Ann-Marie MacDonald: A Living Legend of the Canadian Stage

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Posted on: 20 June, 2022

Category: Featured Member

by Riley Palanca

Last month, QWF had the pleasure to sit down with the illustrious Ann-Marie MacDonald. An author, actor, and playwright, she is currently on QWF’s Advisory Council. In this interview, she shared her thoughts on the playwright’s life.

QWF: Let’s begin with a question about one of your biggest works, Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet. For context, I was a theatre student in the Philippines ten years ago, and my friends and I were already reading and talking about your play. When you were first writing this play, did you have any idea of how big it would become?

AM: When I did the play, it went through various workshops, and I had great support from Nightwood Theatre. There was a premiere in 1987. After, I got a chance to rework it because the theatre was committed to remounting a national tour of the play.  My play toured nationally, I got terrible reviews in Toronto, and it didn’t matter because audiences came and loved it. And then after that, silence. There wasn’t a single regional theatre that would touch it in Canada. It was like it never existed. It had been a resoundingly successful sold-out tour, and, to my mind, the first play in Canada that had queer content and proved very successful with audiences. Yet the regional theatres were saying, “This is a little bit too much for our audiences.” In true first-generation immigrant style, I became my own publicist. I put together all the amazing press from the tour into this press package with a glossy folder. I did a massive mailing to artistic directors everywhere in the country. And guess what happened? One regional theatre picks it up. And then another. And then it looked like every other success story.

QWF: If you could have an hour-long conversation with a dead playwright, who would it be, and what questions would you ask them?

AM: Aphra Behn. I would ask, “How many other plays did you write that we don’t even know about? Did you ever act in any of your plays? Did you ever sneak onto the stage as a woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman? How are your teeth? How many of your female friends were also writing? Can you tell us where those manuscripts are buried? How queer was your world? Did you have glasses eventually? How did you work by candlelight?

QWF: You written plays, and you’ve also written novels. What is the biggest difference between writing a play and writing a novel?

AM: The play is not the script—I don’t write plays; I write scripts. When I’m doing a play, I know I’m writing for colleagues to come in and work with me. The play exists when the director, designers, stage management, technicians, actors, everybody makes it into a three-dimensional experience. When it comes to writing a novel, I’m fulfilling all those roles. I’m responsible for that three-dimensional immersive experience. For me, there’s not much difference between live audience and readers—they’re all just the audience in a different context.

QWF: Building on that, who creates a character: the playwright or the actor?

AM: As the playwright, I create the character. The actor creates the human being. The best kind of surprise for me as a playwright is when I go in thinking “Gee, I really hope the actor reads it the right way,” and then I forget that anybody wrote it at all because I’m just lost watching them. That’s their work. They take the script and make it a play. They take the character and make it a three-dimensional human being.

QWF: What is the role of the playwright during the rehearsal process?

AM: Well, don’t get in the way too much. Listen, really listen. And breathe through your nose. I don’t know any playwrights who are totally chill when it comes to being in a rehearsal—they usually just hide it either well or poorly. The best thing you can do is observe and be willing to be flexible.

QWF: The relationship between the director and the playwright can sometimes be fraught, but it can also be beautiful. For example, Chekhov and Stanislavski. You married your director. How is that working out?

AM: Alisa Palmer and I had worked together for years before we developed an intimate relationship. Our relationship was forged in collaboration theatre. Sometimes I was the actor, sometimes I was the writer. Sometimes she was the movement coach, sometimes she was the assistant director. Finally, she started directing works that I had written. I married my director, we’re still married, and she’s the bee’s knees. I feel very lucky.

QWF: Controversial question—if you had to choose, does drama belong more in the world of literature or the world of theatre?

AM: Theatre. I’m sure it’s controversial, but 100% theatre. It’s wonderful that dramatic literature exists because then you have a blueprint that you can pass on. As with many cultures that do not have a written tradition, there is the belief that something is compromised when you write it down. It doesn’t stop with the pages in a bound book. Scripts definitely belong to the theatre, owing a debt of gratitude and respect to dramatic literature.

QWF: With your upcoming production Hamlet-911, you are revisiting Shakespeare. What is new with your relationship with the bard this time?

AM: Hamlet-911 grew from an idea that Alisa Palmer had about Hamlet. She recognized that there was a gender divide. Male directors have directed Hamlet a number of times. They’ve played Hamlet a number of times. They have a relationship with Hamlet, and Alisa felt very connected to Hamlet, but also left out of it just based on gender. Before I wrote Goodnight Desdemona, I didn’t think I was drawn to Shakespeare. I felt completely left out of it: it’s not mine, it doesn’t care about me, it’s a classical mainstream thing that has nothing to do to me. And I realized I had a similar experience with Hamlet. Now that I’m in it, I can own this. That’s what great art does. It invites you to own it, and it now belongs to you.

QWF: Your novel Fall on Your Knees is premiering as a play in four cities next year. What are the challenges you are facing in moving something written for the page to something meant for the stage?

AM: That is something that playwright Hannah Moscovitch has done along with Alisa Palmer, who is directing it. I’ve been a consultant, but I have not written the script. I’ve seen it, I’ve supported the development of it, and it’s very, very exciting to see. This novel began in my mind as a play, I even started writing it as a play. Now, it’s a play. Full circle.

QWF: In an interview for Quill and Quire, you said everything you write is autobiographical. You weave narrative out of the poetry of your own experience and perspective. Your upcoming novel Fayne is “a tale of science, magyk, love, and identity.” Would you say this book still draws from personal experience or is it more based on imagination?

AM: I love making stories, and they are not literally autobiographical. Sometimes there are literal autobiographical elements: my mother was from a Lebanese immigrant family on Cape Breton Island. My grandmother did elope at the age of 12. None of my grandparents had English as a first language. Autobiographical elements to be sure, but the narrative, I make that up. In my mind, my job is alchemy. It’s making fiction out of all those things.

QWF: Ending on a light note, do you have a guilty pleasure Broadway musical?

AM: Picture me, I’m 11 years old, I’m singing the entire book of South Pacific in the upstairs hallways of my house. There is a song there sung by one of the American soldiers. He’s in love with a woman indigenous to the place where he’s posted. And in that song, he talks about being taught to hate people who are not white. Somewhere within that American imperialist white supremacist heteronormative blockbuster musical are some beautiful songs.