Featured Member — Gabe Maharjan
*Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Gabe Maharjan, a multi-disciplinary performance creator born and raised in Tio’tià:ke/Montréal.
They were shortlisted for the 2020 PGC Emerging Playwright Award for their script, Eva in Rio, and they recently published their short play, Our Tree, in Boca del Lupo’s P2P@H Series in collaboration with Centaur Theatre.
Gabe co-founded bigT to create work focused on trans/GNC narratives, and chairs QDF’s advocacy committee as well as serving as a member of the board. They have upcoming projects with a diverse array of arts organizations including the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal’s PRISM Lab, TPM’s BUZZ Series, and Geordie Theatre with an adaptation of a popular Canadian children’s book.
Gabe trained as a performer at the Dome and has honed their craft through programs like the Black Theatre Workshop’s AMP, the Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal Translation Mentorship, and most recently, the Buddies in Bad Times Emerging Creators Unit where they co-created E-TRANSFERS. Their voice can be heard on Netflix and Ubisoft projects; select stage performance credits include Theaturtle’s touring solo-performance Alphonse in the Park, Sermo Scomber’s award-winning bouffon clown show Don’t Read the Comments, and Cabal’s site-specific immersive piece La Somnambule (META nominated — Lead Performance).
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
I was raised with storytelling being a big part of my childhood. My mother used her adventurous travel stories to both teach and entertain me and my brother. Later, as a teen, I started editing her jokes as she forayed into the world of standup.
As I was nearing the end of high school, I felt very certain about all the things I did not want to do professionally… so I enrolled in a performance program! While the focus was acting, the faculty programmed a collective creation for the final show of our graduating year. The creation would be based on the autobiography of Canadian magazine editor and feminist icon Doris Anderson. The issue, as it became clear upon our first read as a cast, was that this collective creation — created by another collective at another school — did not suit our diverse class. With six weeks to opening, the director/professor approached me and asked if I thought we could create our own script. “Sure, why not?” I responded naively, and so I was enlisted to start developing the script.
I quickly reread Anderson’s autobiography several times over and gathered a few other prospective writers from the cast. I pitched a three-act narrative that I thought could showcase our collective of 21 while exploring the arcs we found most interesting; her early rise as a journalist, her tenure as the editor of Chatelaine, and where feminism had arrived 10 years after her death. Over the course of four weeks, we pumped out a full-length script, leaving just enough time left to stage it before tech. That’s how I stumbled into the development process of a new work. It wasn’t the smoothest process, but I learnt a lot from it!
After graduating, I found myself terrified — as many acting students do — that there wouldn’t be any work. Being a gender-nonconforming performer of colour, it didn’t seem like there were many parts out there for someone like me, and even fewer of them juicy and nuanced. So I wrote parts. Eventually writing became less about creating performance opportunities and more about weaving stories out of questions that haunt and thrill me. I’ve come to deeply value the power and responsibility that comes with narrative building and have grown excited by the possibilities of the page. My approach to writing will likely always be informed by my perspective as a performer, just as my experience as a writer impacts how I work as an actor; this symbiosis is one exciting aspect of working in multiple disciplines.
What community/organization supports have you found helpful as an emerging playwright?
I’ve been so fortunate to have received support from so many sources. Having grown-up and largely based my career out of Montréal, there’s no doubt that the city has so much to offer young theatre artists — there are so many development opportunities that one would inevitably have “emerged” before getting through all of them. I’ve had the privilege of taking part in local development programs at Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal (the Young Creators Unit, the Translation Mentorship, and the Queer Reading Series in parnership with Centaur), at Black Theatre Workshop (Youthworks as a tween, and more recently the Artist Mentorship Program), at Teesri Duniya (Fireworks), and at IMAGO (Creators Circle).
I’ve also had the pleasure of working with companies in Toronto like Buddies in Bad Times (Emerging Creators Unit in partnership with b current) and the AMY Project. Also, shoutout to former PGC Executive Director Robin Sokoloski for teaching me about contracts and working standards in her Exploring Practice workshop — such important knowledge. I have learnt so much from the many mentors I’ve encountered through these organizations!
As a playwright and actor how does the PWYC admission format used for your presentations reflect your beliefs on the value of theatre? Also, how does that practice of PWYC affect your role as a producer?
Vitality is very much a goal for me when producing. Not so much in the sense of creating work that is artistically fulfilling — although I do hope to create fulfilling work, and I trust in the process and the people in the room for that — but creating work that is socially enriching. For the work to be vital for audiences, it has to both concern them and be accessible to them.
If something concerns me — in that it relates to me and/or is a matter of importance to me — it will compel me to investigate it. Djanet Sears talked about concern when recounting Lloyd Richards’s story from when he was performing A Raisin in the Sun in Connecticut in the 50s. He had approached a black woman outside the theatre and asked her why she was there. She answered that she had heard there was something going on that “concerned her.” So, she showed up to a theatre that historically catered to white patrons. If we’re ever wondering how we can diversify our audiences, we should consider which audience our work concerns.
Another tactic to draw audiences in is to make it hard to justify not going. $50 for a ticket could be $50 for groceries. By not allowing cost to be a deciding factor, our work can be more than mere leisure. If people are “concerned” and not restricted from showing up, then we will be closer to making vital theatre — there’s just all the rest of the artmaking that has to be considered! On a production level, I hope to one day find myself in a society that funds arts in a way that promotes financial accessibility because the art enriches the culture and revitalizes the citizenry. So I present my projects without any minimum admission. I know that people who can pay and want to pay will still pay.
