Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Catherine Banks, the 2023 recipient of the Bra D’Or Award. Plays by Catherine Banks include Miss N’ Me; It Is Solved By Walking; Bone Cage; Three Storey, Ocean View; Bitter Rose, In This Light, and Downed Hearts. Bone Cage premiered in 2007, and went on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama in 2008. It Is Solved By Walking won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2012, was translated into Catalan by Tant per Tant, and was presented in Catalonia in 2012. Downed Hearts, inspired by the Swissair disaster, premiered at Ship’s Company as a co-pro with Eastern Front Theatre and Matchstick theatre this summer (2023) to sold out houses. Catherine is a former faculty member of Sage Hill Writing Retreat and gave the 2022 Robert Kroetsch Keynote. She has adapted Ernest Buckler’s novel The Mountain and the Valley, which will premiere in 2024, a Two Planks and a Passion/HomeFirst production. Catherine has an Honorary Doctorate from Mount Saint Vincent and she currently teaches playwriting at Dalhousie University. She is a Board member of Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I started writing poetry at a young age. In 1982 I was teaching school in Halifax, never managing to find time to do creative writing, when I saw an ad in the paper for a course in playwriting. I had acted a bit and I thought it would be fun to try to write a play. I have shared this many times but the first time I wrote a scene I felt that I had found my creative “home’. I fell in love with telling stories through dialogue.
Where do you find your ideas, and can you share your process of taking an idea and crafting it into a play?
I take a very long time to write a play. Most of my characters come to me through a bit of overheard dialogue in a public space like a swimming hole (Bone Cage) or a grocery store (Bitter Rose). Something in the way the lines are said sparks something in me although it usually takes a year or so before I start writing. I never know the ending of the play when I start I just follow the voices in my head.
I write a first draft from beginning to end without rewriting. I am always totally in love with that draft. Then 2 days later I read it and think, This is so bad. Then I get to work and rewrite, meet with a dramaturg and rewrite some more. It takes years, 3, 5 ,7; my latest play Downed Hearts was about 16 years from first draft to production and my adaptation of The Mountain and the Valley was started in 2011 and will premiere in 2024. Of course I wrote lots of other things in between these plays but the characters were always very alive to me whenever I thought about them, which eventually drew me in to finish the scripts.
I love it when someone refers to my work as poetic. I love reworking lines so that they are spare like a line of poetry. I love when a line can both express a character’s authentic voice, while also poetically concise — that is a really thrilling knife edge to balance on when writing dialogue.
Your play Bone Cage was made into a feature film in 2020. How involved were you in that process, and what was it like to see your work made into a film?
Yes that is right. Taylor Olson directed and starred in the film. He was ultimately the writer as well as I dropped out of the process about halfway through. Taylor had been in a staged production of Bone Cage directed by Jacob Planinc and I felt that he knew the character of Jamie as I wrote him. I am very proud that Taylor was able to do this feature film on a very limited budget and portray his vision consistently. However, I do feel that his Jamie was without hope, whereas I believe that Jamie has hope in the play. The humour was lost in the film as well. So seeing the play on film was both wonderful and difficult.
You were the recipient of the 2023 Bra D’or Award at the Tom Hendry Awards, which recognizes an individual or individuals for their efforts in supporting and promoting the work of Canadian women playwrights. Congratulations! Can you tell us what receiving this award means to you?
It is a great honour to be nominated and then to win was amazing. As I said in my speech, my early years were very lonely as a playwright because I had no connection to theatre communities. I just wrote my plays never believing they would be produced even. I simply try to be to emerging playwrights, a support person and champion of their work, that I didn’t have in my early years. I never expected to receive the Bra d’Or. I am very touched.
As an artist and an arts educator, is there any advice that you would offer to an emerging playwright?
Don’t put off writing because you don’t have 4 hours . Thirty minutes a day will give you a play in 12 months or less. Find a first draft reader who will ask 1 or 3 questions, that’s all you need to propel into the second draft. And when you start sending things out don’t take rejection personally. I was so guilty of this in the first half of my career. What I mean is often our work is so closely tied to our heart that when an AD doesn’t write back or says no to the play it can affect your self-esteem. This can damage your ability to go back to the play or start another, so try not to let it do that. Theatres have a lot of constraints in programming it doesn’t mean your play isn’t good if they don’t pick it up. Network. Take more-senior artists out for coffee and ask their advice. Read plays.
What are you working on next?
The Mountain and the Valley, my adaptation of Ernest Buckler’s novel, premieres at Two Planks and a Passion a co-pro with Mary Vingoe’s HomeFirst in July 2024. I will be gearing up for a workshop (funding pending) on chorus work in the play. I don’t feel like I have another play in me just now but I hope I do. I am also working on a children’s picture book.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
I loved the scope of Hannah [Moscovitch]’s Fall on Your Knees. I recently read Hiro [Kanagawa]’s Forgiveness, beautiful play! I admire Donna-Michelle [St. Bernard] plays and what she brings to theatre. Colleen Murphy is always an inspiration. Down here, Shauntay Grant and Jacob Sampson are involved in very interesting projects that I look forward to seeing in the coming year or so. Because Michel Tremblay’s Les Belle-soeurs changed my life, it will always be the Canadian play that holds a very special place in my writing heart.
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.