Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Leanna Brodie, a playwright and performer whose plays include The Vic, For Home and Country, Schoolhouse, and The Book of Esther. Ulla’s Odyssey, Brodie’s Flourish Prize — winning opera with New Zealand composer Anthony Young, toured the UK for two years with OperaUpClose. Brodie is also a leading translator of contemporary Québécois and Franco-Canadian playwrights. Recent premieres have included David Paquet’s Wildfire (Factory Theatre, Toronto: 2022 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play, Director, and Production); Joe Jack et John’s Violette (Espace Libre/PuSh Festival); Mohsen El Gharbi’s Omi Mouna (Impact Festival/Infinithéâtre); Anaïs Pellin’s Clementine (Carousel Theatre/PHT, Vancouver); Fanny Britt’s Benevolence (Ruby Slippers Theatre/Pacific Theatre); and Rébecca Déraspe’s I Am William (Stratford Festival and Théâtre le Clou). Brodie recently served as Assistant Professor (Playwriting) at UBC’s School of Creative Writing. With co-writer Jovanni Sy, she is currently working on Salesman in China, a commission from the Stratford Festival.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I was an actress (still am!) and I got to that magical point in an actress’s career when she’s moving out of ingenue and suddenly realizing that there are no parts. That is changing, thank goodness, but it really was true. There was a famous line from a popular movie at the time, The First Wives Club: “There are only three roles for women: the girlfriend, the assistant DA, and Driving Miss Daisy!” I started realizing there were all these beautiful, brilliant women around me who were not working, and that was crazy. And I thought, well, let me see if I can do something about that. So that was one impetus for my first play, The Vic.
The other impetus for me actually was the Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka trials. I thought what was really fascinating and outrageous was the way that people talked about all the women involved in that case. It just brought up for me every trope, every limitation, and the way that the victims were discussed disgusted me. And so that was a spur as well.
I think that the third thing that really got under my skin was Glengarry Glen Ross. As an actor, I worked with the fabulous Barbara Gordon in a scene study, and we gender-switched Glengarry Glen Ross. R.H. Thomson, who was teaching the class, said, “There are too many women in this class, we won’t do that scene.” And Barbara and I both went, “Well, why?” And he said, “Because it’s such testosterone-drenched male head-butting, gender-switching it wouldn’t work.” And Barbara and I went, “We can head-butt!” So, we started doing the play and we started realizing that aside from the language, there were things about those impulses that we recognized that never got explored from the point of view of women. So, I had the career spur; I had the grain of sand in the oyster, the irritation; and I also had that challenge to say, I want to explore stories of women that haven’t been told. And I wanted to do it with as diverse a group of women as my friends, as Toronto, as are sitting in the audience every night. I want to see them on stage.
You recently spoke about your work as a translator at the Meighen Forum in Stratford, ON at an event called “The Art of Translation”. How did you begin your work in translation, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I got roped into it by Paula Danckert at Playwrights Workshop Montreal, because I told her about how I did a lot of commercial translation to make ends meet. I translated dog food websites, I translated political speeches, but I felt that there was a lot more to my love of the French language and Francophone culture than that. But I was not based in Montreal, so I never met anybody. And she said, let me see what we can do about that. And she got me into a bilingual residency, and then hooked me up with my first playwright, in the context of the Glassco Residency in Translation where I was mentored by the great Linda Gaboriau. That’s how I got started.
What I enjoy most about it is the meeting of minds. You’re not in theatre if you don’t love collaboration, and yet writing is one of the more solitary branches, or can be, of theatre creation. I relish that sense of being in conversation with another artist right from the get-go. As someone who’s an actor, I understand translation to be an act of interpretation, as well as an act of creative writing, it’s on that border. I love the sense of giving my community access to these pearls, to wonderful pieces that will not only entertain them, I hope, but also enlarge their vocabulary and get them to see the world from a different point of view. I get very excited about that kind of work, and as diverse as we have become in our English-language culture, holy cow are we ever still mostly restricted to the stuff that originated within what I recently called the “hegemony of the English language”. And I want to disrupt that.
As a writer, translator, actor, educator, how do you find that each type of work affects the other?
It’s an individual ecosystem. You bring the abilities, the sensibilities, and the connections that you’ve developed in each field to the others. I don’t approach playwriting perhaps the way somebody doing scenic writing would, in that sort of director-writer sort of way. That’s not part of my field. But I do, whether I’m translating or writing, act out all of the parts. When I’m acting, I’m very aware of how that play works, of getting “under the hood” as a writer. I’m not trying to rewrite it, but I have an understanding of the deep structures of the play, I think. As a writer and as a translator, I’m always doing both. I’m always acting all the parts, and analyzing, what is it about this writer’s process that is special. I like to say, I’m never translating Rébecca Déraspe, I’m translating a particular character in a particular scene in a particular moment within the world of Rébecca Déraspe. As a writer, translation has so expanded the scope of my capacity and my sense of what’s possible, because I’ve seen another writer’s writing almost from the inside of their head. And as an actor, I think that I draw on both of those worlds and the insight it gives me into what’s “under the hood” of the play.
