**Each month we interview two member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspirations with the community. This issue in celebration of International women’s month, features Sandra Dempsey.
Dempsey is a multi-award-winning, internationally-acclaimed playwright and performer. She has written 5 full-length dramas and countless shorts. Dempsey has described her work as “complex… inhabited by articulate, richly drawn and emotional characters. Uncompromising and vital; powerful, compassionate and impassioned.” Thus, we wanted to explore the avenues of thought that lead to such vivid results.
How has the Theatre industry changed from when you started versus now? How has it not changed?
In the wake of the great SoulPepper travesty, I remembered back to my first days at the country’s leading acting training programme — and how we were all subjected to endless mind-games, bullying, degradation, humilities, and pseudo-psycho-analytic horse-pucky by the “professional” instructors. I can still see the searing red face of a fellow first-year actor as he had to sit cringing in the centre of the bare room, with the rest of us encircled about, and the unruly crowd of us was instructed to “ask him ANYTHING, and he MUST answer truthfully.” You can imagine the questions. Or the star acting “professional” luxuriating in demonstrating to us in “acting class” how he intently picked his nose for five minutes in a scene of his current production. Or the on-the-edge acting student being encouraged to bed his acting partner to best research their M/F scene. Or the year-end evaluation in which a first-year acting student was advised she would never make it in the business because she ‘didn’t smile enough, probably due to her Jewish heritage’… There was nowhere/no one to ‘report’ such garbage, no recourse whatsoever, so some of us walked out (one of the better decisions of my life). The only thing that has changed is the outing of such unadulterated putridity. Incidentally, the head of that very programme is now apparently thriving as a film acting guru on the west coast.
What has been your most rewarding experience working alongside other women in the Theatre industry?
There is no one ‘best’ experience — it is an ongoing reward.
Which of your play productions (if any) do you feel you have learned the most from? How has this changed your creative process?
Each of my works is of course its own experience, and they all have shown me different things at different times. My creative process is what it is, and again, I have very little control over it. I do not have the need to bark about my writing to all and sundry like some sort of latter-day Duddy Kravitz — “Oh yeah. I just finished another page!” When the characters are formed, the story is ready, it all comes out and I am but a pair of hands on a keyboard.
How does reading your play in front of a live audience assist you in the development of your work? What makes a playwright reading successful?
I guess I’m an exception, because I don’t benefit greatly from readings. The most I ever get from such experiences is discovering complete mis-interpretations of meanings, nuances, even humour, even by the director and actors. And readings must be properly moderated, lest they become invitations for twit advice. The people whose opinions I will always truly trust can be counted on one hand, and I really find no benefit in random, crowd-impressing one-upmanship pack responses into which poorly moderated readings often devolve.
How do you come up with such fully fleshed-out characters? Where do you draw your character inspiration from?
Coming from a very large family, and having an acting background, I tend to work out my characters in my head. They tumble around for however long it takes for them to formulate into whole people and ready themselves to be put into the action of a play. I tend to watch people, life, a great deal; filing away aspects of character, behaviours, responses, actions/reactions, stories, features, faults, until such time as I have a play in need of a body. Then, the cerebral file drawer is opened and a personage begins to compose itself of the various elements that are relevant. It really is quite beyond my control, and I must trust in the final make-up of a fully developed breathing being emerging. Real situations, events, and history, serve as inspiration for the stories of my plays, but the heart is always the characters, the humanity, as they travel their journeys therein. And always, wherever possible, juxtaposition and contrast are vital. There is a scene in Flying To Glory where Jimmy’s Mom is at the farmhouse, hanging out her washing — I can smell the bleach and hear the white sheets snapping in the wind with the sound of training aeroplanes overhead, feel cool air at her open-toe shoe and the slight twisting of bib-apron. But the pure, innocent calm of that mundane chore is about to be shattered by her frenetic checking of the newspaper to see if her son has been shot down on Ops overseas. The tension between the character, the action and the circumstance can work very dramatically.
How does one ensure they are ethically representing women in their productions? What would you advise people to think about when writing women, specifically?
I have always been and always will be a purveyor of *people.* My first play was a one-man play, but that specificity was never was an inhibitive issue for me. I simply write the character in the story. Nor is it an issue when I present performance-readings of my works; I simply act the characters, whatever the gender. I, of course, am partial to the female species because it is superior, and I greatly enjoy and prefer working with women writers, directors, actors, especially via organizations such as the International Centre for Women Playwrights.
If you were creating your magnum opus of theatre with no constraints what would that look like?
I have strong Irish blood — I would never presume to imagine such a releasing of mortal shackles.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.