Notes from February 8, 2017 Meeting; SPEAKER: Lynda Hill (Theatre Direct)
President Sharon Jennings welcomed a slightly smaller audience, commenting about the bleak weather and the urge to stay in one’s nest. She also lamented the lack of new books and/or awards this month!
Beloved Canadian children’s writer Norah McClintock passed away on Monday, February 6th. Norah wrote over 60 books for young people and won numerous awards. She was also a very popular presenter. Her PYI talk a few years ago has been cited in recent days as inspirational. She was most recently at a CANSCAIP meeting as one of the seven authors of the ‘Secrets’ series, discussing the challenges of writing a series with a team of authors. Sharon offered our condolences to Norah’s husband Herman, their two children and families. A memorial service is planned for February 26. The CANSCAIP office will send out further information.
Next month’s speaker is Sarah Ramsay, who manages two Book City locations in Toronto. Sarah will be talking covers - what works and what doesn’t.
Sharon also announced that the SCBWI Canada East conference takes place in Montreal from May 26th-28th. There is a great lineup of authors, editors, agents from the U.S., in addition to Canadians Sydney Smith and Martha Skrypuch.
ADMINISTRATIVE DIRECTOR’S ANNOUNCEMENTS
Helena Aalto announced that CANSCAIP’s annual Writing for Children competition will launch in March this year. This is a competition for unpublished writers that requires entrants to submit a 1500 word excerpt from a longer work or a complete picture book or other short work of that length. Submissions are read by first round readers, who whittle down the entrants for a second round of judging. The second round judges send their choices to a jury for final evaluations. The jury selects ten finalists, including two winners. Applicants receive feedback from all readers at the end. The deadline for submission will be the end of June.
CANSCAIP is undergoing a strategic planning process. A recent membership survey got a thirty percent response, which, by survey standards, is excellent.
The cancelled February webinar by Warren Sheffer on publishing contracts will now take place on Monday, March 6 at 2:00. It will be recorded if you cannot ‘attend’ live. The cost is $25.00 either way. CANSCAIP intends to offer more webinars for the benefit of out of town members who cannot attend the monthly Toronto meetings.
Helena also told us that the PYI 2017 planning meeting took place a couple of weeks ago. The date for this year’s conference is Saturday, November 11.
SPEAKER: Lynda Hill, Theatre Direct
Programming Committee member, author, performer, storyteller and librarian Theo Heras introduced speaker Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Theatre Direct, which produces plays for young people – some adapted from children’s books – that have an education focus. Theatre Direct’s plays are regularly nominated for Dora awards, and in 2014, Theatre Direct launched the first international arts festival (the ‘WeeFestival’) dedicated to early childhood. Theatre Direct Firefly project brings storytelling and drama into kindergarten classes. Theatre Direct also leads professional development workshops for educators, and holds classes and camps for young people.
Lynda thanked Theo for the invitation to talk to us about theatre for young people and the intersection of her world with the children’s publishing world. She noted that her love of storytelling came to her in elementary school via her school librarian.
Lynda told us that their plays are entertaining, but often tackle difficult subject matter. Theatre Direct fights for the rights of children to access complex arts and culture without censorship or compromise. Their mission statement notes that young people deserve the truth and meaningful cultural content. They don’t regard audiences as a market, but as emerging citizens who deserve theatre that engages their intellect and discusses big ideas.
They have not done a lot of adaptations but are constantly reading children’s books to help them arrive at relevant content. Their most recent adaptation was Deborah Ellis’s The Heaven Shop, which became Binti’s Journey. This play is aimed at the middle school audience, aged 12-15, an audience that tends to get skipped over in children’s theatre. Lynda is trying to take care of the ‘orphans’.
Lynda happened to read Deborah’s book the year Stephen Lewis did his Massey Lecture on AIDS in Africa. Binti loses her father to AIDS and in the aftermath, she and her family exhibit resilience and determination despite the obstacles they face. Lynda felt this was an important story to share with young people, and though she couldn’t offer Deborah a lot in the way of royalties, Deborah was on-board. Deborah did not review drafts of the play and did not see it until was produced. She did speak to the young people from Kent Middle School involved in developing ‘Our Stories, Ourselves’, a kind of companion work to Binti’s Journey. The piece of theatre the students created complemented the work featuring professional actors.
The main challenge to mounting Binti’s Journey was not having the money to produce a play with a large cast. So it started off as one-person show, but ended up featuring the four young people in the book. The actors playing these roles also took on the voices of the adults. This creative choice served to diminish the strength of the mostly negative adults in the story. One character was so powerful, all four actors spoke her, chorally. Young people and Deborah loved that artistic choice.
In trying to attract educators to the play, Lynda initially encountered resistance from Toronto District School Board, who didn’t want to talk about AIDS. People also questioned aiming the show at middle school audiences. Lynda noted that Catholic schools (the Catholic Board has a strong HIV/AIDS curriculum) were the first to book.
Binti’s Journey premiered in 2008 and has toured and been remounted several times. It is coming back this season at Theatre Direct’s Wychwood Barns Theatre in Toronto. And the bonus: if kids hadn’t read Ellis’ work before seeing the show, they read/bought it after.
Q & A
How did you arrive at that choral speaking choice?
How did you get from book to script?
Playwrights are not always great at adapting things. They want to write in their own voices. Marcia Johnson was chosen because although she had never adapted a work, she had a humility in her approach. But there were twelve drafts of the work; Lynda wasn’t sure it was going to work. The big challenge for Marcia was paring a 178-page novel down to a 50-minute piece. But Marcia didn’t have any ego about it—kept chipping away.
The development process took a couple of years. The budget was $30,000 before production, $75,000 all in. Had Theatre Direct not received Laidlaw Fund and Canada Council funding, it wouldn’t have happened. They don’t have same kind of commissioning funds anymore. Over the next number of months, Theatre Direct will be establishing a dedicated commissioning fund and will be fundraising specifically for that. For a few years, Theatre Direct relied on the same works, but new works have been coming out in the past couple of years. When you invest in development, great art happens. And playwrights can get good royalties from remounts.
How can children’s authors get a theatre producer to look at their books?
Sure, pitch to theatres. But the pond is very small. Lynda has more ideas than money. She and an illustrator friend came up with the idea of a theatre-book club; they will talk about dramatization as they read. (They are particularly in love with wordless books.) Shaun Tan’s wordless book The Arrival was produced by Red Leap Theatre, which collaborated with the author-illustrator in creating a wonderful piece of dance theatre.
After the Q and A, Lynda talked about the WeeFestival, whose pieces are most often text-free and incorporate installation, dance, and song. It’s exciting to make theatre without text and to see very young children engage without that stunned look they have when they watch television!
Theatre Direct also works in kindergarten classes. The children tell their stories, which are transcribed and illustrated, made into books and dramatized. The kids make their own artistic choices regarding, for example, what part of the story to illustrate. This work can spark a love of the written word, illustration, storytelling, and/or theatre.
Lynda also talked about Old Man and the River, which has a set design inspired by children’s books illustrations. This is a work of puppetry without words, featuring an original score. Now they want to turn it into a children’s book!