Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Erin Shields

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Erin Shields is a playwright and actor who most recently won the Governor General's Award for her play If We Were Birds. She trained in acting at Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in London, England and is a founding member of Groundwater Productions through which she creates, develops and produces much of her work. If We Were Birds was produced by Tarragon in 2010 and won two Dora Awards. It garnered the 2008 Summerworks Festival’s Outstanding Production Award and is being translated into French, German and Italian.

Her other plays include Barrel Crank (Suitcase in Point/Summerworks), Montparnasse, winner of the Alberta Theatre Projects’ Enbridge playRites Award, Dora nominated The Unfortunate Misadventures of Masha Galinski and The Epic of Gilgamesh (Groundwater/Summerworks). As an actor, Erin starred in Dance of the Red Skirts with Theatre Columbus, Fewer Emergencies with MITCH and toured extensively with Small Wooden Shoe’s Dedicated to the Revolutions.

Erin has been nominated for numerous awards including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the KM Hunter Award and five Dora Mavor Moore Awards. She is the recipient of the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Drama for If We Were Birds. Erin is currently playwright in residence at Tarragon Theatre and Nightwood Theatre and writer in residence at Open Book: Toronto for October.

Erin's website is

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Playwrights in Profile: Erin Shields

Erin Shields, author of the award-winning play, If We Were Birds (Playwrights Canada Press), speaks to Open Book about writing, unlikely source of inspirations and the last play that really knocked her socks off. Erin is Open Book: Toronto's October 2012 Writer in Residence.

If We Were Birds

By Erin Shields

When King Pandion marries his daughter Procne off to war hero King Tereus, she must leave her beloved sister Philomela behind. After years of isolation in a foreign land, Procne begs Tereus to collect her sister for a visit. When confronted with Philomela’s beauty, Tereus’s desire triumphs over reason, igniting a chain of horrific events. A deeply affecting and thought-provoking re-imagining of Ovid’s masterpiece "Tereus, Procne, and Philomela," Erin Shields’s award-winning play is an unflinching commentary on contemporary war and its aftermath delivered through the lens of Greek tragedy.

Read more about If We Were Birds at the Playwrights Canada Press website.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts

O Canada

O Canada
My home and native land.
Your leaves are falling and people are crawling
back into their houses again.
The days are getting darker,
the nights are growing colder
and Christmas has begun its’ abrupt commercial invasion
into every public space,
onto every television.

O Canada.
Sometimes you make me weary.
With your ‘I’m sorrys’ and your ‘hi/bonjours’.
You’re so polite and unassuming
and the way you talk about the weather
as though it could be as catastrophic as it is
for other countries who live closer to the paths
of hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis and earthquakes.
You get the occasional flood
and though the winters aren’t what they once were
there’s always a chance you’ll have to call in the army
to deal with another ice storm.

On writing and babies

One of the things I was most nervous about when deciding to start a family was distancing myself from my artistic work. I knew time would be an issue; that my writing practice would change in many ways; that I wouldn’t be able to be as present in the professional scene I had been so engrossed in. I wanted to have children and to be with my children but didn’t want to sacrifice the career I had worked so hard to build up to that point. Not surprisingly, this is a common anxiety for most women who have chosen a career they feel passionately about. Many have written about achieving ‘balance’, about ‘having it all’ about being ‘a Super Mum’. In my experience, there is no ‘balance’, trying to ‘have it all’ is impossible, and I rarely feel Super. But in the super imbalance of trying to do it all, I feel a sense of pride and exhaustion and inspiration and power and exhilaration.

Dear Blog

Dear Blog,

We Fall Down

I once went to a service at a Pentecostal Church. We sang this song:

We fall down, but we get up.
We fall down, but we get up.
We fall down, but we get up.
For a saint is just a sinner who fell down ...
and got up.

This song came to mind the other day when listening to the canonization of seven new saints by Pope Benedict.

I wondered ... is a saint just a sinner who fell down ... and got up? Or is there more to it than that?

Thinking about Eve


The guilty one.
The one who is tempted.
The one who succumbs.
The one who brings pain to everyone else.
The one who is punished.
The one who must atone.
The sin of the mother is revisited upon her daughters.

The weak one who cannot be allowed out on her own.
She is prey to her own whims, to her own unwieldy desires.
She will make bad decisions when left to her own devises.
She can never be trusted again.
She must be under the careful guardianship of a father, a husband, a leader.
She must pay with every life she brings into the world.

Pregnant. She cries.
During labour. She moans.
She atones.
She feels like she might split in two.
She thinks she will die.
There’s a good chance she will.

Workshop ... Day One

Yesterday I launched into a workshop at Tarragon Theatre for a new play I’m writing. Two actors, a director and me in a room for three weeks. I’ll take my play apart scene by scene, action by action, beat by beat then word by word looking to find greater clarity in it than when we began. There’s always a danger I could dismantle my play past the point of return; that I’ll no longer be able to find my way through it clearly. The dream is that the play comes together and I write a draft I can take into the first day of rehearsal (whenever that might be).

