Meet the Playwright: Sharon Pollock; an interview by Jenna Turk of Theatre Calgary
Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Sharon Pollock has called Calgary home since the mid-sixties. An icon of Canadian Theatre, she has done it all: acting, writing, and even leading Theatre Calgary as its Artistic Director in 1984. A two-time Governor General winner, Sharon Pollock’s legacy continues not only with her new work, but as a mentor to artists across the country. Select Sharon Pollock plays previously produced by Theatre Calgary include: Walsh, Blood Relations, Doc, and Whiskey Six Cadenza. Theatre Calgary’s Artistic Associate, Jenna Turk, sat down with her prior to rehearsals:
How did Blow Wind High Water come to be?
The play was commissioned by TC’s former Artistic Directors Dennis Garnum and Shari Wattling in 2015. They wanted something set in Calgary that touched on the 2013 flood. For me that location, date and event held not literal but metaphoric meaning and significance. A flood overwhelms. some things swept away, new or altered things taking their place. It brings destruction and rebirth. An individual must go with the flow or attempt to stand against it. A flood signifies endings and beginnings. Floods are both natural events and the stuff of myths. These thoughts planted the seeds of the play.
What is it like working with Theatre Calgary again?
A lot of things are the same. It’s a pleasure to work with supportive, dedicated and talented people, and that’s always been a hallmark of the TC company. The Max Bell has technical, financial and human resources beyond that of the old TC in the 70’s and 80’s that operated out of a 450 seat renovated tractor warehouse on 9th Ave SW. The present venue’s size and company scope open up artistic and production choices. It’s been a particular joy to get a sense of TC’s future under the new artistic leadership and vision of Stafford Amira.
Where did Gwynt (the character only seen and heard by Gampy) come from?
I guess the only thing I can say is “out of my head” with thanks to the Muse who put her there. Gwynt is Welsh meaning “wind” or "breeze", which was a gift. I only discovered the meaning of her name in a late draft.
As much as Blow Wind High Water connects to so many universal themes: family, ageing, legacy, etc.; it strikes me as a particularly Calgarian play. It has a certain spirit! What defines the Calgarian spirit to you?
I don’t think of that “spirit” as particularly Calgarian but as Albertan, and it’s an Alberta undergoing change. In the early 60’s I chose Alberta as home because of its spirit of independence, a maverick within a staid Canada. I saw the peoples of this place as frank, honest and forthright even in expressing unpopular opinions whatever the consequences, no bullshit. They didn’t give up whatever the odds, they liked a good argument, and if voices were raised they didn’t wilt. Community was strong but they highly valued and supported the rights of the individual. They were suspicious of federal governance (in my opinion rightly so) and wary of any governance or control from above or below. Individual responsibility ranked high. They weren’t crybabies. They were a courageous pioneering people. They lived life large and dreamed big. Time passes and things change. The Alberta spirit that appealed to me now manifests itself in different ways, not least of which is our awareness of the Indigenous Peoples of this place and what is owed them. I believe however the essence of that spirit still hovers over the land. I wanted “Blow Wind High Water” to somehow touch on all this.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this production?
I hope they’ll be engaged and entertained. I hope some of the audience will find the characters and their story resonate in some way with their own lives. I hope they’ll feel they’ve experienced in some small way some small parts of history that have made the place they live in the place it is. I hope they’ll leave with a sense of celebration and optimism.
You are, as the bio above states, “an icon of Canadian Theatre.” Are you tired yet? Why do you keep writing?
I suppose I must get tired on occasion. Who doesn’t? Why do I keep writing? What would I do if I didn’t?
Why are new Canadian plays important? Are they?
I hate labels so I reject “new” and “Canadian”. When I was younger I could tell you why plays were important. Now when I think of societal things that are important I’m not sure where I’d rank plays in the order of importance. Theatre is important to me and perhaps it’s theatre’s failing that it is not important to more people who don’t happen to work in theatre.
What advice would you to give to an emerging playwright today?
Keep writing unless you can stop.
…on the subject of magic realism…Do you consider Blow Wind High Water a play in the genre of magic realism? Why or why not?
I intend the world of Blow Wind High Water to be one in which magic realism prevails. In the play you have a real or natural world, a seemingly ordinary world, in which magical things happen and a supernatural character exists, without other “real” characters acknowledging the magical aspect of either although they are affected by it. Gywnt is not a loose screw in Gampy’s mind. She’s an entity, some might say spiritual as well as magical. It would be a mistake to think of her other than an entity in her own right, and I hope no production ever does.
What was the appeal of the genre? Does it provide certain freedoms? Any limitations?
It isn’t that magic realism as a genre appeals to me. The characters and story that come into my head dictate the genre. I don’t come up with it. Gampy and Gywnt do because magic realism is the only way to tell their story. In order to have a play hang together and be accessible to an audience (which is preferable) there needs to be a unity of imagination or intellect that governs your choices. For me, magic realism did that... I find the only limitations in writing a play are the ones that we impose on ourselves.
Are there other plays of the genre that have inspired you? Any Canadian?
There are plays in different genres that I love or admire or enjoy, but they don’t inspire me in writing my own plays. Inspiration, if that’s what it is, is goaded by compelling questions I ask myself about things I don’t understand about past and present events and people, and/or about myself. My plays are my attempts to make sense of myself and the world I live in, and then to offer them to others believing they too may be asking variations of those questions. I don’t have any answers.