**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Mishka Lavigne, a playwright, screenwriter and literary translator based in Ottawa/Gatineau. Her plays have been produced and developed in Canada, Switzerland, France, Germany, Australia, Haiti and the United States. Her play Havre was recently awarded the Governor General’s Literary Prize for Drama (French). Her most recent play Copeaux, a movement-based poetic creation piece with director Éric Perron premiered in Ottawa in March 2020. The play won the Prix littéraire Jacques-Poirier in February 2021 and the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Prize for Drama. Albumen, her first play in English received the Prix Rideau Award for Outstanding New Creation in 2019 and the QWF Playwriting Award in 2020.
Mishka is currently working on a bilingual opera libretto with Montreal composer Tim Brady and on two new creations in French, as well as on some translation and screenwriting projects. Mishka is a National New Play Network (USA) alumni playwright as well as a member of the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada and the Centre des auteurs dramatiques.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
I started doing theatre in high school, then at cégep. I then went to the University of Ottawa’s Theatre Department, where I studied acting. I also hold a Masters in Creative Writing from Ottawa U. During that time, I wrote two plays. That kind of sealed the deal for me. I was having a lot more fun writing than I was acting, and things slowly, and organically shifted. (My parents might like to point out the “plays” I wrote, directed and forced all my cousins to perform in when I was a child. These were mostly fairytale mashups where everybody died TRAGICALLY.) When I was doing my master’s degree, I also completed a Yoga Alliance certified Yoga Teacher Training. I was very much stuck in my head, and I needed something to be more connected to my body. Doing both at the same time was a little challenging for sure, but it ended up being a great choice, and made the pressures of a graduate degree a bit more bearable. Yoga is still a big part of my life, even if I stopped teaching when the pandemic started.
As a writer, I gravitate towards female characters and what I would call “theatre of the intimate / théâtre de l’intime”. There was a point in the 1990s, and maybe early 2000s, in French Canada, where this expression was used to undermine female playwrights (and LGBTQIA2+ writers to a certain extent), but I strongly believe this expression is being reclaimed. We can explore larger human issues through the spectrum of intimate and personal issues. Theatre speaks of humans, to humans, and this is something I always go back to in my writing.
Another important aspect of my practice in French has been working with dramaturg Antoine Côté-Legault. Our collaboration started almost 10 years ago now, on my play Murs. I needed someone to talk to, to help untangle issues, to push me further. Antoine then worked on Havre, Copeaux, and my newest play Calcaire. He also collaborated with me on an opera libretto I worked on in 2020, and that is being workshopped with music in three weeks. Our working relationship continues to evolve, and grow, and I’m so grateful for his work. In English, I’ve worked with Emily Pearlman as a dramaturg and with Brian Quirt and Jenna Rodgers at the Playwrights’ Lab in Banff, but I haven’t really found the type of relationship I have with Antoine yet. One day I might.
You are now a two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner! In 2019 you were awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for French Language Drama for your play Havre, and in 2021 you received the same award for your play Copeaux. Congratulations! Can you tell us about the development of these works, and what winning a Governor General’s Literary Award means to you?
I feel very grateful and happy that two different jurys of my peers chose to recognize my work in this way. Havre and Copeaux are two very different projects. Havre came about as a more “classic” creation process where I wrote a few drafts of the play, the first one having been written at the Banff Centre, then I developed the play further with a company in Ottawa. The show was then produced by a different company, La Troupe du Jour, in Saskatoon.
Copeaux was quite different. Director Éric Perron and I worked with actors to develop physical improvisation work using inspiration from the work of visual artist Stefan Thompson. The improv, and the work of Stefan Thomspon, were the basis for the text, which I started writing in 2016. We then included designers, in 2016 and 2017. Having designers this early in the process was new to us, and was incredible. That means we created the production in collaboration with actors, designers and artisans over five years, 2015 to 2020. The text itself is only an aspect of a larger creation project. This is why I wasn’t sure I would publish the play at first. It was very hard for me to see the text as separate from the production. My editor read the play, but didn’t see the show, and she was convinced it would be able to stand alone. I’m glad she convinced me, especially because Copeaux’s life on stage was cut short by the pandemic. We were on stage when theatres closed in Ottawa on March 13th, 2020, and it was heartbreaking. I’m hoping the GG Award can lead to a remount of the show.
Can you tell us about your work as a translator of plays? What are some of the challenges and rewards of translating?
Translation is a big part of my theatre and artistic practice. I’ve worked on more than a dozen theatre translations and I’ve also translated poetry, literary non-fiction and children’s literature. Next year, I’ll be working on a first novel translation, which is very exciting. Translating for theatre is what I love the most, because it’s intrinsically related to performance. Theatre in translation, in Canada, is most often a commission from a theatre who wants to produce the play, which means that we can start talking about the performance aspects of language, rhythm, acting, etc., from the get-go. I love to workshop translations with actors, see how they feel, get their input.
What are the major differences you notice when writing for Anglophone and Francophone audiences?
I try not to think of it as different. The issues I like to touch on, my themes, my style are coherent and consistent in my French and English plays. Sometimes, the idea comes to me in French, sometimes in English and I can’t really explain why. As for audiences, I think Francophone audiences are more used to seeing non-linear plays than Anglophone audiences, but that is quickly changing.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a new play in French called Calcaire. For the moment, it’s a monster that may be more than 3 hours in length, but we’ll see where it goes. I’m also working on a multidisciplinary adaptation for the stage of the novel Faune by Christiane Vadnais with sequential artist Christian Quesnel and director Éric Jean. We’re trying to see how we can unite our two practices: theatre and sequential arts (comic books). I’m also working on a few theatre and prose translations and some audio and podcast projects. My work is also finishing on an opera libretto with Montreal composer Tim Brady. The music is almost ready and the opera is heading into workshops in December. I can’t wait to hear it, I have absolutely no idea what to expect.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
So many, haha….. One of more works of playwrights Réjean Ducharme, Carole Fréchette, Daniel Danis, Karen Hines, David Paquet, Catherine Léger, Reneltta Arluk and Judith Thompson have had an impact on me, at different moments in my life.
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.