A Conversation with Playwrights Conni Massing, Janet Hinton, and Frank Moher
By Jonah Dunch
Hours before Workshop West’s 40th anniversary gala, I’m sitting in the writers’ office with a laptop, notebook, and recorder in front of me.
Around a small plastic table sit three senior playwrights: Conni Massing, Frank Moher, and Janet Hinton. Each of them (along with Brad Fraser) have had at least three productions at Workshop West, and as I ask them to reflect on their work with the company, we talk about their careers, their lives, and the past and future of the Canadian theatre.
While the playwrights’ experiences vary, all three of them have stories about Gerry Potter, Workshop West’s founding artistic director. Having recently completed the U of A’s MFA in playwriting, a young Conni Massing was working for government — what she refers to as her “last real job” — when Potter invited her to lunch to discuss a project.
“It was a big break to have Gerry Potter come and contact me,” Massing says, recalling her excitement as a fairly green artist meeting with a hotshot artistic director.
Potter invited Massing to work as the dramaturge and editor of Workshop West’s collective creation project on parenting, Your Turn to Get Up. Massing accepted, and got to work piecing together the actors’ material into a coherent piece. From there, Potter directed the world premiere of her play Dustsluts in ’92. The rest is history.
Hinton, likewise, was mentored by Potter at a time when she was finding her way as a writer and badly needed support. In ’91, Potter directed the world premiere of her play Delicate State Disturbed, inspired by her time working as a schoolteacher in Africa. Hinton was decidedly frazzled when she was working on the script, as she had a child during the writing period.
“I was pregnant, and I had the baby, and I thought, ‘I have to write this play for a professional theatre, and I’m nursing!’” Hinton recalls.
But with Potter in her corner, she persisted. Workshop West went on to produce her plays People Don’t Climb on Roofs in Oakville in ’92 and Moon Reachers in ’95. The latter, directed by Potter’s successor (and Hinton’s husband) David Mann, was a daring experiment where the principal character was going through unknown worlds in her dreams, to great theatrical effect. The critics and audiences were divided, but Hinton doesn’t regret trying something different from her norm.
“To me, that’s what playwriting is: write something, put it out there, it’s weird, nobody understands it, and you’re gonna get lambasted for it,” she says. “And that’s part of the fun, right?”
For Hinton, each play with Workshop West was a test to see if she could muster the confidence to believe in herself and her work. At the time, she never quite did, but thanks in part to mentors like Potter, she worked through the process.
“He championed me, and he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Hinton says. “He wanted me to write… for the theatre, and that was really huge for me.”
Moher was there at the start of Workshop West, acting in David Fennario’s On the Job. He started his career in earnest right as Edmonton’s alternative theatre houses — including Workshop West — were cropping up. In fact, Moher says he may have been the first professional dramaturge in Western Canada.
“That’s sort of how virginal it was, though, because I was — what? — 13 years old, maybe,” Moher jokes. “I was writing plays; I still didn’t know how to write plays. It was kind of a strange scene.”
Workshop West produced four of Moher’s early works: Sliding for Home in ’87, Prairie Report in ’88, Farewell in ’91, and Kidnapping the Bride in ’91. For Prairie Report, Moher was staying a day ahead of rehearsals as he rewrote the script. Kidnapping the Bride, meanwhile, was a second production, but Potter allowed Moher to significantly rewrite it for the fresh Edmonton audience. The script required a truck onstage, and Potter delivered with a real, live truck.
“I really appreciated that, that second chance at a play,” Moher says. “That’s one of my fondest memories.”
But for Moher, the memories that take the cake are of Sliding for Home. The play chronicled the story of John Ducey, a family friend of Moher’s who fought to bring baseball to Edmonton.
“I thought it was a good show, and I enjoyed seeing it — which was fairly uncommon for me at my own plays,” Moher says with a chuckle.
Amidst these early successes, Moher had a period of three years where he exclusively wrote plays for a living. But even without the inevitable financial troubles he encountered, he thinks being fulltime only hindered his creative practice.
