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Q&A: Lisa Moore on writing February for the stage

Lisa Moore’s novel February (House of Anansi Press) was a critical success when it came out in 2009, landing on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Three years later, the time-shifting story, about a widow who must raise four children after her husband is killed in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig, is heading to the stage. Directed by Michelle Alexander, the production premieres Sept. 21 at Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, and runs until Oct. 6.

Moore was originally commissioned to write a theatre adaptation by Newfoundland’s Winterset in Summer Literary Festival in celebration of its 10th anniversary. In August, Winterset hosted a reading of the work-in-progress attended by an Alumnae board member, who subsequently invited Moore to submit her script to the company.

Before Moore arrived in Toronto for the premiere, she took a few minutes to talk to Quillblog about her first experience as a playwright.

Did you have any theatre experience before beginning this project?
When I was 16, I acted and went to a theatre summer school here in Stephenville, Newfoundland. I’ve taught theatre to children on a volunteer basis over the last few years. I think that helped in some ways, but there really is so much to learn, even in the steps between those hours and hours of writing and the first read-through. That’s when you realize, Oh, the timing. No one can say that mouthful, or this point is belaboured, or I need more there because what I imagined was evident in a sentence has gone by so quickly no one could have gotten it.

Did you work with anyone during the writing process?
I worked with Rising Tide Theatre’s Charlie Tomlinson and Donna Butt here in Newfoundland through early drafts of the script. I learned some important things from them about the restrictions of theatre. Coming to theatre as a novelist I think that’s one of the first great shocks: everything is limited by the physical. But that’s also what’s thrilling about it “ there’s so much you don’t have to write because the actors bring so much flesh and blood to it. This sounds obvious, but it’s an amazing thing to learn what you have to write and what you don’t have to write.

The script is like the roadmap and the actors and director live the adventure of it. There’s something thrilling about giving up control and allowing other people to create something that you started.

Was the book challenging to adapt for the stage?
Many of the people who auditioned hadn’t read the book, but they had read the script and got the time shifts. The theatre hired a technician (Megan Benjafield), who was excited about creating an atmosphere through sound and lighting.

In part, it’s left up to the director. She didn’t think of it as a challenge “ she felt those shifts were obvious in the script, but I think the lighting and sound will alert the audience, as well as the content.

If someone has died in one scene and in another scene that person walks on stage, it’s either a ghost or you’ve had a shift in time. I like that ambiguity, because I think it provides a layer of meaning and brings up the question What is death? and What remains after?

What was it like watching actors perform your characters?
I went up to Toronto for the first read-through with the actors. They were great, sometimes reading the script in ways I hadn’t imagined, and sometimes in ways I had, which was also exciting.

The actor who’s playing Helen (Lavetta Griffin) is from Newfoundland, and when I heard her read the part “ she hadn’t read the book “ I was altered completely in my relationship to the novel because mow and forevermore this woman will be the Helen in my novel. She was so very much exactly as I imagined “ or rather she is now what I imagine. She brought Helen to life.

Did you enjoy writing for the stage enough to do it again?
Yes! A stage is a small space when you compare it to a novel, but the notion of creating something that lasts for an hour and is surrounded by an audience “ it’s just such a carrot to put in front of a horse.

I feel ridiculous wandering into that arena blindfolded, not knowing what I’m doing at all, but people work with you and tell you what they want. A novel is a collaboration, too, but not to this extent. Of course, you’re still alone when you write it, but the fact that someone takes over at a certain point is a complete thrill.

What was the most helpful advice you received?
The advice I got most about writing a play was Don’t have a herd of camels running across the stage. Someone else said, Write the play and let the director worry about whether or not you can have camels.

This interview has been edited and condensed.