November 2022 – Managing Director Michael K. Potter sat down for Post Productions’ first-ever IN-PERSON INTERVIEW with local playwright Joey Ouellette -- winner of the 2021 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. The two discuss equity, diversity, and inclusivity (among other things), specifically as they relate to Ouellette’s brand-new script: Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown.
Watch the interview and read the transcript below!
POTTER: Hello Joey.
OUELLETTE: Hi Michael.
POTTER: I'm Michael Potter, I'm sitting here interviewing the latest playwright in this series, Joey Ouellette. He is the writer of Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown, which won the 2021 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest and which is finally being produced as of November 18th, 2022, for a three-week run. Hooray! Finally!
POTTER: This is also the first interview in which I've been in the same room as the person I’m interviewing in this entire series.
Okay, what can you tell us about the play itself? Tell us about the story so they know what we're talking about here.
OUELLETTE: Well, I think there’s a lot of different levels to it, but first glance it is a group of people who go to a community centre which is for handicapped and disabled people and it's being shut down because of budget cuts and they decide to stop that.
POTTER: Yeah. They take action. And so there’s sort of two parts to it – to the struggle they’re facing, right? One of them is the closing of their drop-in central – it’s called the Roll-In Centre. And the other problem is the city’s closing of the bus route which caused the Roll-In Centre to be less used than it used to be, which is what’s endangering it now. So there’s these two problems that are intertwined, and they’re trying to address, right?
OUELLETTE: That's right. I think that if we look at their lives -- because really it’s about each individual character -- we see that it's constant problems like that. I mean this is just the latest one. It's like, yeah the bus route, now the centre’s closing, tomorrow it will be a different one.
POTTER: Yeah and there's a lot of that running through the play, a sort of commentary on what disabled people face in their day-to-day lives. Definitely one of the things that appealed to all five judges in the 2021 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest was the fact that you created these characters who are disabled, neurodivergent, chronically ill, who have some sort of special situation, and they're all people with their own personalities and lives and hopes and dreams and they want things, they’re imperfect, sometimes they’re wrong. All those things that we take for granted with characters when they're well written but it’s so rare to see disabled characters treated that way. They’re usually often either objects pity, or objects of ridicule, or objects of inspiration. They live to inspire other people. And we were all so taken by that fact that right away we first read it everyone was really enthusiastic about it.
Can you tell us about what led you to take that approach with the characters?
OUELLETTE: I don't know. Old age? I'm not young anymore and certainly the more people I get to meet in the world, I mean, who is abled? I mean we all have all kinds of challenges. Both of my parents are quite old and in an extended care home and the challenges they face every day just to understand who they are and what they’re doing there are significant. But that doesn't diminish who they are and the impact they've had in their lives, in my life, and it's just a constant adjustment to… I don’t know, we’re always treading water, I guess.
I mean the rest of us, as you said earlier, they’re always facing a new struggle. I think everyone -- that's pretty constant for all people. But abled people just run around it or they just do something different. But when it's taken a person who doesn't move as well so long to get into position and then they meet the brick wall, it's a whole big deal to run around it just like the abled people did.
POTTER: Yeah, it’s coping with the necessary adaptations or changes may be a much greater struggle.
One of the things you mentioned with your parents who are disabled now, and how they’re still people who have these lives and had impact on you and themselves and other people and so forth, reminded me that one of things I think that we were so taken with in the characters is that we could see their lives outside of this situation -- get a sense of their lives outside the situation. And they have lives outside the situation. We learn about where they work and we learn a bit about their home lives and things like that. Things they’ve struggle with in the past and so forth. And that's, I think, something that we're just not used to seeing with disabled characters, this idea that they are just human beings who experience life the way that people experience life. And we experience it differently, but there's all this diversity when it comes to what constitutes a human being leading the human life, but we only usually see a narrow narrow band of that diversity, at least represented as persons. You know what I mean?