Being an educator is very new for me. It’s phenomenal to have contact with the next generation. Again, it expands the range of your aesthetic view, and it challenges you to do better, to think faster, to move forward in your own writing. And it also challenges you to understand and articulate “process” in a way that is useful to other people. Which makes you go back and say, well, if I’m the millipede, how do I move all these legs? I don’t know, I never thought about it! Now, can I think about it and also still move them, and not bring myself to a grinding halt? That’s the challenge sometimes with education. You have to be able to take that analytical brain and turn it on, and then turn it off so that the little mad, chaotic imp in your own brain can frolic around untrammeled by positionality or intention, and just play. So yes, my students kick my ass all the time, in the best possible way.
What keeps you interested and excited about working in theatre?
It’s absolutely the collaborations, and the sense that you are unlocking possibility for someone else, be that your artistic team or your audience. That you are bringing something new and vital. There’s also, for me, the solitary moments of creation where I can confront the most urgent crises, or grapple with the most urgent questions in my own life and also what I think is facing my community. And that keeps changing. Just when we think we’ve licked a challenge, along comes a new one! And I’m lucky to be able to either have my say, or lift up the voices of other people who I think we need to listen to.
Is there any advice you would give to a young person embarking on a career in theatre?
Oh, so much and so little. I think stay open and move towards yourself. Move towards confidence in your own voice, while staying open to your own development. Don’t view things like the “joe job” or the “side hustle” (all the stuff of survival), don’t view that as a defeat. View that as something that has been with us from the beginning. In early times, you might have had to please the emperor or the queen. Now you might have to please a granting body or a corporation and give a certain amount of your day to things that are not your art. That’s part of life. That’s part of the price of doing what we do, and we don’t talk about it because it’s the same for all of us, not because it should be a source of shame.
What are you working on next?
I’m developing a play with my first ever writing partner, who happens to be my husband, Jovanni Sy. It’s called Salesman in China. It’s about asking, how much are we able to understand each other through art? How can we bridge the chasms between us? It’s told through the story of a famous American playwright, Arthur Miller, going to China in 1983 when it was “communist China” to direct Death of a Salesman in Mandarin with a company that spoke no English. It really happened! At the core it’s about his relationship with his translator, his Willy Loman, his muse Ying Ruocheng. We really wanted to put that relationship at the centre.
I have a translation of a Governor General’s Award winning play, Fanny Britt’s Benevolence, which will be in Ottawa at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) in December 2023. I’m working on multiple translations, including David Paquet’s Governor General Award-winning The Weight of Ants, which will be published by Scirocco Drama. David and I won the Dora Award last year for Wildfire, so this is his next play. My upcoming translation commissions include Rébecca Déraspe’s Les glaces and a play by Gabriel Sabourin about Edmond Rostand who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, and so it’s a kind of fantasia about the creation of Cyrano de Bergerac. All I have to do for that is come up with alexandrine couplets, so no challenge.
I’m also writing a draft of my most (and only!) autobiographical play ever, about adoption and the nature of motherhood and family. It’s called Biological, and it’s being supported by Boca del Lupo.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
Many, many artists are currently inspiring me. Partly as an educator, I’ve had a chance to go and look at the work that’s currently being done to try to build a syllabus, and I will say that it was ridiculous to try to build a syllabus! There were so many people I wanted to include, doing the kind of work that I wish had been around when I was coming up. I’ve had a couple of experiences recently where I’ve been just humbled and awed by the quality and diversity of the work coming out of this country, and in this very difficult time, that, in itself, is inspiring. I’m talking, from senior artists to collectives creating devised work, where even the method of creation and collaboration is different. It doesn’t even resemble classical playwriting but is super inspiring.
The first play that made me feel like I wanted to be, and could be, a playwright in Canada, which I saw very early in my life, was Judith Thompson’s Crackwalker. It was the first play where I went, oh my god, these are the people down my street, the people I know. And yet there’s a mythic poetry to them, at the same time. I’d seen some theatre before then, not very much because I was a late starter and I grew up in a rural environment, but that was the first play that made me say, oh god, it’s possible!
Keep up with Leanna at http://www.leannabrodie.com/
Check out Leanna’s translation of Fanny Britt’s Governor-General’s Award-winning black comedy Benevolence at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in December 2023: https://www.gctc.ca/shows/benevolence
And find work written and translated by Leanna at the Canadian Play Outlet.
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.