**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Ann Lambert, who has been writing stage and radio plays for 35 years which have been produced in Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia. In Montreal, she has worked with several companies, most recently for the past 11 years with The Dawson College Theatre Collective, where she has been a teacher for 29 years. She is currently the co-artistic director of Theatre Ouest End. Ann is the vice-president of The Theresa Foundation which supports AIDS-orphaned children and their grandmothers in Malawi, Africa. The Birds That Stay is her first novel, the second in the series will come out in the fall of 2020.
When did you gain your love for playwriting?
I always loved observing and eavesdropping on people, and I still do. That’s one of the reasons I am never bored. When I was a little kid, I could sit for hours on the stairs in our house and listen to the adults talking in the living room below. It was my access to that forbidden world, and I found it absolutely irresistible. I think the most important tool for a playwright is her ear and an insatiable appetite for the endless possibilities the human experience offers us.
I came to playwriting in my mid-twenties, when I saw a production of David Fennario’s Balconville at the Centaur here in Montreal. I think it was one of the first plays I ever saw, and it was set in Montreal and in the 2 languages that I speak. It was the first time I ever saw my city and a piece of my world on stage. I distinctly remember saying to myself — I want to do that! Thanks, David.
What is an important aspect of your work?
In every play I have written, I try to take the audience on a tumultuous, funny and heart-breaking ride. I want the audience to see themselves in the story, to identify with the dilemmas and choices (good and bad) that the characters make, to be led to a deeper understanding of the whole experience of being human. I often set a character’s story against a larger backdrop, so it is woven into world events and the zeitgeist in ways that I hope deepens our experience through the intersection of the personal and political.
I hope that in all my work that there are clear and high stakes, that the characters are funny, complex and invested in. My intention is often to have people leaving the theatre in heated discussion of whatever ideas, issues or questions the play brings up for them.
I always want to look at what we are fearful of, what we yearn for, what breaks our hearts and the extraordinary ways in which we intersect with each others’ lives.
You recently wrote your first novel, The Birds That Stay. Can you tell us a bit about the book and that transition?
I had part of the story for The Birds That Stay in my head for many years. It was originally to be a coming of age story about a half-English/half-French girl growing up in the West Island of Montreal of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I wanted to tell her personal story as it paralleled the turbulent history and politics of Quebec right up until the mid-2000’s. I actually started writing the book in 2009, but instead took some of its material and turned it into a play called The Assumption of Empire — the story of a Jewish woman from Montreal over a 30-year period of her life. It is about her struggle to lead a good, uncommon life, to pursue what she thinks is important, to dream big, and the subsequent decline what she yearned for as she ages and is tamed by marriage, the demands of the quotidian and by compromise. Her story is woven into local and world events, ending with the tragedy of the Dawson College shooting.
When I returned to the “book” 6 years later, I knew one thing for sure — that I wanted to actually try to get people to buy it and read it. So, I decided one way to make that happen was to make it a murder mystery. As a reader of “genre” lit myself, I realized that maybe I could write a “literary” book that was a bit of a page turner as well, and that people might want to read. And so The Birds That Stay started to take shape.
It took me about 2 years to write, and I was lucky to find a publisher fairly quickly. The transition from playwright to novelist is a natural one, I think. My process for both is quite similar — I map out the story from scene to scene or chapter to chapter. I have to be able to see the last scene or moment of the play or book. I have to know where I am heading, and where I’m taking my audience or reader.
So I think the book is similar to many of my plays, only longer! I think it’s got complex, flawed and vulnerable characters who struggle with moral questions and try to navigate the world with a sense of purpose, and a sense of humour. It features a textured geographical, political and historical landscape. I like prose that makes me look at something familiar in a fresh way, and I like effective storytelling that makes me feel reluctant to put the book down. I hope that for some people, The Birds That Stay is that kind of book.
You also recently launched a new theatre company, Theatre Ouest End, with your daughter. How is that coming along?
Theatre Ouest End was launched on March 8, 2019 — International Womens’ Day — by myself, my dear friend and partner in theatre-making for close to 25 years, actor, writer and director Laura Mitchell, my daughter, playwright Alice Abracen, and our dear friend and theatre artist, Danielle Szydlowski — so I am making theatre with people I love. All four of us have worked on several projects together over the last 10 years, and we decided to jump into the deep end and launch this company. Our home is a beautiful church in the west end of Montreal, which is especially sweet as we have always seen theatre as a kind of sanctuary, a place where we discover our humanity through storytelling. We are hoping to make theatrical experiences more accessible to communities who traditionally cannot or do not participate in theatre, to mentoring young theatre professionals by giving them a place to begin practicing their craft and to encouraging new work. We are going to feature the work of both experienced and emerging writers, bringing it to the communities whose access to theatre is challenged by limited mobility, income, location, and the perception that theatre is really about and for someone else. Phew! We’ve got our work cut out for us. Our 2019–2020 season starts on October 25th with a soiree featuring the outcomes of a workshop Laura and I led last spring with a group of amazing seniors. It was inspired by the Toronto Writers Collective with whom we hope to announce an exciting collaboration very soon.
In the late spring of 2020, we will be producing The Covenant by Alice (Abracen), which won the 2017 Canadian Jewish Playwriting competition. Despite the fact that we are a brand-new company with very little funding, we hope to make big things happen.
Are you currently writing any new work or have any shows coming up?
Apart from the above-mentioned work with Theatre Ouest End, I am working on the sequel to The Birds That Stay, the second book in the Russell and Leduc mystery series.
Another huge and wonderful project is: Laura Mitchell and I are the co-chairs of the 12th Women Playwrights International Conference that will take place in Montreal in June of 2021. It will feature plays, workshops and round-table discussions led by theatre practitioners from around the world. Women Playwrights International has brought together playwrights and allied theatre artists, cultural workers and scholars together since 1988. These conferences happen every three years at different locations in the world, most recently in Chile in 2018. Stay tuned — there will be much more information to follow in the coming months, and a call for submissions is going out next week!
How have you benefited from your PGC membership?
I have been a member since the late 1980’s (I’m such an old fart) so I have certainly seen the PGC evolve over the years. It is a critically important organization for too many reasons to list here. It has always played an important role in my staying connected to other playwrights, to the theatre scene in Canada, which as a Montreal writer I can sometimes feel disconnected from. It has relieved that isolation many times. Of course, its work is essential in promoting the work of Canadian playwrights — we all want to be seen and heard and feel like our work is not going to sitting in a drawer forever. What the PGC does to get our work out there is absolutely essential.
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.