Judith’s Thompson’s Dark Tales
By Roselyn Kelada – Sedra

 

Canadian stage and screen writer Judith Thompson often writes plays with
dark themes but it’s a family scene that stands out in the mind of actor
Sandi Ross when she thinks of her friend of 15 years. At a Christmas
party eight years ago, Ross walked in expecting to see a celebrity writer of Canadian
drama making the rounds in a room full of actors, directors and producers.
And there she was sitting in a corner, breast-feeding her daughter while the crowd
milled around with their punch. “That’s when you know you’re in the presence of
someone entirely different. . .kid at her tit.” Ross was awestruck right away.

Thompson

A writer for stage and screen, Thompson seems to have crammed three average lifetimes into her own. Over the past 25 to 30 years, she has created a body of
work in film, radio and theatre, which won her the 2007 Walter Carsen Prize for
Excellence in the Performing Arts. She made her name in film with Perfect Pie
and the borderline cult classic Lost and Delirious, both of which landed her Genie
nominations for best screenplay. She won the ACTRA award for Best Radio
Drama with Tornado. A two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for
Drama and of the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award, she’s earned national
recognition as one of the most relevant, effective talents writing today.

In what her friends fondly call “the house of chaos,” she lives in Toronto with
her husband of 30 years, four daughters and a son. Her latest play, Palace of the
End, just finished its premiere run with the Canadian Stage Company, and she’s
wrapping up a project with Dove, bringing the campaign for natural beauty to
life with a cast not of airbrushed performers but flesh and blood women. In the
meantime, she teaches theatre three days a week at the University of Guelph,
while supervising grad students. When classes stop running in March, she picks
up production for the annual Shakespearean play that she adapts and directs for
the middle school classes at her youngest child’s public school. And she still manages
to work out at the Y and read Toronto’s newspapers on a daily basis.

On a Saturday morning where sidewalks are full of puddles, she comes blustering
into her chosen café, talking through her day. She has to pick up one kid
from swim practice, then play hostess to 20 of her daughter’s friends before going
to work on her Dove cast. “Anyway, not to complain,” she says. Sipping a
sense of calm out of her latte, her pace begins to slow. “So, what about you?”
The funny thing about Thompson, as anyone she knows will tell you, is how
unaffected by fame she is. “She’s just like, ‘oh yeah, I write some plays,” says Ross
with a shrug. To Julian Richings, who plays David Kelley in Palace of the End,
her authenticity makes sense. “You can`t write her kinds of plays and have an
alter-ego. She is who she is.”

When David Storch, the former artistic director of the Canadian Stage Company,
first met her, he was a young actor playing Pascal in White Biting Dog and
a total devotee. Faced with the opportunity to work with her, he couldn`t help
worrying about disappointing his idol, “but she makes it easy,” he says. “All of the
playwrights I’ve encountered. . .all of the playwrights who are good. . .put you
at your ease to an extent by talking about the work as a curious thing that found
its way into their lives.” Before you know it, Storch continues, you’re working on
the piece together.

Directors, actors and fellow writers seem mystified by Thompson’s writing process.
How does she come up with this stuff? “That’s literally the question,” says
Ross, who collaborated with her to create the group of one-act plays Sick Project
Collective in 1994. Although she’s maintained a friendship with Thompson since
then, Ross is still stumped “because she’s literally June Cleaver!”

Thompson herself doesn’t seem to have any more concrete answers than her
peers. The closest she comes to explaining is this: “My whole theory of creativity
is that blink theory, you know, spontaneity.” Feeling like the Cat in the Hat, with
eight thousand scripts and kitchen appliances in the air, she writes for deadline and
offers her experience as a guide to unsure artists. The same way she’d teach someone
to read, she says, “when you have to do things, you just dive. And yes, things
get a bit rough and ragged, but you can find some amazing stuff.”

Thompson’s friends and co-workers describe her as a phenomenon. “When
you meet her,” Ross says, “you’re gonna go, where did Crackwalker come from?!
Judith, are you bipolar?” Her works grapple with the darkest, most brutal realities
of human experience. In Palace of the End, Maev Beaty plays a character inspired
by convicted U.S. war criminal Lynndie England, pregnant and awaiting
some sort of resolution on charges for crimes, in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib. The actress
went to the audition expecting to meet someone as dark, as visceral, as the stories
she tells. Instead, she met “Mother Earth” incarnate. She compares Thompson to
Joyce Carol Oates, remarking how surprising it is to look into eyes that see such
damage in the world and find kindness and warmth. “They [these writers] are so
open to the injustices in the world, but there’s nothing bitter about them,” Beaty
says. “They’re harbingers of hope.”

Thompson has been faced with this apparent conflict as long as she’s been
writing. “My kids say. . .not my youngest kids, I can’t let them see most of my
plays. . .but my older kids will say, ‘Mom, I can’t believe that came from you.’”
Her disturbing characters and their language, the viciousness and violent sexuality
in her writing contrast sharply with the woman who writes them. “It’s not
me,” she explains of the cruel circumstances that ensnare her characters. “It’s
what I have seen and witnessed and what I think is important to show in its
reality. I show people who are trapped in those worlds,” worlds she began to
recognize during her experience as an assistant social-worker. She traces her ability
to write vivid characters to what followed, training at the National Theatre
School in Montreal, particularly in mask work that taught her how to channel
other voices, other experiences and feelings, into her art. “It’s almost like there’s a
collective unconscious. So, it’s drawing on other parts,” reflects Thompson. “You
can flow, and the limits of your persona are not fixed.” Hearing herself, she laughs
a light, musical laugh. “I mean, what do I know about Lynndie England?”

Utterly candid, she reveals what’s so daunting about being a writer. On the
one hand, it’s the desire to find the perfect way to say things. Pointing out a
chocolate shop down the street, she confesses she’ll often buy a little box to make
up for inadequacies she sees in a card she spent two hours writing. But writing
a script is far more frightening. “It’s having the gall to say, you should listen to
me!” Writing or acting, “people have to understand that their stories are what
they’ve got,” she says. “There’s nothing more powerful and generous than bringing
your experience to the character and saying to the audience, ‘This is real, and
I’m giving this gift to you.’”

There have been times when she’s almost given up. Thompson thinks back
to Sled’s harsh reception. “That just about defeated me,” she says. “I like to tell
people it gets easier, but it doesn’t.” But she keeps going because, she says, “you
have to believe that your voice matters in a larger way.” With a revealing heaviness
in her voice, she admits “there have been times when I almost felt like I
couldn’t make it.” But people in her life and young devotees remind her of the
value of her work, “and I crawl up and do Palace of the End.”

More than anything else, she encourages the young to learn to trust themselves
as quickly as possible. “You’ve gotta go with your gut, and it won’t ever
be wrong. It won’t be wrong. If there is a God, it’s that. And it’s the thing that
saves us.”

 

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