Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan, the playwriting team behind Carol Bolt Award nominated play, 1939.
Jani Lauzon is a 10 time Dora Mavor Moore nominated actress/writer/director, a three time Juno nominated singer/songwriter and a Gemini Award winning puppeteer. Her company Paper Canoe Projects was created to support production of her own work including: A Side of Dreams, I Call myself Princess, and Prophecy Fog.
Previous writing includes: The Scrubbing Project, The Triple Truth and The Only Good Indian with Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble. She has been a Playwright in Resident at Cahoots Theatre Projects and Factory Theatre. Residencies include: The Tracey Wright Global Archive at The Theatre Centre, Nightswimming Theatre and The Barker Fairly Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Fellowship. Jani was the Senior Playwright in Residence at the Banff Playwright Colony in April 2015.
Kaitlyn Riordan is an actor, a playwright, and a settler in Canada, of Irish and French descent. She lives in Tkaronto and was part of the leadership team at Shakespeare in the Ruff from 2012–2021.
As an actor, she is a four-time Dora nominee, including for Linda Griffith’s one-woman show; Maggie & Pierre.
As a playwright, her ‘feminized’ Shakespearean play; Portia’s Julius Caesar, premiered with Shakespeare in the Ruff (2018), was named one of the top shows of the year by The Toronto Star, and had its international debut, in the UK, in 2023. 1939, which she co-wrote with Jani Lauzon, premiered at The Stratford Festival, in 2022. Plays in development include Gertrude’s Hamlet, I Sit Content — a story of Emily Carr, and The Nude Nun.
Tell us how you each got your start writing plays.
Jani: I started writing my own work with the support of David Duclos at The Theatre Centre in the 1990’s. It’s important to have champions. From there I was co-founder of Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble with Michelle St. John and Monique Mojica. We wanted to write our own stories from our perspective. When that company dissolved, I created Paper Canoe Projects with my daughter Tara Sky to support the creation of our own work. I would never want to give up my acting career, but women my age, with my skin tone and hair colour, have a challenge with access to opportunity and diversifying as a writer and a director has been key to my survival as an artist. Makes for difficult scheduling but amazing creative outlet as there is nothing more rewarding birthing life into the writing/creation process and following it through to production.
Kaitlyn: My main intersection with theatre has always been acting, and for a long time, I had no sense that one could occupy more than one lane in our industry. That was, until I was part of a reading group at Nightwood Theatre my first year living in Toronto. I met five incredible playwrights and at the end of the process, realized that four of them were also actors. It sounds almost absurd now, but it was a really important moment for me, it “gave me permission” to imagine myself writing. Now I veer from lane to lane, erratically, and without signaling (just to complete the driving metaphor).
You recently co-wrote 1939 together, which had its world premiere at the Stratford Festival in 2022. Where did the idea for this play come from, and how did your co-creator relationship form?
Jani: A love of Shakespeare brought us together and from there, we followed our curiosity, slowly building not only a way of working, but trust. We always knew this would be a long process and allowed for that in the organic way our collaboration formed. Our shared love of Shakespeare’s work led to deep discussions around accessibility, the possibility of being hired and how to find yourself in the work if your life experience encompasses a diverse perspective. This, coupled with my 20-year exploration in artist education engaging Indigenous actors with Shakespeare’s body of work, lead to the seed of an idea.
Kaitlyn: From there, we became interested in how Shakespeare had been used in the “project of colonization” in this country; as a tool for colonization. Jani and I have both spent a lot of time with Shakespeare’s texts and know that his works can’t be limited in such a way — these texts will never just serve one idea. That made us wonder what the students in our play would discover in them, and if they could find a way of expressing themselves through these texts, as Jani and I have.
J: Further research and consultation with Elders shone light on the resilience of residential school survivors and the ways in which they fought back, rebelled, subverted, gathered, and found ways to keep their cultures alive, even within these oppressive regimes. Using Shakespeare for those purposes, despite the expectations of the non-Indigenous adults in charge, suddenly became a way for the students to bring their living cultures to the work, centering their voices and teaching us all that there’s not just one way to do Shakespeare.
K: As Jani says, ‘blame the system, not the artist’ which was a thread that led us to work with Sorouja Moll, our incredible research dramaturge, to better understand the history and the role that Shakespeare’s influence played in shaping the idea of Canada, the impact of which is still broadly felt to this day.
What were the rewards and what were the challenges of co-creating a play?
