The best stories never begin or end with someone doing the right thing and finding out he’s right. Who wants to see that?
Weaving his story with his sometimes wry but often warm humour, Kenneth T. Williams—whose play Café Daughter runs from now until January 20 (presented by Native Earth Performing Arts)—shares with us his journey to becoming a playwright, his thoughts on the value of stories, and his go-for-broke advice for aspiring storytellers.
Kenneth, could you tell us about yourself and how you came to be involved in the performing arts as a playwright?
By the time I was in high school, I knew I’d be a writer, but I thought I’d be a novelist or a short story writer. There was just one problem—I sucked at it. That didn’t stop me though. I must’ve written a dozen short stories and the beginnings of novels by the time I got to university. I planned on getting my degree in English with a major in creative writing from the University of Alberta. That didn’t happen. I was also very insecure about showing any of my work to the professors whose approval I needed to get into the creative writing classes.
A friend suggested that I take an introductory playwriting class through the drama department. I figured, why not? It didn’t require a portfolio or, best of all, experience in theatre. At this point, I had seen maybe one professional production. Before that, the last play I probably saw was something at school that was supposed to teach me about the dangers of smoking drugs or something. But that class changed my life. It was like being struck by lightning. This was how I was meant to write.
However, there was another problem: I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Good thing I’m more stubborn than strategic. I managed to connive my way into the MFA playwriting program—Vern Thiessen was my classmate—and then … nothing. Zilch. Silence. No one wanted to touch my work because I really didn’t know what I was doing. So the past 20 years since graduating have been me learning that. I think I’ve got a handle on it now.
What is the artistic mandate of Native Earth and what has been your involvement with them?
I’m not comfortable speaking about Native Earth’s mandate. Their website covers that well, I think. As for my involvement, that goes back to 1996. I submitted a mess of a play called Project 7—a sci-fi-clone as an allegory for residential schools—for the Weesageechak Festival. It got accepted. That was my first professional workshop. The play never got produced, but I followed that up with Thunderstick, Suicide Notes, Gordon Winter, and Deserters, which will be my first play produced by Native Earth.
Tell us more about the one-woman play Café Daughter and the inspiration behind it. What do you want to convey to the audience through this piece?
Café Daughter is inspired by the life of my cousin, Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck. I met her when I was interviewing nominees for the 1999 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. She told me that her Chinese father met her Cree mother because her dad was forbidden from hiring white women, the result of a Saskatchewan law (eventually known as the Female Labour Act; it wouldn’t be repealed until the 1960s). I was flabbergasted. I’d never heard of that.
I then ran into Keith Lock, a Toronto-based film maker, and he was just as shocked as I was about that law. He said a story like that would make a great film, so we worked together on a script for about three years. But I got log-jammed on the story. It wasn’t working for me, so I told him that I’d like to try writing it as a stage play. He agreed. When Gwaandak Theatre in Whitehorse put out a request for proposals for commissioning new work, I presented the idea to them as a stage play and they commissioned it. They gave me a lot of great support in getting it ready, and they produced it last year.
Despite the fact that the legislation plays an important part of the story, I completely ignore it. I didn’t want the play to be a treatise on racist legislation. Instead, I focused on my main character, Yvette Wong, as a young girl. In a sense, her innocence and struggles to understand the world around her mirror the audience’s journey to understand a time and place they may not have experience with. I think that’s why the play works; Yvette is our guide and we immediately fall in love with her and her family as they try to make a life in a world that has put immense restrictions on them.
What do you see as an underlying challenge for the performing arts community at large?
We live in a society that doesn’t value its own stories. It confounds me that English Canadians don’t flock to their own movies or support their own artists. However, this isn’t as true in the Aboriginal community. We crave our own stories. While getting our own people into theatres is still a challenge, they respond enthusiastically whenever they hear about a production that features an Aboriginal story. Theatre, at least out in Western Canada, is seen as elitist entertainment. When Thunderstick was remounted in Saskatoon and Edmonton, we garnered a large audience because Lorne Cardinal was in it and was able to draw upon his Corner Gas fame. Many people who never considered theatre as for them showed up and had a great time.
Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a playwright and how you overcame them?
My biggest problem was I didn’t understand the mechanics of theatre. I didn’t know how the rehearsal process worked, the various roles of designers, directors, or stage managers. All of that was completely foreign to me. The greatest challenge I had was from actors who would ask me such confounding questions as “why am I saying this?”
The best thing I ever did for my theatre career was act in a couple of professional productions. Another light bulb went off. “So that’s what they were bugging me about!” After that, my workshop experiences changed for the better because I finally understood what the actors’ and directors’ concerns were. I ended up writing stronger characters and stronger plays.
What words of advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Get a life. Get out there and explore, get your heart broke, scare yourself shitless, take a wrong turn, learn first aid, join a rock band, read your poetry out loud, go broke. The best stories never begin or end with someone doing the right thing and finding out he’s right. Who wants to see that?
In addition to Café Daughter, Thunderstick is being remounted by Thunderstick Collective & Culture Storm and runs from January 16 to February 3, 2013. For details please visit their Facebook page.