OUELLETTE: Yes. One of the things that blew my mind – my sister was kind of the first little bird to fly out of our nest and she went to Toronto to go to university. I was very close to her so I used to go up. And I was totally blown away at the number of people who were just passing. And the realization that they all had breakfast that day, they all went to the bathroom, they all had clothes, they all had a bed to sleep in. Just the sheer number of places and activities they all had to do blew my mind. And everything we see are snapshots. I think especially in this play too. As you said, they have lives, so this is just a snapshot of a couple days of what happens to them. It doesn't define them. It's not their entirety. It's just a piece of a couple days. The future goes on, they have a past. It's part of a long line.
POTTER: Yeah, as it is for everyone. We’re just not used to seeing it with disabled characters.
POTTER: One of the interesting things for me, looking at the diversity of characters, is the kinds of disabilities and chronic conditions that are represented. We have a person who is wheelchair bound, we have a person who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a person who is autistic, a person who is nonverbal. Why those characteristics in particular -- those kinds of conditions, or situations, in particular?
OUELLETTE: Well, I'm an obsessive studier of things -- I've encountered all of those things and studied them trying to understand them, trying to empathize with them.
The Tourette’s person is based on Jess Thom, and you can find her on the Internet, she’s an amazing woman who is struggling a great deal.
My partner was a teacher and she had a student who only spoke in pirate language, who was autistic. And that was in the school play. Before that, he had never spoken. He was in grade seven. The other kids in his class who had been with him for eight years had never heard him speak. But when he came to the school play, he walked out there and he could talk like a pirate.
I’ve met lots of folks in wheelchairs. I remember in one creative writing class I had a very determined young woman who used to get handy transit and get to the class an hour-and-a-half before it started. She had extremely limited mobility, just with her hands. And everything – and then after the class finished it would be another hour-and-a-half before she could get back home again. I admired it.
OUELLETTE: And nonverbal people -- I mean, I was a nonverbal person myself for a long time. And, again, my wife, as a teacher she had a lot of students who were nonverbal. Apparently it's a thing that's rising, and sometimes in a family there would be siblings who are nonverbal.
POTTER: The boy in the play – well, he’s not a “boy”, he’s a young man – Ollie, who speaks in “Piratese”, or pirate language, and the story that you just relayed about the inspiration of that character has me thinking that in a lot of cases somebody is disabled because they, or we as a whole, haven’t yet found the tool or the context that will give them the ability to engage. Not fully, right?
OUELETTE: Yeah, a hundred percent.
POTTER: And it's not necessarily a problem with the person, it’s a problem with the interaction between that person and the rest of the world. We don't think about people who wear eyeglasses as disabled anymore, because eyeglasses are such a common adaptation. We're just used to that. We take it for granted. But you take away the glasses from most people who wear them and they are disabled in some ways, right? But we just don't think of it that way.
So you wonder – it makes me wonder, and this is the hopeful optimistic side of me – a hundred years from now what things that we consider disabilities now will be not think of as disabilities later?
OUELLETTE: Hopefully nothing. Because it’s just as you say, it's the constructs that we have – our sloppy lazy world -- that puts people at a disadvantage. I mean, even my daughter is left-handed. Going to her, as a bright child, saying “I can't get the scissors to work. How come the door opens the wrong way?” and all these things, and then doing research on it seeing the left-handed people are predicted to have a lifespan seven years shorter because the right-handed world is deadly to them, basically. And that's just a tiny little thing, right-handed/left-handed, never mind if you’re in a wheelchair or can't see or you have uncontrolled body movements or…
POTTER: Yeah. My dad was left-handed and when he was in school you weren't allowed to be left-handed. So they forced him to write with his right hand, and I think sometimes they would tie his left hand to his side or something so he couldn't use it. So he had to learn how to write and do math and all that with his right hand. But he’s left-handed for everything else. And it was a struggle for him. It made him feel like there was something wrong with him. Why do we consider some of these variations as impediments or negative characteristics or something that's wrong with people when in fact the only real problem is that we’re just not even trying to adapt to them?
