Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Michaela Jeffery, a Canadian playwright living and working in Mohkinstsis (Calgary, AB). She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada. Select works include: The Extractionist (Vertigo Theatre), WROL: Without Rule of Law (Persephone Theatre), The Listening Room (Cardiac Theatre), and Wolf on the Ringstrasse (Spiritfire Theatre).
Michaela’s work has been recognized through a series of awards including the international ATHE Jane Chambers Excellence in Feminist Playwriting Award (Finalist), SATA Outstanding Original Script Award (Nominated), The Alberta Playwriting Competition (Finalist), The Sure Fire List, The Playwright’s Guild of Canada RBC Emerging Playwright Award (Finalist), the national Enbridge Playwrights Award (Emerging Category) and others.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I grew up in a family of storytellers, so, in many ways, it feels as though telling stories was just part of coexistence — a way to understand one another and connect to the world.
Throughout elementary and junior high I loved dance (I took ballet for nine years). I drew. I painted. I built whole massively immersive Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy worlds for friends at sleepovers. I read obsessively. I watched lots of theatre and was also a performer in plays. I don’t think I really began writing (deliberately, for anyone else’s consumption) until High School. I took a weekly student playwriting class with playwright Eugene Stickland. It felt like a lot of the other things I loved could come together in writing plays — it was an exercise in storytelling that felt fuller than anything else I’d tried. I think, from that point, I was hooked.
The plays you’ve written so far are varied in terms of genre, subject matter, characterization, and more. Where does your writing process begin (with a character, a setting, a plot, etc.) and how does it progress to become a fully realized play?
It truly depends on the piece. Most often I think it begins with a single image (often a non-literal one). For example, my play The Listening Room began with a frosty morning train ride in Montreal: I was affected by the picture painted by the people around me — each of us wearing headphones, immersed in our own private universes of experience. This was the impulse that drove some of the first writing I would do for that play, which ultimately would be a piece having nothing to do with morning commutes, but being deeply rooted in this idea of private worlds, auditory experience, and collective humanity.
In 2019 I finished a piece called Wolf on the Ringstrasse that was a biographical piece about the infamous Austrian composer, Hugo Wolf. The singular image that drove my telling of this story was the physical archive of letters he had written to his closest collaborator — a woman he had called his muse. The archive contains every letter he had sent to her over their decade-long partnership (she’d kept them all) and not a single letter she’d sent to him (he kept none of them). This imbalance struck me, and inspired a piece that was ultimately about how we think about a ‘muse’.
Your play WROL (Without Rule of Law) was published by Playwrights Canada Press in the Spring of 2021. Can you tell us about that experience, and what it has meant to you and your work?
WROL (Without Rule of Law) is a contemporary dark comedy whose protagonists are a group of eighth-grade girls who have been kicked out of the Girl Guides for being too intense. Having this piece published has been an extraordinary experience. It has meant folks from all over the world have accessed this story. I believe that as of next month there will have been more than thirty productions of this piece since it premiered with Persephone Theatre just before the pandemic. I find this really incredible. It is a huge gift and a great pleasure to get to see this play finding a home in so many communities.
Your play The Extractionist is opening at Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, AB in the new year. Can you tell us about your process of bringing this piece from idea, to script, to production?
I pitched the original concept for The Extractionist to Vertigo as part of an open submission call back in 2019. At that point I knew I wanted to create a new piece with a contemporary noir sort of feel. I was interested in telling a story with strong genre-based structural keys, but a fresh and nuanced feel to the experience. I think originally, I pitched a character, really. I had this desire to create a kind of feminist thriller with a deprogrammer at its centre — someone who has made it her life’s work to understand the complexities of what drives cults. Vertigo commissioned me to develop the piece, and I was able to do so with their support through 2020. The result was a very fun, dark, complex ride that I’m very eager to get to share with an audience in February.
What are you working on next?
Up next for me is another new work in the realm of thrillers: a new play called The Cold Daughter. It follows another deprogrammer — one who specializes in tracking down major players in historic cults who have gone into hiding. The basic premise is that she’s tracked down an older woman (given the code name ‘The Cold Daughter’) that used to be at the right hand of a violent cult leader who called himself a prophet in California in the 80’s. Teresa finds this woman living under an assumed identity as the owner of a grungy motel off the interstate in a near ghost-town. What follows is essentially a psychological chess match between two master manipulators.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
Oh, so many! Off the top of my head, some pieces that I think have had a huge influence on me and played a role in shaping the kind of writer that I am include: Bronte: The World Without by Jordi Mand, The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) by Mieko Ouchi, If We Were Birds by Erin Shields, Little Mercy’s First Murder by Morwyn Brebner, Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte, Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Afterimage by Robert Chafe, and Drama: Pilot Episode by Karen Hines.
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.