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By Karen Herland
James Cameron had millions of dollars, access to extraordinary technology and several hours to tell a story in Avatar. The result has been deemed by many critics as visually stunning but, frankly, derivative.
Patrick Leroux gives his students just a few weeks, and a lot of guidance, to help them tell an engaging, witty and original story on a stage in just 10 minutes. Although his students don’t expect red carpet premieres, he wanted them to learn more about how plays move from page to stage.
Five years ago Leroux, who teaches playwriting in the English department, proposed the idea of a 10-minute play contest to the theatre department. “I was concerned creative writing students didn’t have an outlet for their playwriting,” he recalled. “In the theatre department, you meet actors and directors you can bond with and continue to collaborate with outside of school.”
Leroux, who also teaches in the Département d’études françaises said, “many students come in as poets or prose writers and discover they are really good at writing plays.” Classes are divided between Leroux’s lectures on characterization, plot, action and subtext and students providing feedback on each other’s work.
Leroux saw the contest as a way to let students experience the negotiation and discussion involved with a director, cast and production crew. Winning plays are sent to the theatre department and presented as student productions during the students’ annual Art Matters showcase the following year.
Although Leroux’s students write plays as an assignment, the contest is open to all Concordia students. Leroux invites two colleagues to judge the submissions with him every year. Submissions have also come from communications and business students. “I’m looking for a unique voice, an authentic way of telling a story, of imagining it on stage, which isn’t derivative of television or film.”
Shaun Pett, whose winning submission, Limbo, described by him as “a clown show about torture,” certainly fits that description. “Its funny and disturbing. At least it should be.”
Once the 30-odd entries are whittled down to three to six winners, the plays go to the Playwrights Workshop Montreal (PWM), currently under the artistic and executive direction of Concordia alumna Emma Tibaldo (who earned an English degree in 93 and a theatre degree in 99). Members try out the winning plays and provide further feedback.
Pett, who is in the creative writing program after deciding he preferred writing over his first course of study said, “the nice thing about theatre vs. fiction is that theatre’s collaborative. It’s better than just interacting with the computer screen.”
Joanna Donehower, currently earning a master’s degree in playwriting, is one of the students who will see her contest-winning work performed in March. After an undergraduate degree in theatre, she interned at a theatre in the U.S. before returning here for graduate work. She’s looking forward to seeing the performance.
Donehower is happy with the feedback she received from PWM, “I certainly had the sense that the dramaturges, directors, actors were entering into the world I had created, and enhancing it. The process is not ‘this doesn’t work,’ or ‘let’s change this,’ but is rather a process of mutual discovery of what does work, and what doesn’t! How can this be made clearer? Why does this character do this now, and not two minutes from now?”
After that, the plays are turned over to the theatre department where student directors are assigned to develop productions. “This is the best training possible. And the results can be great, especially when the writer and director find common ground and end up sharing an aesthetic vision.”
Would-be Ibsens can submit their oeuvres before Feb. 4. For complete contest rules go to the website.