Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Playwrights in Profile: Erin Shields

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October 1, 2012 - 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.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a playwright?

Erin Shields:

As a young actor in a new city (Toronto) it was incredibly difficult to get auditions, never mind parts. After a year of trying to crack into the scene I decided to write my own play and perform it in the Fringe Festival in Toronto. As I looked into the details I realized that there was a whole circuit of festivals across the country starting in June in Montreal and ending in September in Vancouver. I applied for as many as possible and organized my own solo tour across the country. I learned about producing, touring and met a family of independent artists making their own work.

OB:

What is the first play you remember being affected by?

ES:

When I was eleven, my parents took me to see The Merchant of Venice at The Stratford Festival. My parents were in the habit of seeing a play at the festival every year and that year I was to join them (leaving my three younger sisters at home with a babysitter). Before going to the play, my father thought it would be a good idea for the two of us to read the play aloud. So every night for two weeks, we sat in the living room together and he patiently listened to me work my mouth around the Shakespearean text, taking pauses to discuss the action of the play, the characters and their motives. Then we saw the play on that enormous, yet intimate, festival stage with incredible actors bringing the text to life. And I knew what they were saying, what they were doing and what was going to happen next. The magic of the entire experience hooked me for life.

OB:

What one play — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

ES:

Scorched by Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad, which I have seen and read in the English translation by Linda Gaboriau. Scorched, is a play that grabs its audience by the throat and doesn’t let go for three hours of mystery, humour, fear, ecstasy and suffering. It is an epic work that spans countries, generations and every conceivable shade of human emotion. I aspire to that level of breadth and specificity.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

ES:

Water. When I’m stuck on a problem I swim, take a bath, have a drink, watch the rain or a lake or a river; the sound of it, the feel of it, the movement of water is incredibly inspiring to me.

OB:

What do you do with a play that just isn’t working?

ES:

Steal bits of it for other plays.

OB:

What was the last play you read that really knocked your socks off?

ES:

In general, it’s better to see plays than read them. The last incredible play I saw was at Tarragon theatre last year: The Golden Dragon by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig (one of the most prolific and poignant playwrights of our time). The Golden Dragon is a dark exploration of the interconnectedness of people in the sometimes exploitative, sometimes compassionate, world we live in.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a playwright? And what is the worst?

ES:

Best: The ecstasy of writing the first draft.
Worst: Getting out of the way so the director, designers and actors can bring my play to life.


Erin Shields is a playwright and actor who most recently won the Governor General`s Award for her play If We Were Birds. She 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.

For more information about If We Were Birds, please visit the Playwrights Canada Press website.

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