Developing a new play at the dawn of a pandemic

One of the great gifts of being a company that develops new plays is that some work can continue even while we cannot gather in person. This spring we had planned to begin some new projects. These are plays in their very early development phase, which means they are not reliant on gathering in person just yet. So the good news today is these projects are moving ahead! These are new beginnings. Spring plantings, if you will.

So let’s hear from Winnipeg Playwright, Actor, Dramaturg, and Teacher, Ellen Peterson. Ellen’s play The Eight Tiny Reindeer of the Apocalypse was produced here at Theatre Projects Manitoba in 2012, she recently served as a member of TPM’s board of directors, and is part of TPM’s artistic cohort for the coming cycle with her new play Daredevils.


A few weeks before the End of Civilization as We Know It, there was a half-day workshop at Theatre Projects of a first draft I wrote a few years ago. It’s called Daredevils, and it’s about tightrope walkers in Niagara Falls in the 19thcentury. I was excited to get started on the development process and we were thinking if all goes well, the play will hit the stage in the next few seasons.

It seems fitting that I am working on this play with Theatre Projects right now. One of the first people to take me seriously as a writer was Harry Rintoul, and I was in TPM’s very first season. One time I looked after his apartment while he was away. Watered the plants and fed the turtles. As a joke I wrote a short scene (on his typewriter, because it was Olden Times) and left it there. He took it to Prairie Fire Magazine(which I would never have dared to do) and they published it. I remember when he started Theatre Projects. One day he phoned all excited to tell me that his company now had a phone number. He was pumped. I miss him.

When I wrote the first draft of Daredevils I knew the tightrope thing might pose what we call a “challenge.” But in discussions with Ardith in recent months a solution presented itself.

“Panoramas” were a popular form of entertainment before moving pictures were invented. A series of scenes was painted on a long roll of canvas and mounted in a big cranking apparatus, and the scene scrolled past the audience. Victorian IMAX. In the present day the art form is experiencing a renaissance as “Crankies,” and there are whole festivals dedicated to these handmade wonders. Ardith and I attended the Winnipeg Crankie Festival in November and were immediately sucked into the Crankie-verse.


When I wrote the first draft of Daredevils, I was staying in a haunted house in New Brunswick and I built a sort of model stage in my room. My intention was to create an aid to visualization, to help myself “see” the play as I wrote it. It wasn’t a set design, more of a three-dimensional map of the world of the play. It was fun to do, and as I worked on it and stared at it, it seemed to help the writing process. I had some colleagues in for wine and cheese and a discussion of the shape of the theatrical universe.


Since then, a visual art component has become a necessary part of my writing life. I make things. They help me formulate what the play will be. For Sense and Sensibility, the process helped me wrap my head around a large cast on a large stage because I’d never done that before.


A more recent work, Down Cant River, takes the process to the next level and will incorporate the artwork into the performance. Like a play set in a campground that is also a gallery installation.


The current plan for Daredevils is to re-imagine the staging of the story and present it using panoramas large and small, combined with shadows and other effects used on the Victorian stage. I saw Robert LePage’s 887 and this idea of shifting the theatrical scale is one that interests me a lot, and it opens up possibilities that don’t involve putting actors on a high wire. I feel a little foolish. I had this idea way back in the haunted house in New Brunswick.

I left the Theatre Projects workshop of Daredevils thinking “well, okay, it’s a start.” And then I thought about it some over the next couple of weeks the way playwrights do, wondering how to approach the next draft and I built some crankies in the basement and then…

The End of Civilization as We Know It.

What now?

The first order of business was to grieve and sympathize with my fellow artists, many of whom lost roles and jobs and opportunities and whole productions of their plays. Administrators are moving mountains on a daily basis, making contingency plans and trying to regroup. Nursing headaches. I was lucky, in a strange way, to have no immediate plans. But a person has lots of time to think while washing their hands and sewing masks, and I can’t help but wonder how this crisis will affect the arts in the long run. Can theatres die from a virus? I hope not. We can expect some serious reshaping of the landscape. It’s scary, but it’s exciting too. It is too soon to say what will happen to our industry, but we artists are nothing if not adaptable and there will be a way to continue. I know the art form will survive. Theatre is as old as God and has survived worse calamities.

In the first days after it all went down I was thirsty for distraction. I knew I had to keep myself writing, but didn’t feel up to launching into a whole big complicated second draft. Instead, I started on a series of blog posts about anything other than the pandemic. Maybe other people need some distraction too, and it’s important to keep getting stuff out there to an audience somehow. Each post is exactly 300 words long and they begin with the one called “300.” The earlier posts on the website are longer stories about my ancestors and other things. So if you need stuff to read:

I am what is known as “an artist in mid-to-late career.” Or a late mid-career artist. Or am I in my early late career? Whatever I am, “the current situation” has increased my sense of urgency. I might not have time to get too many more plays produced and resources will be even more limited than they already were, pre-COVID. I predict that theatre is going to matter more now. The things that get produced will be the things we feel an urgent need to carry out. Which is not to say they will have to be deadly serious. We could use a laugh for sure.

I’m lucky to be a writer. I am never bored, and isolation comes naturally. I am also lucky that I met Harry Rintoul way back in Olden Times, and that he had the vision and the balls to start Theatre Projects. Even now, if you phone 989-2400 you will be talking to someone who knows that a play should be something that is needed, someone who can get seriously pumped.

Whatever I write right now, it should be the thing I care the most about. I don’t have time to work on anything I’m not on fire for. When they pry the pen out of my cold dead hands, what will I be working on? What shouldI be working on?

Daredevils? Maybe. But not the play as it is right now. It will take some doing to make Daredevils the play that I want more than anything. It’s going to go through some radical changes. But it will still have Niagara Falls in it, and tightrope walkers, and it will still be about art and courage. But that’s about all I know right now. Don’t tell Ardith, but I might need more actors. We’ll see.

Art and courage.


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