Image: Thom, Neema & Jane in workshop for The Wolf in the Voice (Brian Quirt)

Nightswimming and Process

By Brian Quirt

Nightswimming initiates projects by asking an artist to propose an idea that they feel – either because of its form or content or even cast size – they would not be able to pursue without this commission. In other words, we want them to work on the piece that they never thought they would be able to create.

As an example, to use one of our earliest projects from 1997, we asked playwright Jason Sherman what he’d most like to write. He soon responded that he’d heard an historian named Phil Jenkins read from his award-winning book An Acre of Time. Jason thought the material – a history of one acre of land in downtown Ottawa – had dramatic potential. Nightswimming purchased an option on the book, commissioned Jason to write a play inspired by it, and established a developmental path for the project which best suited Jason’s attack on the material.

Once a project has been determined, we commission the artist (a creator that might be a playwright, or choreographer, or composer, or working between these disciplines) and design a long-term process by which the work will be developed. We put money in the writers’ hands up front, in commissions ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 based on the scale of the project. These fees are for a first draft only; subsequent drafts and workshops receive additional fees.

As they create, they have access to Brian and Brittany for conversation, research, encouragement, advice and, if they wish, deadlines. When the time is right we schedule a reading or a workshop. Our workshops are designed to discover as much as possible about the world of the new play and to explore its particular approach to theatre. The goal of every workshop is to give us a greater understanding of the writers’ intentions and a growing ability to realize those intentions theatrically.

Our goal at all times is to inspire the writer to write. That can take many forms, from a simple reading of a new draft to—for instance—bringing Jason to Ottawa for a week with a company of actors to begin his work on An Acre of Time.

A specific theatrical question or series of questions motivates each workshop process. In the case of another early project, The Whirlpool, the issue was how much of the story could be told through movement. In Lake Nora Arms it is how to tell the story of a place without a central character to focus on. With Beauty it was the desire to explore an abstract idea such as beauty. More recently, our questions included how to structure a show in the form of a dance lesson (Broken Tailbone); what are ways we could examine the dynamics of a choir (Why We Are Here!), and why are we all addicted to sad music (These Are the Songs That I Sing When I’m Sad). These questions are our guide to creating the process.

In order to develop a distinctive visual approach for our work, we seek out designers who can provide a theatrical environment that can play a variety of metaphorical roles as well as support the required theatrical action. Our shows often use a bare stage in which the design focus is on colour and light. I prefer spaces with few objects and props; spaces in which light is an active participant in the storytelling. Designers Dany Lyne (Through the Eyes and The Whirlpool) and Julie Fox (An Acre of Time in Ottawa), for example, attended the workshops as we explored how space could tell part of the story. Rebecca Picherack improvised with light as Andy Massingham created movement for Rough House and then designed the set based on those improvs. Lighting designer Michelle Ramsay was central to creating the dance hall environment of Broken Tailbone. Their production designs were directly inspired by the staging developed in the workshops, and their presence in the workshops was always very valuable to the development of the script.

Nightswimming offers me a forum as a dramaturg to explore specific theatrical ideas and forms. I am attracted to non-naturalistic plays that work with poetic text. I am interested in stories about history and the social and emotional relationship of the past to the present. I am fascinated by the theatrical possibilities of landscape as a mirror for our fears and desires. Poetry, history, and landscape: through these tools we explore our responses to the physical world, and how it colours our emotional lives and our political beliefs. History focuses on the collision between people and their society; it is played out in the landscape; it is recorded as myth, legend and poetry.

I am interested in the process of adaptation: novels, poems and non-fiction all have theatrical potential. Adaptation puts the act of theatrical creation at the core of our work: how is this story told in theatrical terms? What can the theatre do that no other form can do? Explorations in movement, music and design have naturally followed our forays into adaptation and have led to many of our most exciting discoveries.

We are committed to working with IBPOC artists and amplifying their stories through commissions, residencies and mentorships. We are committed to acting on our artists’ behalf, promoting their work nationally to theatres across Canada. We do this because Nightswimming does not produce the work we develop. We prefer to place all of our expertise at the service of the writers and the development of their play. But all plays are designed to be performed and we spend a great deal of time and effort seeking out theatre companies who can become partners with Nightswimming in the development and eventual production of our projects.

These partners join us in funding workshops and offering our projects exposure through public readings. For example, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre assisted with the development of The Whirlpool by including me in its Ante Chamber Playwrights Unit and offering the work two public readings. The Canadian Stage Company and the World Stage Festival then joined with Nightswimming to present it in a staged reading which led directly to the Tarragon premiere production. More recently, Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre and The Cultch were critical to launching the national tour of Anita Majumdar’s The Fish Eyes Trilogy; the Cultch’s commitment to our work also helped us complete the development Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box and Broken Tailbone, and both premiered there.

Our producing partners provide our projects with high profile productions. They have been extremely supportive in extending our developmental process by funding additional workshops and by having the faith to allow us to continue to work in our own way. They benefit from a thoroughly developed play that arrives at their theatre with a committed creative team; Nightswimming benefits from their production resources and their ability to present and market new works.

By focusing solely on developmental activities, Nightswimming is able to work on projects that may appear impossible to producing companies. Large cast plays are often immediately dismissed by companies for the natural reason that they simply will never have the resources to produce them. Since Nightswimming does not have to consider the producing requirements of the shows we work on, large casts are no impediment. We have pursued work on large cast shows — City of Wine, for example is seven plays with a total cast of 96! — because I know that they are important works to their authors and that if Nightswimming can bring them to a production-ready state, they will be much more likely to be considered by producing theatres.