19 Playwrights on a Zoom Call: A Look at Both of Alberta Theatre Projects’ Writing Programs

By Camille Pavlenko

My students are really into “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65.

This song, which came out in 1999, has come up in at least three of our recent classes, with no less than two students threatening to write musicals based on it for their final projects. “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is, indisputably, a banger, but is a bizarre tune for them to know the existence of in the first place. It was a one-hit wonder that gives me deep, visceral nostalgia about school dances and body glitter, and it made me think, recently, about the circular nature of life in which everything old is new again. And about a blue house, with a blue window.

I’m Camille Pavlenko and I have the unique experience this season of teaching Alberta Theatre Projects’ long-running Student Writers Group and being a member of the Playwrights Unit at the theatre, concurrently. If I was being a crafty writer, I’d distinguish the programs as such: The Playwrights Unit is a diverse group of professional playwrights, some with years of experience, some with decades, all working on their own individual projects throughout the year, and meeting regularly, over the internet, to share findings, ask questions, and develop their own pieces, with consistent support from Alberta Theatre Projects. The Student Writers Group is exactly the same. Except, the members are between fifteen and eighteen, so they don’t have decades of experience. Yet.

Because COVID-19 has relegated our monthly Playwrights Unit meetings to being strictly online, an upside to the 2020-21 Unit is that it consists of playwrights from across the country. Though the eight of us are currently based in Alberta and Ontario (with an even 4-4 split), our theatre contracts and formal training have taken the group of us all over the country (and beyond) during our very diverse careers.

The Unit is a structured, artsy stew consisting of mentors, peers, colleagues, and friends. Everyone has something unique to bring and something unique to learn. Did you know that, as a group, our plays have been produced in every single province in Canada? In anticipation of our workshops and public readings, which ATP will be presenting later this spring, some of us in the Unit are working on brand new plays and others are adapting and expanding work in their existing repertoire.

Such is the same with our student group. Many are working on brand new pieces, ten-minute plays they’ll have presented as staged readings with professional actors in May, but some are working on adapting their own past work, short stories, for the stage. There are even a few who are writing radio plays.

The members of the Playwrights Unit may have national and international productions under our belt, a packed shelf of published works, a combined awards-resume longer than your arm, and a bucketload of university degrees, but we are sincerely not all that different from the teen class that meets on Monday evenings. In fact, we are mirrors of each other.

In our Student group, there is a young Natalie Meisner-type—a budding poet/playwright, wise far beyond their years. We have a miniature Makambe K Simamba, intrigued by solo shows and the power of theatre to tell intimate stories. We have a Mark Crawford, and she’s hilarious, ambitious, and unbelievably easy to talk to. We have two Andrea Scott-types, sociable and enthusiastic, with a lot on the go and their fingers on many pulses.

We have a student who is a bright, local advocate; a delightful combination of Dale Lee Kwong and Matthew Mackenzie, and one who is two parts Trevor Rueger, our facilitator in the unit, and one-part Jason Maghanoy—incredibly involved in a variety of creative writing programs around the city. There are also several Camille Pavlenkos (or, at least, I’m vain enough to see myself in many of them).

And we have students who are uniquely their own.

They’re all so interesting, they’re so talented, and if I can just get them to see that too, I’ll have considered myself successful as their instructor (also, they should know what a stage direction is).

Besides future pro playwrights in the Student Writers Group, we have budding directors, actors, designers, visual artists, and dramaturgs (which we’ve only just covered in class, but some of them already have the makings of). If they have the interest, every single one of these teens is already equipped to venture forth into the next steps of becoming a professional writer, in theatre, or in some other form. The students in this class, whether they ever decide to touch another script in their lives, are learning to grow their knowledge and learn the value of live theatre and at the very least, they will be our audience members. Our season subscribers. Our board members. Our patrons.

Thus, everything old is new again.

Da ba dee. Da ba doo.

Camille Pavlenko is a Calgary-based playwright and actor. She is member of the 2021 Playwrights Unit, facilitator of the Student Writers Group, and is Playwright in Residence of Alberta Theatre Projects.

A workshop reading of her play-in-development, Go for Gold, Audrey Pham is happening Friday, May 14 at 7:30pm as part of Playwrights Projects 2021. Get your ticket today!

The Student Writers Group Showcase is happening virtually on Saturday, May 15.
Find out more and get tickets (by donation) HERE.