OUELLETTE: Yeah, we can't even fathom, and I read about a woman who -- we have our heart on our left side and our lungs are bigger on our right side – a woman whose entire body was a mirror image. So her heart was on her right side. It's a rare condition, but she almost died in the hospital because the doctors couldn't deal with it. Because they expected it to be here and it wasn't. Which is ridiculous
POTTER: We’ve talked before, in the past, about how a lot of what we consider disorders or diseases or disabilities and so forth, not everything, but a lot of these things are just sort of our refusal to accept the range of human diversity.
POTTER: How common do you think that is, in your opinion?
OUELLETTE: Oh, it's endemic. Look what's happening in Iran right now: there's a prescribed series of things you're supposed to do and if you don't you get killed, you get beaten.
There are some great books. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – a lot of interesting things where he talks about the positive side of disorders, and the negative side. We never talked about the positive side. And everyone has something, really. Honestly, no one is “normal” as they say.
POTTER: Right, and what do we mean by “normal”, right?
One of the things I really like about this play, actually, and I don't know if it was an intentional thing on your part, but there’s -- in a way there's two different camps in the disabled community, which you know I’m part of. I used to participate more with that community online, not so much now. But one of the camps is that we need to get the general public to accept more things, more human diversity as “normal”. And the other camp, which is the one I'm in, which is probably the less popular camp, is that we need to reject normality.
POTTER: And that's where I am. And one of the things I like about the play is that the characters reject the idea that they should be “normal”, or they could be “normal” with help. Because that's not their goal. That's the goal that “normal” (quote-un-quote) society has for them --
POTTER: -- and imposes on them. Was that a conscious choice?
OUELLETTE: Oh, for sure. Throughout history all the people I thought were important, who were the movers and shakers, who determined incredible things, that made things happen, they were outside the norm. They were the oddballs. But the things they did, the changes they made, the ideas they had were revolutionary. They never fit in but they changed the course of humanity for the better. So how is it that these people who were “abnormal” changed and built the world we’re in which insists that you be “normal”? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
POTTER: Yeah, and why are some abnormalities considered okay or acceptable by society and others aren't? It seems to be quite arbitrary a lot of time, to me anyway.
OUELLETTE: I tried to let my kids -- I mean they had a lot of challenges in the world because I was their father, and they had lots of questions about, “why are things the way they are? Why do I get treated that way? Why do I have to do this?” So they developed a philosophy or a way of looking at the world where they classified people into categories. One was “sheep”, and these were people who were normal, who aspired to do normal things, who pretended to be normal and that was the only thing they did. Then there were people who they considered to be “actual people”, who had real opinions and real ideas. A third category were people who were “eggs”, who could become a “sheep” or a “person” but it wasn’t really known yet.
POTTER: Oh, right, yeah, so every little child starts out as an “egg”?
OUELLETTE: Yeah. And it helped them to negotiate their way. Because a lot of this stuff, “why don't I have more friends? Why do people react this way to me?” I didn't have answers for those whys, except that to be a unique person with your own ideas you're always going to encounter problems for some reason.
POTTER: God save us from normality.
POTTER: I remember one time when my son was little he came home from school and he was upset because some kids and called him weird. So he asked, “Am I weird? Am I not normal?” And I was like, “Well, are you boring?” And he said, “No.” He was like seven. And I said, “Well then you're weird.” Because normality is boring, to me anyway.
OUELLETTE: Oh yes.
POTTER: But that's considered an extreme position in the disability community. There is this striving, and I understand it from an unreflective human instinct point of view, to be normal and accepted by whenever the mainstream happens to be in your context at this present point in history. And I get that as an impulse. But I think reflectively, when you think about what you want to be, and what your potential is, and the potential of everyone else, I think it's not long before you find yourself thinking “why do I care so much about normality?” And I really love that the characters in this play don't. They make no efforts to be normal because why would they?
OUELLETTE: It’s not them. I mean, at one point Claire says, “I tried to stop my tics. I taped my mouth, I tied myself up. I couldn't.” She was saying she couldn't deny herself who she was. And even if she would have tried, she would have hated it. That's the struggle between her and her mother too. Her mother wants her to be normal, she needs to be herself. She's tried. She can't be -- how can you be other than yourself?
