*Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Debbie Patterson, a Winnipeg playwright, director and actor. Trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, she is a founding member of Shakespeare in the Ruins (SIR), served as Theatre Ambassador for Winnipeg’s Cultural Capital year, and as Artistic Director of the Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba. She served as Artistic Associate at Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) from 2012 to 2018 and is currently a member of the PTE Playwrights Unit.
Playwriting credits include How it Ends, Sargent & Victor & Me, (both for Sick + Twisted Theatre) the musicals Head (SIR), Molotov Circus (SummerWorks) and numerous TYA shows for PTE. She was honoured with the United Nations Platform for Action Committee’s 2014 Activist Award and the Winnipeg Arts Council Making a Mark Award in 2017. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the Gina Wilkinson Prize. She is a proud advocate for disability justice through her work as founding Artistic Director of Sick + Twisted Theatre.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got your start writing plays.
I began working in theatre as an actor, and although I was frequently writing my own material, I never considered myself a playwright. In my early 20s I ran a puppet Company and wrote my own shows. When I moved to Winnipeg I began writing and producing shows for the Fringe Festival. In my early 30s I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and when it began to affect my walking, I realized I wanted to be able to practice theatre while remaining comfortably seated. Playwriting was the obvious pivot.
What have you been working on lately?
I wrote a play for a Winnipeg company called the Black Hole Theatre, which is part of the University of Manitoba’s Theatre program. I was commissioned to write this play pre-pandemic and had workshopped preliminary ideas with some of the students. When the pandemic happened, I put the play on the back burner, thinking nothing would be produced until the pandemic had ended. But when I looked again at my notes, in our conversations about metaphorical representations of the worlds the students felt they were living in, the things they were talking about were very much of the moment: feeling like they were living their lives online, feeling isolated in little boxes, looking at the world through windows. These were all ideas expressed pre-pandemic, but they described a Zoom call. I decided to write a play about a cultural studies class exploring pandemic related literature in an online class during the pandemic. The play, Zoom Lens, was produced at the Black Hole and performed online from March 24–27, 2021.
I’m also working with Volcano Theatre on gamified song cycle called “The Agreements”. This will be a series of songs based on nine agreements, or a code for living, written by me, with music composed by Reza Jacobs, directed and dramaturged by Ross Manson and presented using gaming technology.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with Disability Arts, and what you would like people to know?
A few years ago Sarah Stanley at the National Arts Centre organized a series of gatherings of disabled theatre artists which were instrumental in my understanding of disability art. I’ve started a disability theatre company, Sick + Twisted Theatre, which produces theatre through a disability lens.
We use the lived experience of disability to explore aspects of the human condition we only have access to by virtue of that lived experience. It’s not about overcoming our disabilities or modifying our practice to accommodate our disabilities. It’s about doing a deep dive into the truth of the experience to see what’s there to discover. I know my own artistic practice has been revolutionized by my lived experience of disability. It’s given me a new perspective on mortality, on vulnerability, on suffering, on interdependence, on time, on sexuality…
In many ways I think theatre is a very able-ist art form, demanding a kind of superhuman fortitude of the people creating it. But none of us actually have superhuman fortitude, and pretending we do means we’re denying the truth of our human condition. So how can we honestly explore something we’re denying?
So my work in disability arts is really about changing the way we make theatre. I love creating opportunities for disabled and able-bodied theatre artists to work together. It creates room for a sort of generous vulnerability and interdependence that allows all the artists to bring their full selves to the work.
What are the challenges you face as a playwright?
My biggest challenge is people’s attitudes towards disability. Now that I’m a wheelchair user, I find I’m not taken seriously by new collaborators in new situations. People assume I’m there to tick a box. It’s super offensive.
When I talk about disability art, people assume I’m talking about recreational or therapeutic activities for disabled people. As if the ability to explore complex ideas through a sophisticated aesthetic is dependent on being able to walk.
Most representations of disability in our culture are created for people without disabilities by people without disabilities and generally fall into two categories: the cautionary tale or inspiration porn, casting the disabled person as a tragedy or a hero respectively. These representations bear little resemblance to the truth of the lived experience which is why it is so essential to involve more people with disabilities in our storytelling media.
Also, along with my legs my left hand has begun operating on its own terms, so I’m no longer able to type with two hands. It’s changed the way I get my ideas down on paper: I’m either writing cursive or using dictation software.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of theatre?
I spend as much time as possible living in a cottage on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. I’ve become obsessed with birds.
What is your favourite Canadian play?
This is an impossible question!
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.