**Each month we interview two member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspirations with the community. This time around the spotlight is on Jennifer Overton. She is an invaluable member of Canada’s Theatre community. Overton is an accomplished multi-disciplinary writer, actor, educator, and playwright, based in Halifax, ON. She has been a part of numerous productions including her own works Spelling 2–5–5 and God’s Middle Name. She holds an M.F.A. in Theatre Performance from York University, and spent ten years on faculty in the Theatre Department Acting Program at Dalhousie University.
One of Overton’s constant endeavors has been accessible theatre for neurodiverse audiences and has received the Autism Nova Scotia’s 2007 Sobey’s Green Jacket Award recognition of her commitment to the Autism community.
Given that you have experience in both, how does the Halifax theatre community differ from Toronto’s, in your opinion?
Well, the obvious answer is that it is a smaller theatre community here in Halifax, but it is a mighty one nonetheless. One example is the international success story of 2b Theatre. Our flagship regional theater, Neptune Theatre, has a new artistic director that we are hopeful will breathe new life into the old girl and make a commitment to hiring more local talent. The indie theatre is also very strong and well-supported here, partly due to the welcome trend of young artists moving/returning/staying here in Halifax to make theatre. But geographically we are at a disadvantage in Halifax in that we can’t easily access new and exciting theatre across the country to inspire us and feed our work. Some days I worry that we run the risk of becoming too insular and too easily self-congratulatory. And we could certainly do with more of the diversity that Toronto has.
How did you go about creating your production of Spelling 2–5–5? What prompted it? What do you think is most important to keep in mind when creating accessible theatre?
On the national tour of my memoir play, God’s Middle Name, about life with our autistic son, I met a lot of teachers who wanted to talk to me after the show about autistic students in their classrooms. On more than one occasion, I was told by an excited teacher that s/he was going to apply strategies that s/he saw in the play. Part of me was ecstatic about the fact that the play was so relevant. But the other part of me was thinking, ‘Wait a minute, you’re a teacher, you should know these simple things already.’ And then I realized that if teachers were struggling to understand Autism Spectrum Disorder, the students were probably at a complete loss. And so Spelling 2–5–5, about twelve year old Simon, his autistic brother Jake, and an audition for a reality tv spelling show was created. The play has had great response and I’m proud to have had a role in raising awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder and creating opportunities for ASD actors. And now I’m excited that those on the spectrum are creating their own work and giving voice to their unique perspective.
If you could go back and redo the first play you’ve ever written, what would you do differently?
I would write better. And I would remove all the stage directions in the published version.
You have several play success stories. Which play did you learn the most from?
Although I learned a lot from writing My Titanic, about my experiences working on the set of the blockbuster film, (mostly why the play sank on opening night), I learned the most from writing my TYA play, Spelling 2–5–5. Pablo Felices-Luna and Carousel Players developed the piece and I learned so much from Pablo: how to write with school touring in mind, how to not limit myself and trust designers to come up with solutions to logistical challenges, but most importantly (and without him knowing it), how to write for the adult in kids and the kid in myself. I have just signed the contract for Spelling 2–5–5 to do a year-long school tour and a three week in house run at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in North Carolina. This is the third time they have toured this show.
How has being both an actor and playwright affected your theatre practices, i.e. do you carry yourself differently in each role? Has one improved your skills in another? Has your perspective of theatre changed?
Actors are interpreters of the worlds that playwrights create. In GMN I was both playwright and actor and I think each suffered. I didn’t have distance in either category. As a playwright I needed more dramaturgical support, and as an actor I spent most of my time trying to learn my lines. True, as an actor for this piece I didn’t need to spend a lot of time exploring character and objectives, but I had a heck of a time learning those lines: the lines that I wrote! I will say that when I am an actor now, I work harder to explore the playwright’s intention try to take in the big picture more than I used to, and as a playwright I know to trust the actor’s instinct in development of a piece. Having said all that I have to admit, in a recent Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre workshop of my new play, my inside voice was screaming at an actor, ‘Oh for God’s sake, just say the words — it’s all there!’ Yeah.
How has your writing for the theatre influenced your literary writing? Vice versa? Was the process of integrating various forms of writing a challenging one?
Actually my literary writing came first. I wrote a series of personal articles for CBC radio which I recorded here in Halifax and which were broadcast nationally. Those led to a book, Snapshots of Autism: a family album (pub. Jessica Kingsley, UK). A friend, the AD at Eastern Front Theatre at the time, insisted I use the book as a basis for a play. I was an actor and a professor in the Dalhousie University Theatre Department’s Acting Program, I was not a playwright. But he gave me a commission and a deadline and I wrote God’s Middle Name, which went on to Magnetic North and a national tour. Adapting the book for the stage was liberating in fact. I mean, I knew the subject matter, knew my characters’ relationships, arcs and voices; the book was dialogue driven, and both the book and the play are non-linear in structure. Yes, there were the practical constraints of putting a story onto a physical stage, but I could also brush the story with theatrical conventions, imaginings and metaphors that the book didn’t offer. Denyse Karn was the designer for the piece and we worked together from the beginning. The book has numerous characters and the play was to be a two-hander, so it was a fun exercise to write the doubling.
Do you have any projects in the works you can tell us about or hint about?
I am working on the final draft of my newest play, Minor Bird. Imagine Our Country’s Good meets Top Girls meets Alice in Wonderland. It was inspired when I heard about the documentary, The Queen’s Hidden Cousins, about Queen Elizabeth’s two cousins, Narissa and Katherine, who were taken out of royal orbit due to their intellectual disability. They were housed in Sandringham, never visited by family, never sent gifts, even cards. They were listed as having died in the peerage charts, and when they did die, their graves were indicated with plastic markers. I researched other examples throughout history, including a famous American playwright who disowned his Down Syndrome son at birth. I wanted to bring these historical characters into the present and out of the shadows. I am not telling their stories per se in this play, i.e. I am not writing from their perspectives — that is for others to do — but they interact with Fern, the protagonist, and are reminders to us all in our views of those around us who are diversely abled. Oh, and Mother Theresa, Bertolt Brecht, Carl Jung and Dorothy Parker pop up from time to time. And there’s karaoke. It is a play that is large in scope (fourteen characters, seven of whom are to be play by specialized actors, plus a musician and ASL interpreter) but it is also a great opportunity for theatres to reach out to diverse communities.
I am now embarking on a literary piece: a Juvenile Mystery series titled Dick & Tracy.
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.