Sunday, November 20, 2011

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: The Playwright and the Play

Eugene Stickland grew up in Regina in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, and studied English at the University of Regina before earning an MFA in playwriting at York University in Toronto. He wrote plays for a theatre company in Toronto before moving to Calgary in the province of Alberta in western Canada in 1994, where he became playwright in residence at the Alberta Theatre Projects.

Shortly after he arrived in Calgary he was introduced at a local event by an emcee who mispronounced his name, and said “he’s a play writer, whatever that is, and he works at a place called Albert Theatre Projects, which I’ve never heard of.” An angry Stickland vowed to that audience, “I’m going to change this. By the time I’m done here you’re going to know how to spell my name and you’re going to know what a ‘play writer’ does, and you’re going to know that there’s theatre that happens in Calgary.”

Ten years and six plays later, he was an award-winning playwright, with productions throughout Canada, and his work translated into French and Russian and produced in Istanbul.

Some Assembly Required was the first of those plays, and became his best known and most widely produced. It was a finalist for the prestigious Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award.

Stickland actually began writing Some Assembly Required between his time in Toronto and Calgary, when he returned home briefly to Regina. He heard a story there about someone whose brother greeted his return home for a Christmas visit by attacking him with a hockey stick. That inspired him to write one scene, which he combined with his own brother’s arcane system for making sure his record albums got equal play so they would wear evenly. Though there's no hockey stick attack, elements of these first scenes remain in the play.

Then a chance meeting with Bob White, an Artistic Associate at Alberta Theatre Projects, led to an invitation to write a Christmas play for ATP. After a couple of workshops and rewrites, and with the help of White and director Don Kugler, the play was readied for production at the 1994 playRites. “In many ways the success of the play changed my life,” Stickland wrote in his introduction to the 2002 published version.

“He writes about people who are recognizable and relatable,” Bob White commented recently. “His characters have powerful emotions.”

But even though Some Assembly Required has had over 30 productions, few of them have been in the U.S. One was at the University of Central Missouri in 2004, with costumes designed by Rae Robison. Stickland came to the show and talked to the students in the production, and Robison met him. Now as director of Some Assembly Required at HSU, she’s using what she learned then.

“He’s an incredibly hilarious guy,” she recalls. “He came and saw the show, and it was really interesting to hear him talk about it. That production took a fairly absurdist approach—the show was set in a doll house under a giant tree. He appreciated what they did, but he talked about the real people and real events that the play was based on in various ways. He stressed the reality behind the absurdity, and so that’s how we’re approaching it here. We started with an image of a snow globe, the kind with a scene inside that you shake up to make it snow. We want to present a real family in this bubble. We don’t know much about them outside this house, but we get to see them deal with their lives and each other inside this bubble.”

Stickland has a more recent success with his play Queen Lear, and in October he was one of ten playwrights in residence at the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival for a week’s retreat where he worked on his newest play, Those White Things in the Ocean. Apart from writing plays, Stickland has been a newspaper arts and entertainment columnist, and is a poet and spoken word artist.

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