun to question how my colonial practices are integrated into the subconscious of how I work in rehearsal halls or behind my computer.
How can I work more circularly? How can I actively work on placing value on oral tradition? How can I hold myself accountable? How do I acknowledge when I’m placing value on my whiteness and linear ways of working? Again. I don’t have the answers. I definitely don’t have all the questions. Another reason why I write.
"Endings are very hard. I think there actually isn’t a great conclusion to this because
the work is ongoing"
A mysterious thing about playwriting is that you don’t really get to see how other playwrights work because it can be so insular. If someone were to shadow me, it would be a lot of looking out the window and heavy sighing. Basically, it would be like shadowing a cat. Something I’d love to organize at the school is a reoccurring workshop on how to demystify playwriting and creating. How can we crack it open? A lot of our playwriting in this country comes from a European tradition and I’m eager to open up a conversation on where I can expand my practice. How can I leave space for other experiences and different ways of working in the script I create? As an institution, how can we push this conversation forward? A few artists I admire who are active in this type of work include Kim Senklip Harvey, a fire creator (playwright, director, actor) whose work and practice investigates the ethics of creating new relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canadians (also you should follow her blog if you’re not already!); Marcus Youssef, aforementioned work in progress, but also creator of meaningful work with a variety of communities, such as collaborations with artists whose lives include having Down Syndrome and neurotypical artists; and Laura Nanni who is the Artistic and Managing Director at Summerworks Performance Festival. I bring her into this conversation because I think, as a settler, she does a great job of supporting diverse artists in the early stages of development. She programs difficult work and gives artists and audiences alike the chance to develop and grow with new pieces.
I’m trying to find a graceful way to conclude. Endings are very hard. I think there actually isn’t a great conclusion to this because the work is ongoing.
I think that’s probably another reason why I make theatre. The work doesn’t end.
Gillian Clark (Playwriting 3, Halifax, NS) is a third-year student the the Playwriting program.
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