POTTER: The relationship between Claire and her mother is I think one of the most interesting relationships in the play. Because her mother kind of represents that position, which is also really common in the abled community, that the goal for disabled people should be normality in some way. So it's upsetting to her that her daughter isn’t normal, or isn’t trying to be normal. And Claire represents the other point of view which is “this is who I am and I'm okay with that. It’s not considered normal but the world needs to accept me as me.” And I think it would be really easy to turn that relationship into a caricature and just have sort of “good Claire” and “evil Mother”, but you don't. It's more complex than that because the mother, you realize over time -- although you immediately start off not liking her -- that she does care, but she’s stuck in this certain perspective and it's really hard for her to get out of it and see Claire from a different point of view. Is that something you've experienced?
OUELLETTE: Oh yeah, for sure. I think that's -- especially in his play, almost every character is stuck somewhere in their point of view, and the play really is about them all changing in some way. And that's the story of my life, and probably everyone else’s life. People like to settle and define things and we're all lazy and then we want to give up. We don't expect the egg to hatch. We don't expect the bird to fly. We just want to define things so that we can continue doing whatever it is we do. But everything is always moving and changing.
POTTER: It’s true, yeah. That's a good point that you raised too about all the characters needing to change their point of view because, not to spoil anything, but the resolution comes about because a key character decides to compromise.
That's an interesting part of the play for me too because, before that, there's a certain earned aggression coming from the group uses the Roll-In Centre until that point where one character realizes the only way forward is to compromise in some way. And not in a way that comprises who she is and that violates her own dignity in any way, but in a way that recognizes that we all have to move forward somehow.
OUELLETTE: And it strengthens her, I think. And we see her strength finally coming through because all of what was happening before, all of what she thought was strength was weakness.
POTTER: Right, yeah. And it does take strength to compromise because it means giving up part of what you want. And it’s probably usually the only way forward.
Was that the resolution that you naturally came to, or that you always had in mind, or is it something that came about in later stages of the writing process?
OUELLETTE: I think it was a requirement for the show that each person have a good character arc. And hers was the hardest because maybe she had to go the furthest, I don’t know. You could look at each person and argument that point, but I think I especially needed to see the change in her or I could not have any respect for her.
POTTER: Yeah, and respect for each of these people as human beings is key to the story’s overall message, I think, or overall themes.
You know this play is sort of a call-to-arms for inclusion. Inclusion of people who differ in all sorts of different ways. I like to think about it in terms of human diversity. It’s a kind of biodiversity within species, that we're not all the same, we don't all have the same strengths and weaknesses and all of that. But one of the things that's interesting to me in the real world and that I think if you think about it really resonates with that message is that when you say to someone “are you disabled?” and they say “no”, eventually the answer will be “yes”.
POTTER: Because we all become disabled in some way unless we die horrifically early.
POTTER: Do you think that focusing on that or spending some time reflecting on that as a natural part of the human life cycle would help people treat those who are already disabled more inclusively?
OUELLETTE: Oh, I think for sure that would help. I mean it's as you said, it's part of each of our stories. And even if we should be wonderfully fortunate and that not happen, it's still going to affect the people we’re closest to, so it's still affecting us. So, yes, a hundred percent. It's there. It's going to be there, so why not accepted it? Why not work towards it? Why not make things better?
POTTER: Yeah. And you know I wonder sometimes whether this need that people have to turn disabled people into objects of inspiration, who exists to help them feel more hopeful about their own life and so forth, comes from a fear -- a deep-rooted fear of “this could happen to me one day -- that I may someday be disabled in some way”. And they need to see disabled people then as sort of beacons of hope, that if this happens to me it won’t be the end of my life. But that denies them their full humanity, because people do not exist as objects of inspiration for others. They have their own dignity, and their own subjectivity. And there will be days when they are the opposite of inspiring. Let me tell you I have many of those days. But I understand, if that's accurate -- my way of thinking about this, if it’s accurate -- I understand this as a response to coping with that fear. But maybe part of getting past it is not seeing it as something to be afraid of.
