“Making Rainbows”: David Fennario as Neighbourhood Storyteller (Blog 4)

“Making Rainbows”: David Fennario as Neighbourhood Storyteller (Blog 4)

Playwright David Fennario has chronicled the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the working-class district of Point St. Charles for the better part of forty years. Raised in the district, Fennario is best known for his landmark 1979 drama Balconville that explored the collision of English and French speaking neighbours in a balconied tenement on the eve of the first Quebec referendum. Language tensions in the city were at their height. In 2005, another Fennario play, Condoville, revisited the characters to show the changing times. After a quarter century of watching things change around them, the old characters now faced the loss of their homes due to gentrification. They don’t go down without a fight, however, staging an occupation only to be beaten by riot police. There is no happy ending to this working-class tale: the housing cooperative becomes a condominium and the residents are ejected onto the street.

Given my longstanding admiration for Fennario and his work, I was incredibly excited when Ted Little proposed to bring him into our Oral History and Performance studio-seminar. Would he agree? And, if so, what would he reveal about his practice? At it turns out, he has agreed to join us for three evenings. Yesterday was his second visit.

During his first talk, he spoke of Brechtian theatre and raised questions about mainstream theatre’s reliance on illusion. Why do actors pretend to be someone they are not? What would happen if they played with this illusion, partially lifting up their masks? He believes that the illusion puts distance between actors and audience, limiting the political possibilities of live theatre. He worried that style often gets in the way of what needs to be said. “Just tell the story,” he advised. I found this conversation interesting. Historians have their illusions too. Even today, we tend to write in the third person – rendering the narrator invisible. As Kimberley Moore, an MA student in the class commented: it is about letting go of the “artifice of objectivity.”

What I remember most from Fennario’s first talk, however, is a story he told of his childhood in ‘the Point.’ ‘Boys being boys’, they would stand on a bridge spanning the canal and wait until a ship passed. They would then jump into its oily wake – ‘making rainbows’ in the polluted water. This story brought the place to life in vivid detail. I could almost see it. The story also invoked his working-class credentials and his experiential authority to tell the community’s story. Fennario does not need to use ‘verbatim transcripts’ to authenticate the stories he tells, these are his neighbourhood stories.

Last night, during his second visit, he reflected further on the place of stories and storytelling in this working-class community. He spoke of the major storytellers in his life: his mother, sister, and Jimmy. These stories, which sometimes lasted hours, were told on the fringes of weddings, wakes, and other occasions that brought friends and family together. His mother had 8-9 stories that she told and retold. Stories were also passed down through the generations. For example, Jimmy would tell his father’s stories – making them his own. In the telling, gestures were small but meaningful. When Jimmy was once invited by a Concordia professor to have his story recorded, he refused – it would “take it out of the moment.”

At this point, David Fennario returned to his childhood story of ‘making rainbows’, but it had changed since the first visit. He now confided that he and his cousins did go down to the Canal, but that they would throw him in. He was little. Making a face, he told us the water tasted terrible. Did he ever make rainbows in the oily waters of the Canal? Does it matter?

After reading from a new script, we discussed how he might stage it: setting, costumes, casting. Earlier, he emphasized, that actors must make the role their own. If not, they cannot bring the character to life on stage. At one point, he mentioned that he gives workshops on playwriting where he walks them through ’10 steps’. Step 1, “scratch notes”, is a brainstorming exercise that documents your first impulse as a playwright. We never got to the other 9 steps.

Ten Question for David Fennario:

Coming back home on the metro afterwards, I realized that I still did not know much about how David Fennario transforms stories into a script nor how the script becomes a staged performance. What insights might he offer us in our ongoing consideration of “oral history and performance”? I therefore thought that I would end this blog with ten questions that I would like to ask David Fennario if I could:

1. What are the ‘tens steps’ that you teach in your playwriting workshop? The script is a key part of the ‘oral history and performance’ continuum and I would like to know more about how you take a story and make it part of a script.

2. Have you ever used verbatim transcripts? Why/why not? What do you think of verbatim theatre as a form of live theatre?

3. If actors must make their characters ‘their own’ to make them come alive, how might ‘verbatim theatre’ be performed well on stage?

4. What ethical issues have you faced in your own work? Have you ever not included a story? You mentioned that Jimmy did not want to let a university professor record his story because it would take it out of the moment. How would he/did he feel about you telling his story? How do you keep it in the moment?

5. How has your practice evolved over the past 30 years? What ‘lessons learned’ can you share about performing other people’s stories?

6. What is the role of the script writer in the staging of the play? If you were to review your own plays, what would you say?

7. To what extent is your practice collaborative?

8. How might playwrights go beyond the telling of their own stories and tell the stories of others? How would they make it their own (like what you ask of actors)?

9. Is there a danger in telling neighbourhood or community stories in so far as it homogenizes difference within and exaggerates differences without? How might we both validate community identity and raise critical questions? The tension between the two seems critical to Ted Little’s hope to create a model for a new kind of theatre he calls: ‘neighbourhood theatre.’

10. What do you see as the possibilities and pitfalls of ‘oral history and performance’? How would you tell a story of an interviewee (an assignment students in our class have been given)?

Cheers, Steven