Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Clem Martini, celebrated playwright, novelist, and screenwriter with over thirty plays, and fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction to his credit, including the award-winning A Three Martini Lunch, Illegal Entry, Cantata, Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness, The Unravelling, and The Comedian. His texts on playwriting, The Blunt Playwright, The Greek Playwright, and The Ancient Comedians are employed widely at universities and colleges. Martini’s list of honors is extensive and well-deserved. Recently made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he is a Killam Fellowship recipient, three-time winner of the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for Drama, two-time winner of Theatre BC’s National Playwriting Competition, The WO Mitchell Book Prize, two-time winner of The Alberta Trade Non-Fiction Book Award, and short-listed for the Governor General Award for Drama. He currently serves as a Professor in the School of Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Calgary.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I knew I wanted to write from an early age. At that time — the seventies — literature in Canada was almost entirely dominated by the works of American and British authors, and I wasn’t sure how to begin, but I’d been knocking together short stories throughout junior high and experienced some success, I’d won awards and competitions, so I thought prose was maybe the way to go. But then, in grade twelve I enrolled in a Drama class and it kind of caught me off guard. The theatre seemed so lively and immediate. At that point I began acting and writing plays. I penned a play in grade twelve, entered it in a provincial competition and won first prize and a big three hundred dollars which seemed like an enormous amount at the time. That kind of set my course. I enrolled first in Drama at the University of Calgary, then in the brand-new Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School in Montreal. I was part of the first cohort to complete that program. When I graduated from NTS, I got my first professional job as a writer — as the editor of two quarterlies for a life insurance company. I worked at that firm for two years, crafting and sending out my own material in-between writing and editing the material I created for the insurance company. Then at the end of two years, I quit, and took a job with Chinook Theatre as playwright-in-residence. I worked with Chinook for two years, and they produced two of my plays. That was what I consider the beginning of my career as a playwright.
What inspires you to write plays, and what does your writing process look like?
I write about those things that move me, strike me as strange or upsetting, the things that make me angry or frighten me, the things that make me laugh. If I’m not emotionally engaged with the material, I don’t feel it’s possible for me to engage others.
I write every day. I’m an early riser, and I find the quiet of those early hours so useful. I work steadily, and uninterrupted, till breakfast. I stop to eat, then I bike (or if it’s snowing, drive) to the university where I teach playwriting. In the evening, I return to the writing I produced in the morning, edit it, and try to leave something interesting for me to continue working on in the morning of the next day.
As an arts educator and author of multiple texts on playwriting (The Blunt Playwright and The Greek Playwright), what advice would you give to a young person considering making writing their career?
It’s helpful if you enjoy the process — if you actually enjoy writing. Writing a play can take years from beginning to end. If only the end product — the production — brings you joy, then you’ll spend a considerable portion of your life feeling unsatisfied and attending fulfilment. And there are so many things that can interfere with, mar, or impede a production. Economies can decline, companies can falter, artistic direction can change, and of course, a global pandemic can emerge out of nowhere, completely upsetting the apple cart. I find writing is a useful way of testing ideas, of examining the world. Every day of writing has the capacity to clarify something, has the capacity to generate discoveries, and I genuinely relish the slow reveals that accompany creating characters.
Your play The Extinction Therapist had its world premiere at Theatre Aquarius this past January. Can you tell us about the creation of that piece, and your experience of bringing it from the page to the stage?
I’d been working on The Extinction Therapist for quite a while, since at least 2016. It was my response to our present troubles, my way of thinking about and responding to the climate crisis and the crisis of mass extinction. Contemporary politicians seemed completely incompetent and unable to grapple in any meaningful way with these major issues. I found (and continue to find) it infuriating, so I decided to use the tools I had at my disposal to do something. Now, I actually believe writing can make a difference — maybe as a writer, I have to believe that. Then again, many of the great movements in history have been ignited by a piece of writing. Writing has held the capacity to change the minds and hearts of people since writing was first developed. In any case, whatever influence writing possesses, real or imagined, that’s what I did. I began writing The Extinction Therapist. It was invited to The Last Frontier festival in Valdez, Alaska, in 2019, where it received a workshop and staged reading, and I was excited by the audience’s passionate response. Then…Covid. The virus emerged only shortly after that reading, so for the next few years everything was shelved, and I wondered if it would ever receive a production, or if theatre itself would survive. But finally in January of 2023, the play opened at Theatre Aquarius and I was thrilled to see the kind of warmth, enthusiasm, and energetic discussions that accompanied that premiere.
Your play Cantata will be published in April 2023. What can you tell us about this play?
Cantata (Rumours of My Crazy, Useless Life) has just been published in a collection, along with The Extinction Therapist. The book received a fabulous launch at the Reeve Theatre in Calgary on March 25th. The two plays contained in this book represent my most recent work, but are quite different in tone and content. The Extinction Therapist is a dark comedy, dealing with (as I’ve indicated above) matters pertaining to the climate crisis, the crisis of mass extinction and the grief felt at the loss of so many things. Cantata is a more personal effort. It’s loosely based upon my family’s experiences regarding mental illness and the challenges that occur when those providing care for others, age and require care themselves. I’ve found our culture unwilling to grapple with the appalling, systemic failings of healthcare for those with mental illnesses. Mostly, our governments manage that troubled, underfunded portion of the Health Portfolio by persistently ignoring it until a crisis occurs and someone dies, at which point politicians hasten to commission a federal inquiry, which once completed they then promptly file and ignore until the next crisis. Cantata was, and is, my response to that situation.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a number of projects, the one most occupying my thoughts at present is a play titled You Be The Dog which explores the growing power, duration and prevalence of forest fires and the threat those fires pose, supercharged as they are by climate change.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
One of my favourite Canadian plays is The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears. The characters are so well drawn, the relationships so rich, the story moves so swiftly and employs such a glorious theatricality, I find it’s a play that one can reread again and again and still learn from it. Another play, I appreciate is Brothel #9 by Anusree Roy. Each time I return to it, I am completely captured by the complexity of the relationships and the enormously high stakes associated with the protagonist’s quest.
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.