OUELLETTE: Yeah, I think so. I'm student of humanity and I try to understand it. One of the things I found really interesting was they made that movie Alive about the Peruvian football team who crashed – maybe that’s the wrong nationality – in the mountains. And they had to survive for so long and then they chose to cannibalise the dead. And I read quite a lot about that, and one of the things that I found most incredible when they were being interviewed they said, “Well, who were the leaders? Who emerged to be the leader?” And they said, “No one”. Sometimes some person would lead and then they would get bogged down and it would become too much, and then another person would step forward for as long as they can do it. And they all took turns. Not out of a plan, but out of a shared concern, out of a shared idea that the group must continue. And so when the others sag whoever had the strength or whatever at that moment to pull a little harder to lift the others up a little more did so. There was no standout person. It was just a group effort that made them survive.
POTTER: And these were very young people, right? They were all in their early 20s, weren’t they?
POTTER: That's kind of inspiring. Recently I re-watched one of the movie versions of Lord of the Flies. And I hadn’t seen it since, I don’t know, thirty years probably. I haven't read the book in longer. But watching it I was struck by a couple of things. One of them was that there's basically no racial diversity all amongst these people, they’re all white kids. And two, that if we were to make a movie like this now, or write a book like this now, I think there would be much more variation among the kids in terms of things like ability, disability, chronic illnesses and conditions and so forth. In the movie all you have is Piggy who needs glasses. And I think there’d be more of that.
I also think, and this is what made me think of it based on what you were saying about Alive, is that it has an unduly pessimistic nature of what human beings are at their core. And I think that exists, this sort of competitive drive, and can manifest as bloodlust or whatever in certain people, and the desire to dominate. But there's also a really cooperative and empathetic side to human nature that I think Golding, when he wrote that book, didn’t see or couldn’t recognize.
OUELLETTE: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. I think as a neurodivergent person I've always wondered about normalcy and ideas of that. And early on in my life I tried to understand simple things like why am I always warm and why was my mother always cold? So I looked for answers for these things. Why do people have the preferences they do?
Having raised my children we decided to explain everything from the stance of a hunter/gatherer group. I mean, I'm always warm so I can be outside hunting or gathering or standing guard. And my mother, or my partner, is always cold because they would be with the children inside the cave and protect them all the time. I'm a loner because I would be the scout or the guard out there, and the people who gathere together, they would be the ones who would work together to do this. So we were able to explain every quirk of humanity, everything you can imagine, using this. Even down to why are some people allergic to mushrooms, or the smell of mushrooms? Well it’s because when the group found a patch of mushrooms they all ate them and died, or whatever happened, and the ones who didn’t lived on. So there's always a little backup plan to get us through.
And so then as I grew older, or however it worked, and I encountered people who were considered “disabled” I didn't tend to view them as an aberration from normality but as people with special abilities -- like being too warm or whatever it is -- that would help them and help the group survive.
I have a really low body temperature, which helps me stay warm. I also pass out really quickly when there's any sort of trauma to my body, and so I don't run around and bleed to death.
Finds Them and Kills Them, I love their story. When Christian missionaries came -- I can't remember, I don't think he was Apache, he was Crow or something -- in a very regimented society he was one of the last ones of the third gender they had of people who felt like they belonged -- he was a man who wanted to do women's roles. And what a strength that was. If you look through the whole idea of gender identities and things in lots of societies, especially in matrilineal societies where your father is not from the area you are, it was your mother's brothers who were really important to you, and if they didn't get married and leave because they were gay they were there to help you out. And this became a real strength to people. And so all these things have explanations.
I had a very close friend who was gay and I often wondered why. He didn't wonder why, he accepted it totally, but I thought -- because it's a physical thing. You can find little facts, like in World War II, in Berlin, in Germany, when it was encircled and it was constantly bombarded a lot of the babies -- a much higher percentage of the babies that were born -- were gay. And scientists were suggesting that giving the strength of a man and the stereotypical emotions of a woman was a survival mechanism. Building an individual who is more caring but yet had strength to help things survive. So we’re a constant -- each person is a collection of all these things.
