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Q&A: Priscila Uppal on writing her first play

In her 2013 memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (Dundurn Press), Toronto poet Priscila Uppal shares painful details about reuniting with her film-obsessed mother, who abandoned the family 20 years earlier. The book was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction and the Hilary Weston Prize for Non-fiction (and named a Q&Q Book of the Year.)

Toronto theatregoers will have an opportunity to explore another dimension of Uppal’s personal story with a new play, 6 Essential Questions. Written by Uppal and directed by Leah Cherniak, the production premieres at Toronto’s Factory Theatre on March 6.

Q&Q spoke to Uppal about her first experience writing for the stage.

How did this production come to be? I go to the theatre every week ““ it’s been my refuge ““ and I’d been thinking of writing a play for a while. Iris Turcott, the dramaturge at the Factory Theatre, was going through one of my books and stumbled upon the poem “I’m Afraid of Brazilians or Visiting the Ancestral Homeland Is Not the Great Ethnic Experience Promised by Other Memoirs.” She said she’d wanted to see a play about this. When I told her I was already writing a memoir, she suggested I write a play at the same time. So, for the last three years while I was writing the memoir I was also writing the play.

How did you find the experience? It was really freeing. With the memoir I wanted to keep to the facts of what really happened. It’s such an emotionally wrought and difficult story  because the reunion doesn’t go very well with my mother. I wanted to analyze exactly why that happened, and the reader needs to trust that I’m giving them all the facts.

With this theatrical adaptation I was encouraged to be as surreal and absurd and poetic as I wanted to be. It ended up being a wonderful counterpoint: I could go into one universe and fully explore the metaphysical and visual vocabulary of what this emotional experience felt like.

How is the play surreal and absurd? The opening scene features a purse that opens up and a lullaby comes out with my mother’s voice. There are four characters, and to emphasize that this is not a realistic universe, the lead character, Renata, doesn’t have my actual name. The other characters are my mother, grandmother, and Uncle Fernando, who in the play is known as Dr. Garbage. He is the maestro who controls the universe.

Everywhere the family eats and sleeps and talks is on a pile of garbage. It’s really about dealing with the garbage in your past and your mind, and how when you come face to face with 20 years ago, the subconscious comes to the forefront.

What’s different about dealing with editors versus directors? I’m used to dealing with editors. I like to write a complete draft and then pair up with the person I think is the right editor for the book.

With the play, you don’t get the director until the production has been approved and so it’s an entirely different process, but one that’s really exciting. I have a very established director, Leah Cherniak, and she’s been generous explaining all the decisions she’s making and asking my opinion.

We just spent three days locking in every sound, lighting, and blocking cue. The play includes quite a bit of music and dance, and there are projections and special effects. Leah has to think of all of it, and how it all works together.

What is it like watching other people perform your story? I want to offer my opinion, but I also have to hold back from saying, “I would never do it like that” because someone’s playing me. Other times, I have to say, “I didn’t really do that, maybe we can have a discussion about what actually happened” and see how we can reinterpret it on stage.

The woman who plays my mother, Elizabeth Saunders, is so good I have trouble looking at her sometimes. She makes my mother appear incredibly sympathetic, and so there are times I get quite choked up looking at her. She’s found so many depths to my mother’s character.

Are there any other mediums you’d like to try writing for? I’d love to do a libretto for an opera.

This interview has been edited and condensed.