What is your role on this production?
I’m very happy to be the director of Jennie’s Story. I chose this play more than a year ago, and have been thinking about it and working on it since. It’s a challenging play for its intensity and its historical pertinence. Although it is fictional, it tells the story of Jennie McGrane, an ordinary young woman of normal intelligence who was nonetheless diagnosed as “feeble-minded” under the terms of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928, and was sterilized as a minor without her knowledge or consent in the mid-1930s. The play is literally her story, and portrays the consequences of this life-defining event on herself, her family, and her community in 1938-1939. My responsibility has included working with the set designer to establish the ground plan and the physical environment for the show; preparing for the auditions and, with the help and advice of my production team, to cast the most effective actors in each of the five roles; establishing a suitable rehearsal schedule that takes into account the actors’ availabilities; conducting these rehearsals effectively, while at the same time consulting regularly with our design and production teams about developments and changes that frequently arise; addressing many and varied questions from actors, designers, production crew, and stage management about everything from character interpretation to costume shape and colour to lighting choices to the suitability and utility of the many props required for the show — and many other questions besides.
What is your background in theatre? At Walterdale? I trained as a theatre historian and a director in university and graduate school, and taught in the Department of Drama at the University of Alberta for 33 years. I also started in theatre by working with three different community theatre groups in Calgary in the mid-1960s. I directed my first Walterdale show, Cyrano de Bergerac, in 2004, and have directed four Walterdale shows since then. Jennie’s Story is our team’s sixth Walterdale show together. Also, in 1995, Joan Hawkins and I co-founded Abbedam Productions, the Department of Drama BA Division’s producing arm, and worked with students closely on Abbedam’s first two productions. We’re proud to say that Abbedam just completed its 20th production in November 2013 — for 17 years entirely student-generated, student-created and student-run.
Tell us about the Walterdale experience? How is it different from other theatre experiences? Walterdale Theatre is my absolute favourite venue. I
love its intimacy — the 145 seats are very close to the action; the stage is large enough to accommodate many theatre worlds; it’s also small enough to incorporate those worlds and express them powerfully to the audiences; and because the theatre is extraordinarily well-equipped technically, many complex effects are possible. But the main reason I love it so much is that everyone involved is volunteering their time and their skills; they are collaborating on something that is greater than the sum of its parts; and everyone learns from everyone else, develop skills that they often don’t know they had, and end up contributing to a process and a product that is the shared culmination of their individual c
ontribution. It’s very empowering.
Why should people come see Jennie’s Story? How is it relevant today? Jennie’s Story is fictional; however, it’s based on the experiences of hundreds of girls and women like her who were sterilized under the terms of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act between 1928 and 1971. Apart from the fact that at least one such true story is widely known, and again in recent news — the story of Leilani Muir — it is extraordinarily important, as well as useful, for all Albertans to know that dire violations of civil and human rights can occur under the very best of intentions, and that we need to be vigilant not only to these violations, but to the logic that makes them seem so reasonable.