Back in October 2007, Catherine Banks' play, Bone Cage, had its original and only run on stage. Produced at Neptune Studio, there were some 10 performances over eight days, a series the playwright herself describes as "short." The play was presented by Forerunner Playwrights Theatre, which, by its nature, involves the playwright as co-producer, with Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro lending help with fundraising and set construction.
Bone Cage tells the story of 22-year-old Jamie, a woodlot worker processing trees and the bleakness of his own future, his lack of direction and the pain and grief seizing members of his family. And he's on the eve of his wedding to 17-year-old Krista, to boot.
Since that inaugural production, Bone Cage has received the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama (English) and has been shortlisted for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, which will be presented on Wednesday. Bone Cage was released by Toronto-based Playwrights Canada Press last year.
After a first print run of 500 copies, the book is in a second printing. "Who you hope will read it are all the artistic directors across the country," Banks says. "But also, it gets picked up by universities too."
The play was part of a contemporary drama course in the English department at Mount Saint Vincent University. Banks recently addressed the class and gave a reading. Theatre companies in Winnipeg and Calgary are in line to produce it.
Playwriting draws on symbolism and spare language, Banks says. "A play has to be pared down to the essentials." Reading a play between covers has its own rewards, she says. "It's like pure storytelling, how you hang out in coffee shops and pretend to write a letter and listen to conversation."
Growing up, Banks' family lived throughout southwestern Nova Scotia---Middleton, Kingston, Barrington, Port Maitland, Digby. "I went into a number of communities and I learned to listen before I talked. You really do have to slowly enter some of these isolated communities, like Barrington." With her own family (a daughter and a son) she lived for a time in Stewiacke, the landscape of which gave Bone Cage its setting.
The GG, as the national award is known, came with a $25,000 purse; the Savage, as it's called, offers $1,500 to the winner. According to Banks, a playwright receives a fee for having a play produced in the range of $1,000 to $1,500. She waived her fee for that inaugural production in the fall of 2007. Banks also declined her cut of box office sales (usually 10 percent of the total). And she invested $3,000 of her own money. She recouped her investment but didn't make any profit from the performances.
The play's budget was $38,000, a large portion of which went to paying for Neptune Studio, "which is very expensive to rent," Banks says. Despite the cost, the space was the only one in town that could accommodate the set design: a steel bridge, with "the high," where Jamie hung out with his buddies, drank beer and thought about his life.
"It is frustrating," Banks says of the lack of affordable, adaptable space for different theatre projects. Besides space, local theatre companies were reluctant to take on Bone Cage because of its cast size (seven, a larger number by today's standards) and "language." Did Banks mean the profanity?
"Yeah, isn't that amazing? Right now, in the theatre community I think that there's a fear of losing audience when the language is kind of difficult---in some areas.
"Personally, I think it's a trend. Small companies that really feel that they have to woo their audiences---not alienate their audiences---are very careful around language and even subject matter." But, she adds, "They've been so devastated by cuts, to be fair to the companies." Government funding and corporate sponsorships have decreased.
"Because the Canada Council encourages companies to commission and get new plays out there, what tends to happen is everybody's investing in the new
play. No one's doing a second production because they can't get an extra boost for that."
But a play needs to be "out there earning," while the playwright works on the next one. This makes the hope the book reaches the right hands even greater.
Savage Award finalists reading, Tuesday, April 14 at The Company House, 2202 Gottingen, 8pm, 420-0711. Atlantic Book Awards, Alderney Landing Theatre, Wednesday, April 15 at 7pm, free admission/cash bar.