Pandemic playwriting a hoot!

Participants in a GNAG class on playwriting each create a 10-minute play and showcase it online for friends and family. Discovering your inner thespian can be exhilarating!   Photo: Elspeth Tory

By Elspeth Tory

I first heard about Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group’s “Short Play Showcase” class a few years ago during a GNAG board meeting. It would be taught by the director of adult programming, John Muggleton, who has an extensive acting and playwriting background, including writing two award-winning plays. “You should sign up – John’s a great teacher!” encouraged Mary Tsai, GNAG’s executive director. I was somewhat skeptical because Mary’s enthusiasm for any and all programming knows no bounds: “We’ve also added water polo, you should check it out!” Playwriting seemed a lot more appealing.

The course description stated that by the end of class, everyone’s 10-minute play would be read by fellow classmates in a small showcase. The last time I’d written fiction was in high school and it was cringeworthy. The thought of a room full of people experiencing 10 minutes of my inner thoughts was utterly terrifying. But after a few glasses of wine and a couple of texts from Mary, I signed up. Fast forward three years, and I’m now enrolled in my sixth playwriting class with the added twist that we’re now doing it over Zoom during the pandemic.

The 10-minute play – initially viewed with some skepticism – is now widely accepted and highly popular with audiences. If you’ve ever been to a two-hour play and known 10 minutes in that it wasn’t for you, you’ll understand the appeal of a series of short performances that allow you to enjoy lots of stories in one sitting. I was surprised to discover that one of today’s most popular television series, Fleabag, was first launched as a 10-minute play at a comedy festival.

Short plays are also much less intimidating to write, giving newbies like me a taste of the excitement of playwriting without the intimidation of producing a full script. “The course provides an environment where laughter, discussion and creativity allow someone with little or no writing experience to bring to life a story filled with interesting characters and situations,” said our teacher, John Muggleton.

John emphasizes keeping dialogue quick, avoiding exposition (over-explaining) and writing what you know. With that in mind, I decided that my first play would be about an exhausted mother whose only daily excitement was talking to her cat, arguing with her Alexa device and flirting with the cable guy. I’d never experienced someone else reading lines that I’d written, but when my 85-year-old classmate Don Westwood, with his deep British accent, took on the voice of my obnoxious, overly critical cat, I was completely won over.

Don’s been in almost every class I’ve taken since, including the current one on Zoom. “It turns on the creative juices; it’s also the most important contact I have outside of my ‘bubble,’” said Don. His plays are often tied to his personal history and that of his relatives; they’re not only entertaining but also heartwarming.

A few courses in, I recruited my new neighbour, Pascale Pergant. She had just moved to Ottawa and was looking for a creative outlet. “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy writing dialogue as much as I do, creating a world through conversation,” says Pascale. “And the class has made me hyper aware of all the conversations happening around me, of how people interact and how catching the tail end of a sentence as someone walks by might spark an idea for a new play.” Pascale is now in her fifth class; her latest effort featured Don as a bumbling assassin having some HR issues at work. She is also a whizz with accents, putting on a cockney twang in Don’s excellent play done entirely in rhyming slang a few years ago.

The pandemic has made the showcase element of the class slightly more challenging but not as much as you’d expect.  GNAG has seamlessly pivoted most of its programming to online, allowing us to continue to connect while staying at home. The classes themselves haven’t really changed, except that you can show up in your pyjamas and John teaches from his home in Kanata. One benefit of the final showcase being on Zoom is that friends and relatives from across the country and anywhere in the world can join in and enjoy the virtual performances.

As we’ve headed into another long lockdown with no clear end in sight, these classes have provided so many of us with a much-needed social, creative and emotional outlet. Which reminds me, I need to get back to writing my play about a crazy woman with multiple personalities who is losing her grip on reality (maybe she’s just finished a month of homeschooling). Write what you know, right?


Elspeth Tory is a Glebe mother of two who is active in Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group (GNAG) and the Glebe Community Association.

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