Featured Member — Katherine Turnbull

Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Katherine Turnbull, an actor, creator, translator, and writer.

Katherine Turnbull (ACTRA, UDA) graduated from the University of Windsor with a BFA [Honours] in Acting and a minor in French Studies. Since moving to Montréal in 2011, she has had the great fortune of working in both French and English, in theatre and film. Selected acting credits include As You Like It (Theatre Zed), Trojan Barbie (Chocolate Moose Theatre Company), The Penelopiad (Imago Theatre), and Harry The King (Repercussion Theatre).

To date, Katherine has written a one-woman-show Field & Flight (which toured in Canada) and co-written Empty Rooms (BullPen Productions). She is presently developing four scripts (two for theatre, two for film). In 2020, she completed the Traductions croisées emerging translators’ mentorship (CEAD, PWM), introducing her to Rachel Graton’s La nuit du 4 au 5, and leading her to translate the play in full for Talisman Theatre. She has translated works for Jeunesses Musicales Canada and Cité Mémoire, among others.

Tell us how you got your start writing plays, and how you got your start translating others’ plays.

I started writing plays thanks to a few experiences at the University of Windsor, namely Character Study (a required course for the fourth year BFA Acting students) and the SITI Company’s Suzuki, Viewpoints, and Composition intensive workshops. Once I graduated and ventured forth into the world in an attempt to be “a full-time actor,” the ability to write and choreograph works independently kept me going when I wasn’t getting auditions. It offers a certain amount of power and control to actors when they would otherwise be sitting on their hands waiting for someone to hire them. Then I figured out that it — writing, composing, creating — was something I really enjoyed.

Translating came later and translating plays even later still. I started translating copy for a boutique I worked for (my joe job in those early days) in Montreal. Next came translating articles, press releases, contracts. At this point I was going to see more and more Francophone Quebecois theatre in Montreal and, finally, saw the piece that made me dream of being a translator of theatre: Invisibles by Guillaume Lapierre-Desnoyers. (I haven’t translated this gorgeous piece, but Maureen Labonté has and it’s brilliant.) My immediate reaction to this show was: this story should be made accessible in all languages because everyone should see this show. So, I reached out to Alexis Diamond (who is a friend and has since become my mentor in translation) to ask just how I might get started in theatre translation. I didn’t actually get into theatre translation until a few years later, however; thankfully, Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal (PWM) and Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD) have a joint mentorship program for emerging translators, which I completed in February 2020. That’s really what gave me my start.

Where do you find inspiration when creating your own works?

Mythology and my family history. I’ve pulled from Shakespeare, Greek Mythology, the Grimm’s fairy tales, and nursery rhymes (all of which I devoured from a relatively young age) as well as from personal experiences.

I’m fascinated by our understanding (or lack thereof, given the circumstances) of mental health, age, and experience. I created a one-woman-show that was based largely on my great aunt Doreen who was brilliant and funny and sardonic as anything, but who was mentally unstable for most of her life. I wanted to play with our assumptions of people — how quickly we write them off if they’re “too old” or “too crazy.”

How do you connect with playwrights in order to translate their work, and what is that relationship like?

We talk. Mostly, I ask questions and listen when they answer me. I prefer doing this in person, but of course with COVID more and more happened over the phone or via email. With Rachel Graton, it was easy and smooth. There was a connection right away and we were both so enthusiastic about the work that made it effortless.

I’m an interpreter of the original work, so I try to take in as much about the playwright themselves, their thought processes, their opinions, and get a sense of where their head was at when they wrote it. I imagine it will be different with every playwright. I adjust my approach based on the project, the playwright, and how we’re discussing the work. I think my acting training has really given me a leg up in this case because I was taught to ask questions, be open, to receive, and always say “yes, and.”

What is your process like when writing your own plays, and how does it differ from that of translating the work of others?

In both cases, I tend to “percolate.” I set mini deadlines for myself, doing bouts of concentrated work with long stretches in between to mull it over in my head. This way, it kind of runs in the background, like computer program. I also use the trick of writing for a certain amount of time every day, even if it’s only for five minutes, to keep the creative juices flowing. Lastly, I’ll keep a notebook on me at all times so I can jot down notes/thoughts/scenes as they come to me.