I noticed aptitude is another thing. “Kid’s just like their dad, has that thing.” Why is that? That's a survival thing too. I noticed at different points in my life what I was good at my kid would get some of that. It's a survival thing. Nature’s combining all these things, creating these special little things –
I've gone way off topic, but the whole point is –
OUELLETTE: Yes! That's why we survive! If we were all the same we would be dead!
POTTER: I agree. Yes.
It makes me think too about, again you mentioned this earlier, about what constitutes a disability. So in this case you described all the people who go to the Roll-In Center as disabled. And in some uses of the term, they are. In other uses of the term not all of them would be considered disabled, at least by some people. So, for instance, Aggie who is nonverbal. Is that a disability? It depends on context. It's the same with wheelchairs. And at some point Shawn mentions, “It’s not the wheelchair that makes me disabled, it's the constructs that are built for people who don't use wheelchairs”.
And so disability and ability aren't inherent traits. They’re not meaningful concepts without context -- outside of the context.
OUELLETTE: If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it's going to fail. I mean, I've watched the Paralympics and see men and women who have the blades where their legs would be and they can outrun “normal” humans. Wow, they just fly. And same with people in wheelchairs zooming around like, you know, who's disabled?
POTTER: When I had my first leg amputated people were constantly saying, “Oh, you could get one of those blade legs and you go to the Special Olympics!” And I’m like, you know the rest of the body has to keep up, right? The rest of this is not fit in any way. It's not like I could compete in the regular Olympics before.
Anyway, that’s sort of off-topic.
One of the things that's not coming out in our discussion so far is the fact that this is a comedy.
POTTER: And we’re sort of talking very seriously about it because it deals with very serious things, but it's a comedy. It’s a really funny comedy.
I remember talking with the other judges when we were going over all the entries, and one of the things that we found impressive too was it is, as we say, funny on the page. And most comedies aren't funny on the page. You can read them and say, oh I see how that would be funny, but they don't become funny until they’re performed. This is different. There are very few scripts like that. Some of the Monty Python scripts are like that.
But it is a comedy and I think a really tricky thing to do is to write a comedy with disabled characters that doesn't ridicule those characters. Where their disabilities are never the butt of the joke or anything like that. Can you tell me about walking that line and how you made sure that never happened?
OUELLETTE: That was a hard one for sure. I mean, I think a lot of it had to be situational and a lot of it, honestly, is character based. They’re great characters, they’re great people, and the things that they find happiness in -- that happiness comes out. They play jokes, they do lots of things, there's lots of situations which butt heads, and as the audience we can see how ridiculous it is from that outside viewpoint.
So I don't know how carefully I walked that line, I just tried to be true to the characters. Because, I mean, if you've met people who are different in any way -- and who hasn't -- they're all funny. I mean they have good days, they have bad days, for sure but part of the requirement or, I guess, ability to survive comes from being positive too. Everybody falls down but you have to at some point get up and keep going. And if you don't, then you’re lost. And all of these people they certainly have fallen down a lot of times, but they also get up and they help each other up and they keep going. And their joy, their love of life, their desperate desire to experience the beautiful things in life which they see out there helps the story to be positive and helps them to laugh and to go forward. Also it's easier to be positive when you've experienced horrible things, right? I mean there's always the thing to say, “first-world problems” you know? “Oh, my coffee maker doesn't work!” Well, once you couldn't get up the stairs because you can't move up stairs, you have a different -- coffee makers aren't so important.
POTTER: Right, yeah, a lot of things become less important.
You raise a good point too in that when you're writing a comedy with characters who have disabilities you also don't want to go to the other extreme of making them so serious -- taking everything about the world and themselves too seriously -- because that's also kind of a dehumanization in a way. Because people, they’re in the middle. Sometimes they’re serious, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they're not. And so finding a way to make situations and so forth in the play funny strikes me as incredibly difficult with the script like this. But I think you're probably right in that the answer is to really focus on the characters.
