the little canadian play that did

by Jennifer Overton

in Global Citizenship

Post image for the little canadian play that did

(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series. Pictured above: Stephen Seay as Simon and Scott Miller as Jake in the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of Spelling 2-5-5.)

In this era of theatre for young audiences (TYA) companies increasingly producing presold ‘title’ shows, what are the chances of an agentless, female, middle-aged Canadian novice playwright, and one totally new to the TYA genre, sending out a cold email query to one of the major American TYA companies and getting a personal reply within days? Pretty slim, right? And what are the chances of said reply being other than a ‘thank you for your interest but we don’t accept unsolicited scripts?’ Really slim. So figure the odds of a request for the script, followed by an intent to produce. What, one in a million?

Spelling 2-5-5 –the story of 12 year-old Simon, his autistic brother Jake, and a spelling reality television show – was developed by Pablo Felices-Luna and the good folks at Carousel Players. It premiered there in 2012 at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, and toured schools in Niagara and environs. I had met Pablo on the national tour of my play God’s Middle Name, and had spoken to him about my interest in writing a piece about autism aimed at a middle school audience. I am very grateful to him and others that worked at the development stage for not only teaching me the ins and outs and dos and don’ts of TYA, but also for encouraging me to write for the kid in me and the adult in kids. That production of Spelling 2-5-5 has been remounted and is on a four-week Nova Scotia tour as I write. I’m heading down the south shore to beautiful Chester the day after tomorrow to catch one of the school shows because oddly enough, I haven’t yet seen it in front of a strictly student audience. I can’t wait. Particularly for the talkback after the show.

But as a result of that little naïve email, Spelling 2-5-5 is also currently enjoying its U.S. premiere at one of America’s leading TYA companies, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. It has been touring the southeastern states with the touring arm of CTC, Tarradiddle Players, since September. My husband and I recently returned from Charlotte where we attended the opening of the in-house run of the show.  And it now has resumed its tour until June.

The cherry trees were in blossom as we drove our rented car from the airport into Charlotte and on to the theatre. I had no idea what to expect. I was nervous about the depiction of Jake.  I had had a role in shaping the performance of the character with autism in the Carousel production, and I prayed they had done their research and avoided a generalized interpretation. Other questions I had: Would the actors have accents? How would that play against the rhythm of the piece? Would the architectural and geographical references I had changed to resonate with a North Carolina audience work? I had once been asked (by an American) why Simon didn’t win a spot on the show at the end of the play and go on to be rich and famous? I had answered, “Because it’s a Canadian play.” Would this American production capture that Canadian-ness? Would they get that the hero of the piece doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, but learns a much richer lesson by championing his brother despite it jeopardizing his chances of stardom?

The theatre was in a place called Imaginon, an enormous facility devoted entirely to children: a children’s library that was a feast for the eyes and hands – so engaging and interactive, with a puppet theatre at the ready for kids to play at, a big story book where one could stand on a giant page on the floor and begin engagement in the story, and nooks and crannies and forts under staircases. I wanted to drop my purse and run around touching everything. And Children’s Theatre of Charlotte had their admin offices, teaching spaces, and two theatres housed in this building. Clearly the people of Charlotte had invested a lot in their children. I had never seen a place like it. We got the tour, met the staff and actors, walked into a rehearsal for the Reluctant Dragon, and saw the Dragon room: a room where kids could participate in the building of the dragon’s head, all captured on closed circuit television or webcam and broadcast live in the library and online.

I soon realized that Spelling 2-5-5 was in good hands. From enlisting a focus group of members of the local autism chapter to consult on the autism piece, to including a sensory friendly performance for one of the family shows, to tapping into a PD day and holding a special performance for all area school principals, they got the raison d’être of the play: to raise awareness of and celebrate those of us who are differently abled.

Many thanks to Linda, Adam, Dennis, Michelle, Tracey, and the creative team who welcomed us with generosity of spirit, true southern hospitality, and enthusiasm for the piece and its future. Thanks y’all!

This experience wasn’t without its aggro – don’t get me started on the IRS. But it gives me hope that in this day and age, with the harsh realities of shrinking TYA touring funding north and south of the 49th, and pressure to put bums in seats, a little unknown play can break through and have a voice. A distinctly Canadian voice.

And now on to Chester!

Jessica OvertonJennifer Overton is an actor, educator, and writer living in Halifax. Her award-winning play God’s Middle Name (pub. Scirocco Press) was inspired by her book Snapshots of Autism: A Family Album (pub. Jessica Kingsley) about life with her autistic son. The play went on to Magnetic North Theatre Festival and enjoyed a highly successful national tour. An abridged version of the play is touring with Theatre New Brunswick’s Young Company. Spelling 2-5-5 premiered at Carousel Players in 2012 and a remount is currently on tour in Nova Scotia. The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production is touring the Southeastern U.S. Jennifer holds an M.F.A. in Theatre Performance from York University, and spent ten years on faculty in the Theatre Department at Dalhousie University.