“It seemed great for a while. But what I realized before long is that it was not great for the work,” Moher says. “Literally having to get up at 6:00 a.m. to go out to that shed to write Farewell to meet that deadline meant it was not as good of a play as it should have been, because I was dependent on getting the draft in, in time to get the money, etc., etc.”
He soon wised up and moved into teaching at Malaspina College. The college later became Vancouver Island University, where Moher teaches to this day.
“That was a much better situation — not just financially,” he says. “It was much better for the plays, because you could take the time they needed.”
Moher recently reread Farewell. He read the first act one night and loved it, but read the second act the night after and hated it. With the distance of a quarter-century, Moher says he sees what was wrong with the play all along.
“Don’t take a night off between rereading your plays, that’s what I say,” he jokes.
Massing reflects in a similar vein: when Potter offered to produce Dust Sluts in ’92, she knew it could use more work, but was eager to dive in and prove herself.
“I knew it wasn’t ready,” Massing says. “It would have been so much better to take another year on that.”
This impulse to rush to production largely emerged from Massing’s view, as a young playwright, that she needed to write fulltime to legitimize her identity as a writer. Hence, she quit that government day job, and has been working as a writer ever since.
“That has been a rollercoaster ride,” she remarks.
Moher echoes the anxieties about one’s artistic identity that Massing experienced.
“As a young writer, you hold tight to this sense of yourself as a writer,” he says. “But now I just think of myself as a theatre guy. I’m a theatrician.”
Hinton says she had less confidence as an emerging artist. Though she’s raised a family, lived in several cities, and had an accomplished career since those early years, she says she still finds it hard to know who she is. But her reaction to that uncertainty has settled with time.
“I feel comfortable not knowing who the hell I am,” Hinton says.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and Workshop West is producing Massing’s newer work. The company produced Massing’s plays Homesick in 2000 and The Invention of Romance in 2014. In 2018, it produced her play Matara, which shares the story of an embattled zoo elephant and her bond with her caretaker. Massing says she tried to write Matara differently from her main body of work, which predominantly features family comedies and dramas. Matara’s story unfolded in short, tense scenes between characters with competing personal and political interests.
“I don’t think I’ve ever rewritten a play as much as I rewrote that play,” Massing says.
To help develop the script, Workshop West arranged for her to spend months embedded in the Edmonton Valley Zoo. This field research, Massing says, “enriched and amplified” the play, as she could observe her subject matter close at hand. After years in development, Matara opened Workshop West’s 40th anniversary season.
“It was a long haul to get it produced,” Massing says. “But I think it evolved in a really great way. I was really happy that it took the journey that it did.”
As the three veteran “theatricians” reflect on their time at Workshop West, they consider the company’s formative role in their own careers.
“[Workshop West] taught me the importance in theatre — and probably in the arts generally — of having the impulse to say yes: ‘Yes, let’s do it. Let’s see what happens,’” Moher says. “Gerry was really good at that.”
For Hinton, Workshop West showed her what a constructive and supportive play development process could look like. For under Potter’s watch, playwrights had the last word and commanded utmost respect in the rehearsal hall.
“That was a standard: that playwrights should be respected, and unless they are, they can’t work,” Hinton says. “That’s where it began for me. It had a huge impact on my life.”
And as they look to the past, Hinton, Moher, and Massing look to the future. Hinton worries that institutional theatre companies will disappear without public funding and support, and that theatre will only consist in occasional co-productions.
“I think we need theatre companies that have a history and have an interest in developing seriously the writing voice,” she says. “And that takes time, that takes history.”
Further, Moher says, Workshop West’s survival for the past four decades is a testament to the resilience and grit of the artists who’ve made it a workspace.
“What happens in Alberta is the stuff institutionally adds up over time, and so you have a kind of history,” he says. “You have these structures for young artists to move into, without having to build their own.”
Massing says it’s more than even a structure to start new work — it’s a temporary home for the artists connected to the theatre.
“It is a home-base for writers, a place where they can feel comfortable and where they’ll be considered and read,” she says, and for audiences, meanwhile: “This is the place where you’re most likely to have your own story or something that you feel empathetic or sympathetic towards reflected back to you.”