OUELLETTE: I was lucky to have worked with newcomers to Canada. A lot of them didn't speak English so well and here they were thrown together in this drama class with me. And I said okay – well, actually it's a stupid long story. I got the times mixed up once and I was really late so as a makeup I said, look, we’ll put a show on. Because I wasted some of your time we’ll do this, because I respected their time. And they didn't want to talk about the immigrant experience, they didn’t want to talk about being newcomers, they all wanted to be special things, you know? A group of women from Africa wanted to be hardnosed police officers. An immigrant from Hong Kong wanted to be the mayor, and be respected. And they all had things like that that they wanted to do which are not things that my prejudice head would have imagined them to aspire to. I wouldn’t have said, oh, they want to be a police officer and walk a beat or – no. But that's what they dreamt of. So I think that helped me, when I came to see these characters I didn't see them looking out of their own eyes, trapped by their disability or obsessed by their disability, they had dreams to be whatever -- to ride dragons or whatever it is they wanted to do which wasn't limited by themselves. So I think that was a great help to me.
POTTER: And that speaks, I think, to the importance of having experience with diverse people. Because your experiences with those people in the drama class helped you break free of assumptions that you held about immigrants, as you said.
OUELLETTE: Yeah, for sure.
POTTER: And if we don't have those experiences with people who aren't like us in important ways, it's much harder for us to break free of our own assumptions and our own prejudices and points of view.
OUELLETTE: I would say impossible, perhaps.
POTTER: Maybe, yeah. In a meaningful way, yeah, impossible.
There wasn't a lot of diversity where I grew up so I was really happy when we moved to Hamilton when my son was little that he would be going to a school where he would meet people from all over the world. And he would experience so much diversity that I never experienced. Because I thought that's the antidote, in a way. Because I did not want him to grow up prejudice.
Well, I guess let's talk about -- sort of switch gears here -- recently we announced that you're play, Mirabella, won the 2022 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contests. Which makes you – actually you were already -- the only person who has won the Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest more than once. And you've now won it three times. How does that make you feel?
OUELLETTE – Very, very -- I'm very proud. Writing is hard. Writing something different is hard. I mean, you always feel like is it a fluke I just got something right this time? Mirabella wasn't typical for me or my process at all. I already had a play written for that contest, and then two weeks before this idea kind of worked its way out and I put it down and I kept working on it. And I felt that it was really something different and something special for me. Something unlike what I have done before. And I was very happy that it was well-received.
POTTER – Yeah, it was definitely well-received, and I think very different than the other two plays that have won the contest that you've written. One of them was sort of a spooky detective comedy, and then we have Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown. Then Mirabella is a very dramatic story, a very serious story, there are some bits that are funny but it's not intended to be a comedy at all. Also it's intentionally sparse, it’s intentionally spare.
What's interesting for me -- one of the things that's very interesting to me about that play was that even though it’s written to be a sparse, spare play that's performed very simply, without sets, you get strong, strong sense of location all the way through. A sense of place, and that grounds everything. Because it's that place that ties all the people together. And even though you're not seeing it when you're reading the script, obviously, and you’re not even going to see it when it's produced, you get it, it's in your head. Was that an intentional thing for you? I know the location is really important to the story. Was it always your intention to make it something that lives in audience’s imagination rather than something that's laid out before them?
OUELLETTE – Yes and no. I think I would have burst a blood vessel if I tried to put it on stage, the sense of that location that all those people came from, and was part of all of them, it was much easier to have it be part of them then try to show it physically on the stage. Instead, they were it. And that's also the thing that unites them all and ties them together. Also there's all the differences in there, and it's integral to the story.
POTTER – It’s part of who each of them are, and it’s a big part of every character's life, and so it's part of how they interact with the world. In different ways, because they’re all very different people.
OUELLETTE – Yeah. I guess if you look at each person as being incredibly different, than you take this one place, Mirabella, and you put all these different things into it, they’re all going to react slightly differently and that's what we see.
POTTER – Yeah.
The last thing I want to mention before we end the interview is that the second semester of the Theatre Skills Education Program starts very soon, and you and I are teaching the courses in that program.
