Michaela Jeffery, Playwright
"I think of theatre as compassionate spaces of communal action."
National Theatre School of Canada
Oshawa’s Durham Shoestring Performers (DSP) will perform Michaela Jeffery’s ‘WROL’ (without rule of law) on March 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 and April 1 at the Arts Resource Centre behind City Hall.
Recently I had the opportunity to share a Zoom chat with the Calgary-based playwright where she completed a more general drama undergraduate BFA degree. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS). Her father is a retired Drama teacher so Michaela proudly states she has been thriving in drama for a lot of years beyond her formal training.
When she finished her undergraduate program, she interned for a couple of years with New Play Development-based Calgary company called Alberta Theatre Projects before applying to the National specifically to do playwriting. The National Theatre School has a three-year intensive playwriting program of two students working on plays all day. It was a wonderful experience for Michaela, and she feels incredibly fortunate to have been a part of this opportunity.
What exactly does playwright training look like?
Jeffery describes the ‘lovely, decadent’ process as the most organic extension of human storytelling. Her studies at NTS involved working one-on-one with playwright artists, being in constant conversation with them, and getting to have a backseat view of their working on developing work. It felt like a lateral professional-to-professional conversation which felt wild as a young student because nobody had treated her like a professional up to that point. However, she was brought up very quickly to that professional level standard of NTS and learned about standing up for herself in her growth as a playwright.
How has Michaela been feeling about this gradual return to the live theatre as a playwright even though we are still in Covid’s embrace?
With Alberta known for its own complex ecology, Jeffery pointed out the province has been referred to as ‘America North’ as it was the first to “pitch a fit” about mask-wearing. The current provincial government (until May) is really pandering to some of the very specific pockets of the Alberta population that are not interested in doing things for the greater good.
Jeffery works for Arts Commons, a performing arts centre and art gallery in Calgary, which houses four theatres in the immediate complex of the building. Throughout the beginning of the pandemic, she was on teams setting rules about what to do with the bare base mandate level of the province. Do these teams go above and beyond what should be expected or just go with the bare base provincial recommendations?
Jeffery said many of Alberta’s vulnerable population come to the Commons to see touring artists. It’s peace of mind and why wouldn’t a business try to do what it can to protect people:
“I think of theatre as compassionate spaces of communal action. The space we are in while we make theatre is one where we take care of each other. What is appealing to me about writing for the theatre? There is something very important about a live experience. I’m not dismissive of some of the incredible online work that has been done. We’re all coming together to think about how we might make a better world or imagine a solution. So, let’s take care of each other while we do this.”
Our conversation then turned to WROL since it will be performed in Durham Region in March.
WROL was a recent finalist for the international Jane Chambers Excellence in Feminist Playwrighting Award (2021) and Alberta Playwrights Network Alberta Playwrighting Committee. The play has already been produced forty times most of that in the United States.
Michaela bills the play as a dark comedy. There are some amusing moments while there are some dramatic elements and issues these girls will have to end up facing for the rest of their lives. The plot involves a handful of Girl Guides who have essentially gone rogue. It’s a story of young women finding their voice and fighting for something they believe in while trying to make the world better. Whether the audience agrees with their tactics to accomplish this is the reason to come see DSP’s production.
Jeffery describes the literal layer of WROL’s plot:
“Technically the girls are trying to get to the bottom of something. They live in a rural area with a history of a kind of cult that existed and then vanished. The girls are playing Nancy Drew in trying to solve this survivalist cult and in the process find a hideout of a single guy who could come back at any moment. Is this guy part of this cult that vanished?”
Combine this understanding now with how these young women feel about themselves to be in a world that isn’t taking their concerns or their fears seriously. Things can’t stay as they are at this current moment. WROL becomes a look at how decisions are made. Are they made equitably and justly?
Although it is never expressly spelled out, there is an allusion to things that can’t stay the way they are in this current moment. Is it the apocalypse? The world is changing and as Jeffery says: “Shit could go sideways at any moment”.
Whatever these girls are struggling with, it’s all rooted in love, and a desire to care for each other and the planet. There is also an element of fear and anger the girls have to deal with too. Michela knows there have been some gentle and combative versions of WROL produced, and she loves how her script has been brought to life in these two ways. The way it’s written in the text has led to some directors going the tender direction with WROL while others have gone the hard, revolution route. Michaela stated there is an argument for staging WROL either way.
It will be quite interesting to see which route the Durham Shoestring Performers take.
The genesis for WROL came from a few places for Jeffery. She was asked to take part in an Alberta Theatre Projects Playwrights Unit during her first year out of NTS. She chose the age of 12-13-year-old girls for her play instead of the ages of 16-18 because there is something really striking about that point in ourselves and the self-discovery where we’re not cynical at 12-14 yet as we are when we’re at 16-18.
Michaela gave further thought to danger and young children and an understanding of urban myths. She gave further thought to what the mythologies of 12-year-old girls are. WROL became the genesis of what were the earliest moments Jeffery felt angry as a young female person.
What messages does Michaela hope audiences in Durham will take away from WROL as they leave the theatre?
She said WROL has a very complex ending in the sense it’s really open-ended. Past audience members have been asked what the last image was or what was the last thing they remember. Each audience member will tell a different story about the action that occurs at the end of the play. Is it an action of defeat or is it an action of hope?
Her final words about WROL:
“I really hope that audience members are excited and engaged in thinking about fighting for things they believe in their own lives and relationships and the world they live in. Will audience members think about how they protect their own inner child? What do courage, bravery and risk all look like? And what would I want to do for the world I live in?”
To learn more about Calgary-based playwright Michaela Jeffery, please visit her website: www.michaelajeffery.com.