When I presented Eva in Rio at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) in 2019, I decided to have a PWYC box-office with a quarter of the proceeds going towards a local Indigenous organization. Box-office revenue far exceeded what I had expected in the budget, and we averaged about $8 per head. Some people paid far more, some far less, and I’m grateful that each audience member was able to attend and that we were able to make a collective contribution to a vital community organization.
More recently, Merlin Simard and I presented E-TRANSFERS online with Buddies during Pride 2020. We livestreamed the show for free and asked the audience to send donations to two Trans-led grassroots organizations in lieu of a cost for admission. We got the theatre on board and they allocated some extra funding to match the donations from our audience. Together, with our producers and our audience, we raised over $2500 from one performance. Merlin and I still got paid — we applied for funding with the selling point that we were creating work that engaged with the needs of our communities.
All this to say, prohibitive ticket prices greatly limit access and are ultimately arbitrarily appraised. As a producer, I have no doubt that prioritizing social engagement yields richer artistic discourse. I believe that if we embrace and demonstrate these vital values, we can better advocate for an arts funding model that doesn’t revolve around unreliable streams of revenue. In my experience with the PWYC model, wealth redistribution is a great way to incentivize both patrons and funders to open their wallets.
Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?
From all sorts of places! First and foremost, my approach to writing is influenced by my approach to performance and stagecraft. I don’t necessarily direct my plays while writing them, but I try to write with a specific spatial environment in mind.
I’m often inspired by dreams, travel, and memories, although I find myself drifting towards research-based creation more and more. I’m especially drawn to histories shrouded by colonialism. “Well that’s just how the world works,” or, “these newfangled ideas,” are phrases that I think we often use to justify the limitations of our society, but by delving into obscured histories that contradict our norms, I’m constantly reminded that humans are the makers of society and that we all play a part in shaping the ubiquity of our social world. I love learning about ways of being that challenge our own limitations of how we should be.
Another major source of inspiration for my work is the process of adaptation. Having created adaptations and translations of works, I find there is something especially satisfying when reaching a breakthrough while in dialogue with a source text. For example, when I participated in the Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal Translation Mentorship, I translated an excerpt of a text that addressed the audience in French while also depicting characters communicating in English and German. Translating it into English became a whole exploration into what it meant to adapt the piece for an anglophone audience.
It wasn’t enough to just translate all of the text into another language — the context, two characters who don’t speak each other’s mother-tongues but both speak English as a second language and thus communicate with that, would be lost; travelling between Montreal and Berlin wouldn’t make as much sense. Language was inherent to the characters, and so dramaturgy of language and considerations like the accents of these ESL speakers became the basis of the translation. It was gratifying to discover how each character communicated with the audience and with each other.
I’m currently creating a piece that responds to a Modern classic novel by Herman Hesse called Siddhartha. I was originally envisioning my piece as an adaptation of the book, but I became so focused on a supporting character — the love interest who is narratively shafted — that the play has become something beyond an adaptation for a different medium. I am adapting the perspective of the piece while also adapting the form. This all started from a seed of inspiration when I read the novel for the first time four years ago, and then was re-inspired when I went to my father’s native Nepal where the story is set, and re-re-inspired again by the research I’ve done on the era and culture! (And continue to be inspired again and again…)
What are you working on next?
As a playwright, I have a couple of projects that I’m really excited to share this year. I was commissioned by Rose Plotek at Centaur to write a short play as part of the Quebec edition of Boca del Lupo’s Plays2Perform@Home Series, which was recently released! Each regional edition (there are five across the country) contains four plays to be read aloud by your bubble at home or in the park — my play, Our Tree, is in great company alongside new works by Marie Barlizo, Michaela Di Cesare, and Adjani Poirier. (The collection can be purchased here, and more info can be found in this article.) I’ve also been developing a new theatrical adaptation of a beautiful children’s book by Canadian writer Kai Cheng Thom, commissioned by Geordie Theatre. It will be premiering live on stage in Montréal in the spring! Writing has been a solace for me in the face of endless days and countless hours spent inside.
I’ve also been very fortunate to have opportunities to perform for live audiences. I just came off a tour of Wajdi Mouawad’s solo-show, Alphonse (translated by Shelley Tepperman), produced by Theaturtle, which we performed in parks across southern Ontario. This coming holiday season, I’ll be performing in the world premiere of Rebecca Northan’s All I Want for Christmas at the Centaur! I also got the chance to play a really sweet role in Mattias Graham’s upcoming short film Bleach. On the production side, I’m co-directing Rhiannon Collett’s WASP as a narrative podcast (which will be coming out in 2022), and I’m developing a few experimental projects through bigT, a collective I co-run with Merlin Simard. The challenge I’m most looking forward to is approaching modes of creation that are unfamiliar to me and integrating them into my established studio practice.
What is your favourite Canadian play?
This is nearly impossible to answer! Other than being bound by an arbitrary border, “Canadian” doesn’t really define a style of theatre for me… but it’s still an interesting question to ponder.
I saw an Espace Go show at le Festival TransAmérique a few years back called La fureur de ce que je pense, adapted from the words of late novelist Nelly Arcan by Marie Brassard and Sophie Cadieux and performed by seven cross-disciplinary performers — that one blew me away and introduced me to Arcan’s enigmatic body of work!
In terms of Canadian playwrights that I look up to, Djanet Sears is someone I really admire. The way her texts unapologetically cut deep and her ability to cross disciplines while simultaneously taking her time to mindfully craft her work influences how I strive to steer my career.
It’s hard to settle on a single play; I often find myself most excited by what I have yet to see.
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.