Translating Night from the 4th to 5th (La nuit du 4 au 5), I had Alexis Diamond’s mentorship as translation dramaturg, so I benefitted from her notes and questions. There were times when I was glad to have someone I could bounce ideas off of, which isn’t something I’ve done very much with my own work. (I realize now I should.)

The thing about translation is the text isn’t mine. I read the text over and over, over and over. Every time I make a pass through it, I learn something new (or come up with a new question to ask of the author). In a lot of ways, I find it easier to translate because I’m doing it for someone else. That’s a great motivator. Also, there’s this sense of duty: I have to honour the play. My job is essential in making it accessible for those who don’t understand French, serving the story as best I can despite the language change.

What are some of the differences that you notice between Francophone and Anglophone plays?

A lot of the contemporary Francophone Quebecois plays I see are quite poetical and experimental in a way I haven’t seen much in English theatre in Montreal. They’re playing with form and structure, language and subject matter, blending incredible artistry with everyday experiences. They seem to sidestep the formulaic “well-made play” that I still see a lot of in English.

I think the inherent poetry is what sticks out the most though. You have these characters speaking in Quebecois slang, franglish, and joual (the way people do here) and it’s both unremarkably quotidian and disarmingly beautiful. The music that comes out of these Francophone texts is stunning. (Also somewhat frustrating, as a translator, because you know you can’t recreate it in the same way given the huge differences in sentence structure, vocabulary, and sonority of the two languages.)

In May (May 12–29, 2022), Talisman Theatre will be producing a play you translated, Night from the 4th to 5th. Can you tell us about the creation of that piece, and the process of bringing it to the stage?

I was first introduced to this piece in the the Traductions croisées mentorship program (PWM & CEAD), when I got to translate the first scene “Rumour Has It.” It’s an absolutely gorgeous script. Beautiful and awful, smart and sincere. It is haunting and delightful. (I’m a huge fan, obviously.) Being given the opportunity to work on the whole play for a digital production was a dream come true.

Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of the work came from reading the play over and over again, delving deeper each time. There were a lot of emails, phone calls, and meetings with Rachel (to ask her all my questions) and Alexis (to refine and edit and brainstorm).

Lyne Paquette (Artistic Director of Talisman Theatre) arranged three separate workshops with actors in the winter of 2021 so we could hear the translation read aloud by a group of professional actors. It was instrumental in making those last few tweaks: hearing it performed aloud and getting questions from everyone in the room about this choice or that choice, this wording and that phrasing. Having their fresh take on it was wonderfully helpful. And it was so much fun.

What’s different for me about this production is that, unlike my own creations, I haven’t really been a part of it. I was available for questions during the rehearsal period, but due to COVID restrictions I couldn’t be in the room. There’s this “let it go” moment where it isn’t mine anymore, which, frankly, is both thrilling and a little frightening. But I have the benefit of knowing the people involved in this production, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and I trust them all. I’m really excited to see the final cut of this digital experience on the 12th.

Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?

I’m a huge fan of anything Michel Marc Bouchard, not to mention Linda Gaboriau’s translations of his works. The Orphan Muses (Les muses orphelines) and Down Dangerous Passes Road (Le chemin des Passes-dangereuses) in particular will always hold special places in my heart. Black Boys by Saga Collectif (Virgilia Griffith, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah M’Carthy, Thomas Antony Olajide, and Jonathan Seinen) is spectacular. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie MacDonald is super fun.

Night from the 4th to 5th will be streaming online from Talisman Theatre, May 12–29, 2022. Get tickets here: https://talisman-theatre.com/

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.

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Established in 1972, PGC is a registered national arts service association committed to advancing the creative rights and interests of Canadian playwrights.

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Playwrights Guild of Canada

Playwrights Guild of Canada

Established in 1972, PGC is a registered national arts service association committed to advancing the creative rights and interests of Canadian playwrights.

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