The Best Time

When my father dropped me off at university he said,
‘Enjoy this. This is the best time of your life.’
And I thought, wow that’s heavy and sure
of course I’ll enjoy it and sometimes I didn’t
but for the most part I did and I think my father
remembers his university days with incredible joy and nostalgia
and he wanted me to know that,
didn’t want me to let it pass me by.

When I decided to take a year ‘off’
(which hasn’t entirely been what I’ve done)
but to take a year off to be with my daughters my mother said:
‘Just do it. It will be hard but I did it.
You won’t regret the time spent.
This is the best time of your life.’
And for her, it was, she loved the chaos
of raising four little girls,
still raising four little girls, if we’re to be
entirely honest.

Favourite images from favourite novels

Imagery is essential to fiction. My favourite images are the ones that begin simply then grow and expand and press themselves out to the point, often, of magic realism. Infused in these images is the essential premise of the story, the core value of a character or the key to the world in which the story occurs. And through these images, the reader (or audience) can reach a level of understand which cannot be articulated in any other way.

These are a few of my favourite images from some of my favourite novels:

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje: Worker Nicholas Temelcoff diving into mid-air from the Bloor Street Viaduct like a prehistoric creature.

The day the falls stopped falling

I should have liked to be at Niagara Falls on 28th March, 1848. About midnight, the falls stopped. Completely. People in their old fashioned beds with Victorian night caps and frilly nightgowns tucked up under their woolen blankets were awakened by the startling sound of it. Silence. And in 1848 the falls hadn’t been siphoned off for hydro electricity the way they are now. The thunderous roar of it was heard and felt kilometers away so its absence must have been terrifying. ‘Have I gone deaf? Has the rapture come? Has time got weary and stopped itself all together?’

Tig Notaro

I just finished listening to This American Life’s most recent podcast: What Doesn’t Kill You. First off, This American Life is an incredible program so listen, if you don’t already. I’ll put the link below. But I’ve been thinking about how to write about performance in this blog. I am a performer, I write for performers, I write stories for performers to perform and that isn’t the same as writing a novel or poem or short story. The words I write are intended to be heard so how those words are spoken is as important as the words themselves. “Performance state,” is something theatre makers talk about a lot. Mostly in rehearsals. Mostly in rehearsals for less traditional plays. At the moment. Anyway.

Coming of Age

Coming of age stories captivate me. There seems to be a defining moment that marks the transition from girl to woman; from boy to man. And this moment has nothing to do with menstruation or bar mitzvahs. It has to do with knowledge and the action one takes to gain that knowledge. Like Eve with the apple, that moment is a realization that you are both more and less than you thought you were; that time is passing; that all will change. And that moment is connected to the beast in us all – like childbirth and sex and death, it is real and often bloody.

The following is a monologue I wrote for a modern day Gilgamesh but it hasn’t yet fit into the play. I hate it when things I write won’t fit into the play they have been written for.


I must have been nine or ten.

Oh Hamilton

When I spend time by the ocean
I think about people who grew up by the ocean,
who live with the ocean
every day.
The wind, the water, the salt is imprinted on their faces,
infused in their language,
vibrating in their very bones
and it conjures in me romantic notions
of fishermen and terrifying storms,
of women waiting in lighthouses
for their men to come home.

And mountain people,
those who raise goats
or ski through the winter
in the shadow of that magnificence,
dwarfed by sculptures so divine
and unmovable, one cannot help
but be perpetually humbled.
The strength in the people that live on that strength,
the solitude soaked from solitude,
the wild cats and wolves,
the barren patches, the caves.

Then there’s the desert people ...


A few conversations with Olive, my two and a half year old ...

Dinner conversation #1

Me- Olive, come back to the table and finish your dinner.

Olive- I just have to play with the giraffe for a little bit longer.

Me- Olive, come and eat.

Olive- You're just going to have to be patient mum.


Dinner conversation #2:

Olive: Mum, do I have cream cheese all over my face?

Me: Yah.

Olive: I said, mum, do I have cream cheese all over my face?

Me: Uh huh.

Olive: Use your words mum.

Me: You want me to say, 'Olive you have cream cheese all over your face?'

Olive: Yes.

Me: Olive, you have cream cheese all over your face.

Olive: Really?


The Glassco Playwrights' Residence in Tadoussac

In September I participated in a Translation Colony. Maryse Warda is translating my play, If We Were Birds, into French for a workshop (and later production) directed by Geneviève Blais of Theatre à corps perdus in Montreal. Not really having any idea what a ‘Translation Colony’ would entail, I gladly accepted the invitation from Playwrights Workshop to go to the Glassco family home in Tadoussac, Quebec for ten days with my then five month old, Tallulah.

Here we go ...

This is my inaugural blogging experience.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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