Talkback: An Interview with Playwright Judith Thompson
Photo by Wendy D
If playwright Judith Thompson were one to rest on her laurels, she’d have no shortage of theatre awards, accolades, hit shows, and even an Order of Canada, on which to prop up her feet.
Luckily for theatre goers, Thompson, 59, isn’t ready to kick her feet up just yet. Take her latest production – Watching Glory Die – based on the tragic story of Ashley Smith, a Canadian teen who hung herself in her cell in a Kitchener women’s institution while the guards obeyed strict orders not to intervene.
The play has three characters – teenage inmate Glory, her mother, and the prison guard – and Thompson plays them all. It’s a daunting task for any performer, let alone someone who hasn’t acted on stage in 35 years.
Zoomer’s Mike Crisolago spoke with Thompson to discuss her decision to take on such a challenging performance, how the Ashley Smith tragedy inspired her to write this show and her trick for memorizing all of her lines.
MC: So once you actually started performances in Vancouver did your memorization hold up?
JT: Completely. And I got into a wonderful routine where I had bought a second-hand bike, I biked the seawall in Vancouver, which was just sheer heaven because it was beautiful weather, and I’d sit at one of the beaches and I’d do the whole play to myself. I’d skip a line here and there (on stage), and that was my big secret I learned as a playwright – that nobody ever gets your play perfect. I sort of was under the illusion they were.
MC: When it comes to Watching Glory Die, was there a particular moment during the Ashley Smith inquest that compelled you to write this show?
JT: It was a moment that was difficult for me because my daughter was in the hospital with a hip replacement – she has an early juvenile arthritis. That was also the time of [Iris Turcott’s] festival. So Ashley and the horrible tragedy of her death – I think that what connected it for me was my daughter, in a sense, incarcerated by this illness and having to be in the medical system. So this is my artistic response to something that affects all of us and something, as taxpayers, we don’t know what’s going on everyday. I’m lucky enough … that many of my plays are still playing 30 years later somewhere, that it (could) go on in different languages (and) address this tragic lack of response and how the government can get out of our control even in democracies.
MC: So many of your shows are influenced by current events. What perspective do you believe we as viewers gain when an artist takes an event that touches so many people and distills it through their work?
MC: You got to know Ashley’s mother personally. Did she offer you any glimpses into Ashley’s struggle that you could incorporate into this play?
JT: Yeah. I incorporated all of it right away. She said…(Ashley) did not want to die, she wasn’t difficult, she was treated so abominably – this reputation is what the guards were responding to, not her. So I put both points of view in. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between…And some of (the guards) are lovely. I read the testimony at the inquest and they didn’t like these orders [to not intervene] either.
MC: Going forward, if you continue to perform do you envision yourself taking on a show such as this, playing all three parts?
JT: No, it’s so exhausting. [Laughs] It’s elating in a way … but I like to be in my shows as a small part because I hate abandoning them. I hate leaving them and then our lives are so busy I’ll see them maybe twice, or three times. Although it’d probably be annoying to the actors to have me there. [Laughs] But I like seeing others do it.