Judith Thompson reads at Glendon’s bp Nichol Literary Series

One of Canada’s most admired contemporary playwrights, Judith Thompson (right), was this academic year’s second invited guest in Glendon’s bp Nichol Reading Series on Jan. 26. Thompson is currently a drama professor at the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies. A prolific playwright, Thompson has had her works staged in Canada and abroad.

Thompson read from three of her works, including her most recent one, My Pyramids, or How I got Fired from the Dairy Queen and Ended Up in Abu Ghraib, by Private Lynndie England. First produced in 2005 by Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, this dramatic monologue focuses on the young American woman soldier who gained notoriety when the media published video clips and photos showing her giving the “thumbs-up” beside pyramids of naked Iraqi prisoners, and in another, holding a prisoner on a leash, like a dog. Thompson stated that she often takes her topics from news headlines and then creates a theatrical work around them. “I always start with a question, something I don’t understand,” she said. From this starting point the playwright explained that she tries to figure out why people behave the way they do. With Lynndie England, she was fascinated by her simplicity, her mainstream-America “everydayness”, her simple-minded patriotism and her self-justification.

During the reading, Thompson, in an instant, became Lynndie England: she used imaginary props, she acquired an accent, “chewed” gum, softly sang to herself, palpably descended into ignorance, racism and self-delusion. “I totally inhabit whichever character is talking,” said Thompson afterward. “It’s like walking through the looking glass.” When asked whether she plans out the actions of a character and the events of a play, she referred to the tyranny of the narrative. “It’s the characters who make the story develop,” said Thompson. “I find out through their voices what will happen, who they become.”

Thompson also read from Pink, a monologue which was first produced in 1986, when apartheid was still very much a fact in South Africa. The play takes the voice of a little girl, who addresses her dead Zulu nanny at her grave. Her 10-year-old mind is already infected by her society’s racism, as she expresses her incomprehension at the nanny’s abandonment of her and the “security” of the family, in exchange for the dangers of fighting for freedom from apartheid and individual rights. Thompson captures to perfection the childish naïveté of the girl and her tainted understanding of the world around her. When asked how much of her work is fact and how much fiction, her answer points to a combination of both. “One has to have at least some relevant experience, and one’s self is always in every text, but nobody needs to know where,” she replied. “It can be in the smallest detail, a movement, a word, in the universal experience.”

Thompson’s final reading was from Perfect Pie, first produced at the Tarragon Theatre in 2000, in which two women, who had been closest friends as teenagers and then lost track of each other, reunite 30 years later for an afternoon and revive their buried, painful memories of the past. One of the characters describes experiencing a seizure, which she compares to an ominous, malevolent stalker. Thompson’s first-hand experience with epileptic seizures, as a young person, translates the play into reality.

Thompson generally starts working on a topic by writing a monologue, because that is a medium where the character’s innermost self can be revealed. “Once you have more than one character – a dialogue – the social conventions interfere with a full inner disclosure. You have polite formulas to observe and the interaction is often much more superficial,” said Thompson. Later on, she usually expands her monologues into fully-developed plays. Thompson is one of those rare individuals who never seems to experience writer’s block. As the mother of five children and with a teaching career, she finds time to write only in small units of precious moments but, miraculously, she says, her writing flows.

When asked what moves her in a theatre performance, Thompson’s eyes lit up. “Smelling reality,” she replied. “The shock of recognition; connecting with the writer through a common experience.”

More about Judith Thompson

Judith Thompson is a graduate of Queen’s University (1976) and subsequently of The National Theatre School’s acting program (1979). After a brief stint as a professional actor, she discovered her real calling as a writer. Her first theatre script, The Crackwalker, was produced by Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 1980 to great acclaim and her writing career for the stage was launched.

Thompson is a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama, first in 1985 for her play, White Biting Dog; and next in 1989 for a collection of her plays, with the title The Other Side of the Dark. Other prizes have included a Toronto Arts Award and the Canadian Authors Association Award. Further, she is the recipient of several Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Awards, notably one in 1987 for I Am Yours, and a second one in 1991 for Lion in the Streets. Her radio play, Tornado received an award for Best Radio Drama in 1988. Thompson has also received several Dora Mavor Moore Awards given out by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts annually to honour the best creators of theatre and dance productions in various categories.

More about the bp Nichol Reading Series

The Glendon English Department has been presenting a reading series for Canadian writers sponsored by the Canada Council since the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the distinguished and much loved poet, bp Nichol taught creative writing in the department. After his tragic and premature death in 1988, his colleagues named the reading series after him. Several Canadian novelists, poets, short fiction writers and playwrights are invited to come to Glendon and read from their work each year. The readings are open to the public and very popular with students and visitors alike. The format includes a reading by the author from new or published works, followed by a question period. Copies of the author’s books are for sale at the reading or at the Glendon Bookstore.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.