‘When I came back to Edmonton I noticed that the city had changed,” says Vern Thiessen, artistic director of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre. “And I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of communities in this neighbourhood that I’ve never even paid any attention to.’ So I started to talk to writers and ask them the question: ‘If you could spend 30 days—if I gave you X amount of dollars to spend 30 days—in a community, where would you go?'”
This is YEG: New Plays for a Changing City was born from this question. Over the past several months, eight playwrights have spread out across Edmonton, integrating themselves into wildly diverse communities and developing stories based on their experiences. From city hall to the South Side Memorial Chapel, from the University of Alberta’s Math Department to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, the playwrights chose locations that mattered to them—overlooked places, hidden-in-plain-sight places, places whose stories needed to be told.
“The purpose is really to create a different relationship between writers and the subjects that they write about,” Thiessen explains. “And instead of having them in an ivory tower, in their office, writing about something that might be intellectual or theoretical, to embed them, kind of like a war correspondent, into a community. To parachute them in and have them watch, observe, interact with and then to come up with a piece of art that is based on that experience.”
With support from the Edmonton Community Foundation, each writer is fashioning a 10-minute playlet, all eight of which will come together to produce a theatrical mosaic of Edmonton.
Minister Faust, who’s written several Edmonton-set novels including Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and The Alchemists of Kush, chose Happy Harbor Comics as his home base for the project. He describes the comic book store as a hub for nerds and geeks, and a haven for anyone who feels excluded from other communities.
“Happy Harbor, as the name suggests, is an outstanding place for people to enjoy themselves and to find a place where they’re welcome,” Faust says. “And [it’s] a place where, with all the troubles in the world, or people having trouble paying their bills, or people facing various forms of discrimination, they come here, they get treated with kindness and friendliness and fun and respect … I’ve been to lots of comic book stores over the last, let’s say four decades. And I’ve gone to some comic stores in Edmonton or in the US or Canada that I’ve liked, but basically they were all just retail outlets. This place is a community. It’s the host to numerous weekly sessions of groups such as Lady Geek Nite, which is female fans who do everything from cosplay and crafts to presenting documentary films and academic discussions on women in science fiction and fantasy. It has its own artist in residence. It sponsors charitable events. It does educational outreach to schools. I think that this is the ideal model, this is what capitalism is at its absolute best.”
Faust has focused on Lady Geek Nite in the development of his play, seeing the integration of women into the traditionally male-centric sci-fi geek community as one of the major evolutions of this changing city.
“When I was a kid there were a lot of women who were fans and who were involved,” Faust recalls. “They were present, but I don’t think that they had the same opportunities to drive programming. And if they did, so much of the content that they would’ve been discussing and building around was so male-focused that there was only so far that they could drive it.”
Now, Faust credits lady geeks and female fans for the blossoming of Edmonton cultural events, like Animethon. He’s using his playlet to explore their contributions to the city, and to reaffirm his own artistic relationship with Edmonton—a city whose quirks and curiosities he has long defended.
“When I was in university, a large number of my Euro-Canadian friends couldn’t shut up about wanting to move to Vancouver, and a large number of my African-Canadian friends couldn’t shut up about wanting to move to Toronto,” Faust says. “And in both cases they had this fantasy that this would be the place that they would find romance and an amazing job, et cetera et cetera. And in large measure the people who went to those places discovered that, you know what, they’re just cities. And in fact, in those particular cases, particularly cold and unwelcoming cities. So I, at the time, was always fascinated with this city. I mean, I live here. There are fascinating people doing fascinating things here. Why would I have to go someplace else to make my dreams?”
Megan Dart feels much the same way about Edmonton, describing her adopted city in somewhat earthier terms.
“How do I say this without sounding so hokey—we’re like this dirty, gritty town that’s really fucking beautiful,” she says. “There’s just really beautiful people here who really care about this city and who care about the work they’re doing and care about how the city’s changing and who want to talk about it. And I think that for me was the most surprising thing.”
Dart chose the Edmonton Transit System as her area of study, and spent weeks riding busses and trains around the city, doing what she describes as active people-watching: “noticing the patterns in the way people move and the patterns in the way people interact.”
“I’ve been all over the place,” Dart says. “And I purposefully went in directions I don’t normally go. So I’ve been out to the Mill Woods area. I’ve gone fairly far east, I’ve gone west … I’ve really tried to go to areas that are outside of my comfort zone. I definitely got lost—more than once—but found my way home. It’s interesting. There’s nothing outstanding about any one part of Edmonton, but you do see these shifts in people and patterns as you go from one direction to the other.”
Over the course of her rides, Dart overheard conversations about manslaughter convictions and what-if scenarios about ninjas jumping into LRT cars. She met a little boy who roared at her and showed her his toy dinosaurs. She saw urine running down the floor when a man peed on the bus, and encountered dozens of colourful and eccentric people.
Forcing herself to break her usual transit habits—earphones in, eyes looking down at her phone or book—Dart discovered a whole world of bizarre and fascinating people in this nominally mundane environment.
“Every day there’s something crazy that happens,” she says. “I’ve met people who’ve lost their jobs up north and who had to go to pawn shops and sell all of their jewelry just to make ends meet. And I met a woman whose friend tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train, and she goes back to the same platform every year as a pay of respect for him. … Usually it’s just an exercise in listening, more than anything. I ask very few questions. People just kind of spill their story.”
Whether it’s through comic book nights or metro-car conversations, both Faust and Dart (along with Jason Chinn, Heidi Janz, Conni Massing, Nicole Moeller, Cat Walsh and Kenneth T Williams) have encountered hundreds of stories in their various communities. Now, all that’s left is to see what conversations they inspire in Edmontonians when they represent the city to itself.
“Playwrights should be at the centre of civic discussion,” Thiessen says. “They should be the people who are in the community who are the lightning rods, the shit disturbers, the mirrors, the comedians … I think playwrights have always, to some extent, held that role in society. And this is just a more direct way to get them out there and to see how they reflect the city that we live in.”
Fri, Apr 22 & Sat, Apr 23 (7:30 pm); Sun, Apr 24 (2 pm)
This is YEG: New Plays for a Changing City
La Cité francophone, $15 – $20