By Saleema Nawaz
A few months ago, Benjamin Hanff was in the office of Players’ Theatre when a couple turned up with a special request: ten minutes alone together on the stage. It was their wedding day, and they revealed their romance got its start there in a student production.
For Hanff, a U1 student in Political Science and Drama and Theatre and Coordinator of this year’s McGill Drama Festival (MDF), it was the perfect example of the kind of magic that can happen at the city’s oldest English black box theatre.
“With MDF,” says Hanff, “there are so many stories that come out of it.”
Not least among these stories are the seven officially on offer this month in the annual Festival of one-act plays all written, directed and acted by McGill students.
Part of SSMU (Students’ Society of McGill University), Players’ Theatre mounts four productions per year in addition to the Festival.
“We choose plays based on the quality,” explains Hanff, “but also the number of people who can be involved in each show. When it comes to acting, this festival had 40 roles in it, which is a phenomenally large number. So it gets so many people involved who have never acted before.”
Hopeful directors go through an application and interview process. Student plays are chosen separately by a reading committee before the selected directors hash out the assignments among themselves.
“Everyone gets a veto if they’re not comfortable with the play they’re directing,” says Negar Banakar, a U1 Education student in secondary English, “but we actually didn’t have any problems this year. We all really loved the ones we got on the first round.”
Although the directors each bring some theatre experience to the table, many are newbies to being at the helm. Banakar is one such first-time director. She describes her play, New Theatre by Christine Klippenstein, as “very metatheatrical.”
“It’s basically a play that’s very boring at the start – it’s meant to be boring. And the narrator thinks that it’s boring, so he starts changing things.” The ensuing alterations produce amusing results. “It’s very comical,” says Banakar. “The cast has a really good time.”
Odd and unprofessional
Rebecca Babcock, another new director and a U2 double major in English Literature and Drama and Theatre, steers a similarly self-referential production. Written by Martin Law, The Thrill of the Chaise features an intentionally bad framing play about spies.
“It’s supposed to be odd and kind of unprofessional or just really ridiculous,” says Babcock. “Whereas the actual play itself is about these pieces of furniture that are on the set. There are three chairs, a table and a rug.”
How exactly Babcock is bringing this challenging material to life won’t be revealed until opening night.“It’s hopefully going to be a surprise for the audience,” she says.
Not all participants are first-timers. Indefinitely, a play about a young gay man coming out to his sister the night before he leaves for university, is penned by Tabia Lau, a Festival veteran and former winner of the Colin Krivy Award for Playwriting. The Award, established in memory of a talented McGill alumnus, is awarded annually at the MDF.
The rest of this year’s lineup features murder plots, crocodile gods, and other intriguing fare. Hanff promises audiences won’t be disappointed.
“Even if not all the plays are phenomenal, you can see some – for sure, I guarantee it – which really catch you off guard because you wouldn’t believe the originality…it’s actually amazing.”
The McGill Drama Festival runs from March 20-31. Tickets: $6 students, $8 general admission. For more information, go to www.wix.com/playerstheatre2011/players