By Monica Prendergast, February 2016
Issues around policing and mental health lie at the heart of award-winning playwright Joan MacLeod’s work.
THE PRODUCTION OF The Valley by Canadian playwright Joan MacLeod at the Belfry Theatre is a cause for cultural celebration. We are very fortunate to have MacLeod call herself a local playwright since moving to Vancouver Island in 2004.
An associate professor of Creative Writing at the University of Victoria, MacLeod won the Governor General’s Award in 1991 for Amigo’s Blue Guitar, and has been shortlisted for it twice since. Her one-woman play The Shape of a Girl, a response to the Reena Virk murder here, won the Jessie Richardson and Betty Mitchell awards in Vancouver in 2001. The play toured across the country and has been performed many times internationally to this day (it has been translated into six languages). In 2011, MacLeod was the recipient of the prestigious Siminovitch Prize ($100,000) for playwriting. Jury chair Maureen Labonté said, “Joan is a master of expressing the profoundest human emotions, putting to paper the vulnerability, the compassion, the weaknesses and strengths of the human spirit.”
I am pleased to call MacLeod my colleague at UVic, but my own connection to MacLeod goes back to 1987 when I saw her performing in her first play Jewel at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. The actress who was to play the role in this first of MacLeod’s numerous one-woman plays had left the production during rehearsal. MacLeod ended up playing the role of a young widow whose husband died in the Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster off the coast of Newfoundland. I was very moved by the play, found it beautifully written, honest and powerful. Although MacLeod was clearly not a professional actor, she delivered the text with simplicity and directness. I immediately placed Jewel on a list of plays I wanted to do myself someday (I did so in 2000), and became a fan of MacLeod’s work. I saw her next play Toronto, Mississippi at Tarragon and have been following her career ever since.
After MacLeod and I became colleagues we have kept in touch the way overbusy professors usually do, with the occasional email, classroom guest visit, or chat on opening nights. I knew about the productions of The Valley that had been done at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary and at the Tarragon Theatre, both in 2013. When I learned that the play was part of the Belfry’s 2015-2016 season, I invited MacLeod for lunch to talk about the genesis of the play and its reception elsewhere.
Most of MacLeod’s plays have a social issue driving them at their heart. She is a socially engaged writer who has often been inspired by current events. The Valley addresses the ongoing challenges faced by those with mental health problems, particularly in their often negative (if not fatal) encounters with the police. In the play we see the after-effects of an encounter on a subway platform between a first year university student named Connor, who is suffering from depression, and a police officer named Dan. The encounter ends with Dan breaking Connor’s jaw and a number of his teeth.
MacLeod tells me that the play arose in part from her concerns as a university instructor after witnessing too many students falling apart for various reasons, often including anxiety and depression. “These are very vulnerable years for young people,” she says. “I became more aware of the everydayness of mental illness. I can see the stress we create for students.” Indeed, stress and anxiety are the number one health issues for postsecondary students. And in some cases these conditions can tip students into depression.
The play also developed in part as a response to the tasering death of Robert Dziekanski by RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport in 2007. This event angered MacLeod, understandably so. She began to be interested in investigating how police officers deal with the complex job of being frontline workers with those who are mentally ill. “I go into writing plays with a certain bias,” MacLeod tells me, “and I want to get rid of that bias. I grew up with a negative attitude toward the police, but that changed as I aged and saw the need for the police, for them to protect me. These biases and how I try to address them are always interesting to explore.”
The play includes a series of monologues by the four characters in it—Connor and Dan, Dan’s wife Janie (who is suffering from postpartum depression) and Connor’s mother Sharon—about their encounters with the police throughout their lives.
Another impetus for the play came from MacLeod reading the award-winning book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon. The book deeply affected MacLeod in its personal, social and scientific investigation of depression. The character of Sharon is MacLeod’s imaginative response to any mother dealing with her child’s depression, wanting to protect her child, and feeling the despair that can envelope someone who is dealing with a loved one in the throes of mental illness. “The process I go through is how I connect to characters. I love writing mothers and teenagers, remembering my own teenage angst and now having a teenage daughter at UVic myself. The police officer was more challenging for me to make that connection, but I do love him. This is not a play about police brutality; that’s not what it’s about,” asserts MacLeod.
I asked MacLeod about the response audiences have had to the play in its previous productions in Calgary and Toronto (it has also been done in St Catharine’s and will be at the Arts Club in Vancouver this spring). She tells me that the Calgary response was very positive. However, in Toronto there was an even higher degree of interest in the play due to a recent event there. Three months before the production opened at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim brandished a three-inch knife and threatened passengers on a streetcar. He was shot at nine times and killed by police officer James Forcillo. Forcillo, charged with second degree murder, was recently convicted on a lesser charge of attempted murder.
While this coincidence was of course just that, it galvanized audiences who came to the play seeking answers, and healing. “The play is about healing, the characters are in a healing circle as the potential is always there—the characters are on the edge of this circle,” says MacLeod. “It is not a dark and terrible night in the theatre. The play is hopeful, even funny. I hope the audience will leave feeling some compassion for people around us who are suffering and with more awareness about mental health issues.”
The Belfry production is directed by former Artistic Director Roy Surette and features actors Rebecca Auerbach, Matt Reznek, Luc Roderique, and Colleen Wheeler. Set design is by Pam Johnson, lighting design by Itai Erdal, sound design by Brian Linds and costumes by Erin Macklem. The show runs from February 2-28 with tickets at www.belfry.bc.ca or by calling 250-385-6815. On Thursday, February 11 there will be a talkback after the show for audiences to engage in a discussion about the play. Focus is the proud media sponsor for The Valley.
Monica continues to review for CBC Radio’s On the Island and to teach and conduct her research at the University of Victoria. This spring the second edition of her textbook Applied Theatre, co-authored and edited with Juliana Saxton, will be released.