So, I'm teaching a course on producing and then also a playwriting workshop, and you’re teaching a directing course. What can you tell us about the course and what people can expect because, hell, let's plug it – we’re here!
OUELLETTE – Well, you know I've done a lot of shows -- probably more than 500. I've had lots of different directors, I've done a lot of directing myself, and I really wanted to reflect on what I felt worked and what doesn't work. I can't say it's a “system” that you would use every time but perhaps a philosophy, a way of working, a way of being openminded, a way of respecting the actors/the material, regarding your own limits and moving forward with that to make the best possible project that you can.
POTTER – I'm nowhere near as experienced as you as a director, but I’ve directed, I don’t know, a dozen – fifteen? – and I'm going to be taking the course because I know there's more, lots more, to learn. There’s always more to learn.
OUELLETTE – I think if you stop learning, then you're done.
POTTER – Pretty much, yes.
OUELLETTE – Tell about the production course.
POTTER – Ah, well, thank you for asking.
So, the producing course is basically going to be a very active workshopping-style course where each class will tackle one element of producing an independent play. So one class is going to be focused on the thrilling world of budgeting, for instance.
OUELLETTE – The important world of it.
POTTER – Which is really important if you actually want to get the play on stage, and then maybe do another one. We’ll be looking at promotion. We’ll be looking at things that can be done in pre-production to get things organized so that you're ready at each stage when things need to be done. Those sorts of things. So, very practical, very nuts-and-bolts approach to producing with very little theory – even though I love theory. This is meant to be a “Hey, you want to produce a play within six months or a year from now? Here's what you need to know -- the basics”. And we’re going to work through all of those things with samples so people can try them out and see what kind of different results they get.
OUELLETTE – Very cool.
Now I've done a lot of playwriting, but I certainly accept that what I do is my own way -- as we’ve talked about the diversity all the way through this. What do you explore in your Playwriting?
POTTER – In the workshop, it's meant to -- it's really -- I guess the primary audience for it is people who want to submit to the Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest.
OUELLETTE – It’s totally worth it.
POTTER – Thank you.
And who are maybe stuck at a certain point in their script, or who are a little anxious about whether the script is ready to submit, or who’d just like some feedback from diverse people about how things are going right now -- to get together and every class we will have read a scene from one of their scripts, or even a precis of a script. Then we’ll discuss that as a group. And everyone will have an opportunity to present their ideas and we’ll discuss some common themes that are coming up from the group, but also some differences where the playwright is going to have to make some choices about which of those tastes to appease. And people can work through it with the same script every class or they can bring bits and pieces of different scripts, it doesn't really matter. The idea is just to give people the opportunity to move forward with whatever they’re working on.
OUELLETTE – That’s amazing. I know for me having this contest in existence was reason Mirabella exists.
POTTER – That’s cool.
OUELLETTE - Because the first time, of course, I wanted to win the contest. But once you've won the contest that's great – it really is great -- but now I had the freedom to explore and try something knowing that there were intelligent, respectful people going to be reading this and commenting on it, and so it was more – it wasn't about winning the contest, it was about creating something with the kind of freedom that I know caring people would look at it. And that was… that's why Mirabella happened.
POTTER – That’s cool. I'm glad. And we’ll be seeing it on stage… June.
OUELLETTE – June, that’s right.
POTTER - By this June.
OUELLETTE – 2023.
POTTER – Not very long.
OUELLETTE – Yep.
POTTER – Well, thank you very much, Joey.
OUELLETTE – Thank you, Michael.
POTTER - Thank you for sitting down for this interview. And thank you everyone for watching and/or reading it.
OUELLETTE – Thank you.
JOEY OUELLETTE has written more plays than he can count. He's acted in more than he can keep track of. He's directed, well, a lot as well. Obviously he's not good at counting. He thinks Mirabella might be his best play.
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7/15.2018 - SHELTER IN PLACE: Meet the Playwright
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7/2/2018 - Writing to be Read
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1/17/2018 - DOUBT: Meet Eric Branget as Father Flynn
1/10/2018 - DOUBT: Meet Carla Gyemi as Sister James
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