The rewards far outweigh the challenges if you are open to the process. The biggest challenge of course is scheduling writing time and trusting your partner. Part of our goal was to borrow from the Truth and Reconciliation commission recommendation #83 which called upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish funding for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects to produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process. Something beautiful can emerge from a collaborative process that is harder to achieve when you are writing in isolation. As a result, we have developed a deep respect for each other, rooted in honesty, compromise, and many laughs. Cree Elder and survivor Shirly Horn, emphasized to us, again and again, that the arts and theatre were vital to the process of reconciliation. Shirley, and Elders Edna Manitowabi, Liz Stevens, and Pauline Shirt guided us and responded to the work with such generosity and engagement… and humour, always insisting that the more, the better, despite the seriousness of the subject matter. We are profoundly grateful to them and watching them witness the performance was an extraordinary experience; one we will never forget.
What advice would you offer to co-creators working on a play together?
Jani: The process of co-writing can be wonderful and complex. The key is to create from a place of humility. Offers will be made and some rejected. The goal is always “the play” (referring to both the process and script) over personal perspective. We met often, created a very diligent writing schedule and worked closely with Sorouja before we engaged with our dramaturge Jessica Carmichael. We had an excellent team with additional dramaturgical support from ted witzel at the Stratford Lab. Part of the exercise as a writer is learning to let go of things that you get attached to if they don’t end up serving the play. This is magnified in a co-writing experience.
Kaitlyn: I totally agree, letting go (not always easy for me!) was just as important as generating ideas. Thankfully, the generative part, lobbing ideas back and forth and world building together, was incredibly rewarding. The “yes, and…” of it kind of got me through the pandemic, as we met over Zoom through those wild times. The other key factor, and this is far more elusive, is finding the same things funny. Thankfully, Jani and I both have very corny, I mean, sophisticated senses of humour.
Can you tell us about the process of bringing the play from the page to the stage for its world premiere, especially with Jani serving both as playwright and director?
It was a quick process, as it was Stratford’s first “post-pandemic” season and a lot of the programming came later than it usually does. Thankfully we were able to work with our dream team, at every level. Elder Pauline Shirt’s words, asking “How can you feed the spirit of the play?”, became our mantra, one which everyone embraced. Working cross-culturally always comes with challenges, especially since the residential school system’s impacts have such a broad reach across Indigenous communities, and we did our best to meet those challenges by bringing ceremony into the room, as we had in our creation process. We also presented our extensive research throughout the writing process to the entire circle of artists, designers, crew, technicians, administration and marketing so that we were all on the same page. We look at this as a form of production dramaturgy. Presenting this research had a huge impact on the way the circle functioned and we were lucky to have the guidance of Elders and Knowledge Keepers throughout which helped ground us in the story of the students’ resilience and in Pauline’s words.
What are you each working on next?
Jani: We are thrilled that 1939 will have more productions in 2024, and I am looking forward to directing. No contracts yet so I can’t speak to details. I am also excited that my one woman play Prophecy Fog will be at the Coal Mine Theatre for an extended run in November/December 2023. Other writing projects include a new work based on Chester Beavon’s book “Only Virgins need apply” and a project with composer and computer programmer Wayne Kelso, using computer neural net interfaces, 3D animation graphics hardware and AI generated conversations. I love the challenge of going from narrative based work to that of multidisciplinary projects.
Kaitlyn: I’m working on a rewrite of my play The Nude Nun, which I began through a Punctuate! Theatre playwright’s unit and am workshopping at The Tarragon this fall. I also have another feminized Shakespearean play in the works (my first being Portia’s Julius Caesar), called Gertrude’s Hamlet. Beyond that, I am currently incubating a human! As a collaborator, they are unpredictable but I sense they will inspire me for a long time to come.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
Jani: I always enjoy reading whatever Erin Shields is working on. Currently I am reading Black Boys by Saga Collectif (big fan of all those artists) and I am always inspired by Matt MacKenzie’s writing. My favorite play of all time remains Almighty Voice and his Wife by Daniel David Moses.
Kaitlyn: I remember seeing Liza Balkan’s Out the Window as part of Luminato, directed by Sarah Stanley, in 2018. It was a time when I thought I was immune to the power of theatre, I had begun to wonder, have I just seen too much? That experience taught me otherwise and I couldn’t have been more grateful. Daniel MacIvor is another source of inspiration, the craft in his writing floors me. This summer I saw three very personal shows, written and performed by the creators themselves; No Save Points by Sébastien Heins, Perceptual Archaeology (Or How to Travel Blind) by Alex Bulmer, and King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild, by Ahmed Moneka and Jesse LaVercombe. All were so specific and so theatrical in their form. When I encounter such creations, I can’t help but wonder how I got lucky enough to be a part of this community.
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.