In more than two decades of writing about Toronto theatre, I’ve interviewed close to a hundred playwrights, but no one – except maybe Hannah Moscovitch – has been as busy as Andrea Scott.
That was true five years ago, when I sat down with Scott for NOW’s August 3, 2016 SummerWorks cover for her play Don’t Talk To Me Like I’m Your Wife, and she discussed a half-dozen works-in-progress. And it’s even truer today, as she’s transitioning to TV and film writer and creator.
Not that she’s entirely given up theatre.
The Grand Theatre in London – the city she was born and raised in – announced last month that it was producing Controlled Damage, her play about Canadian Civil Rights leader Viola Desmond, as part of its 2021-2022 season. In July, Alberta Theatre Projects is holding a workshop of her play What’s Your Deal?, inspired by a real-life Montreal story about a missing black girl and a city’s grief over the death of a game show host. Plus there’s Born Afraid, Scott’s Black take on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which she helped develop as a writer in residence at Tarragon but is now hoping to get produced elsewhere.
And then there are her TV and film projects. Besides her current day job as a story editor on hit CBC show Murdoch Mysteries, Scott just signed a development deal with one studio, has another pitch under consideration with Netflix and was one of five writers accepted to pitch ideas to Amazon Prime Video’s $100,000 program developed with the Indigenous Screen Office to support Black, Indigenous and people of colour creative.
“I was awarded $10,000 to work on the pitch,” says Scott on a Zoom call. “I pitch for free all the time. Nobody’s ever given me money to pitch!” (The pitch, about what it feels like to grow up as the only Black kid in a largely white neighbourhood – “to be the only chocolate chip in the cookie” – went really, really well.)
There’s also her meeting with a company run by a huge Hollywood figure I can’t even mention.
Don’t Talk To Me, the play that landed her on the cover of NOW, did well commercially and critically, and she expected to hear from other theatres about remounts. It never happened. She even encountered resistance and skepticism when pitching Controlled Damage.
“One theatre person told me I was overestimating the interest in Viola Desmond,” says Scott, choosing not to name names. (Desmond currently adorns the Canadian $10 bill.) “Another asked me if all the white people were going to be bad guys. And that I’d never produce a play this big (it has a cast of 10) because nobody would want to produce it.”
Scott, ever the producer, had already crunched the numbers when she sat down to a meeting with Jeremy Webb, Neptune Theatre’s artistic director, in 2018.
“I had my spreadsheets and numbers ready and had come up with ideas for marketing and sponsorship,” she says. “I said, ‘If it’s in this house [theatre], this is how much it would be, and it would make this much. This is how much it would be if you charged this for tickets. This is going to help you, because you’re going to look like a champion for putting on a play about this history-changing Black woman in Nova Scotia, written by a Black woman.”
When the play eventually got produced in February 2020 at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, it was so beyond sold out that it prompted Globe critic J. Kelly Nestruck to call it “a tougher ticket to get than Hamilton.”
A turning point in Scott’s life and career came in the spring of 2018, when she had to have eye surgery. As part of her healing, she was forced to lay face down for three weeks; she couldn’t read, write or watch TV.
Since she hadn’t heard from the theatres she had submitted pitches to, she finally admitted that she was through with the industry.
“I’d given enough to theatre, my shows had been successful, they got good reviews, and I’d worked with some of the best people around,” she says. “I always paid everyone really well. Theatre was not taking care of me. And now that I really needed theatre to take care of me, it wasn’t.
“Just in case something like this ever happened to me again, I wanted to make sure I had money in the bank. So I taught myself how to write for TV. And while I was recovering, because I couldn’t do anything, it forced me to come up with TV ideas.”
Just as she started making connections in the TV world, and writing sample scripts, however, she began hearing back about her plays. Controlled Damage was one. Every Day She Rose, which eventually got produced by Nightwood Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times in 2019, was another.
With typical candour, Scott says in January 2020 while she was in Halifax starting rehearsals for Controlled Damage, she had “minus $1015” in her bank account.
“I didn’t know how I was going to eat, because my Canada Council travel grant hadn’t come through,” she says. “I didn’t want to ask my mom for money because she had had to help me with my rent. I was destitute. Now I’m not.”
She stands by one of her bits of advice from the NOW cover story.
“Keep your head down and keep writing,” she says. “Don’t listen to the haters. Just write. I believed in everything I wrote and pitched, regardless of whether this artistic director had said something would never work or sell.”
In the cover story, I mentioned the magic that seems to happen whenever Scott is in a room. She makes the most of encounters, whether they’re formal pitch meetings or impromptu run-ins.
“The most authentic thing that I can do in a room is be truthful and honest and tell the story that I can tell, which is what I do,” she says. “What I do when I go into a meeting is not performative. I am being completely honest. I am the keeper of these stories, so nobody else can give you what I have. So the question is: ‘Do you want it?’”
Her success at pitching even extended to the photo shoot with NOW’s then staff photographer Tanja-Tiziana.
“I believe in creating your reality,” says Scott. “I remember saying to designer Chinedu Ukabam, ‘When I’m on the cover of NOW magazine, I want you to make my dress. And he said okay. And when I found out that I was going to be on the cover and I knew I was going to be wearing that dress, I contacted Birk’s, and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be on the cover of NOW Magazine. Can I [borrow] some earrings? And they were like, Sure.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned. Just ask. They could say, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ Or they might say, ‘Let’s have a conversation.’ And that’s what happened. We had a conversation.”
Below is my cover story, SummerWorks Performance Festival: Andrea Scott rescues Mata Hari And Hidden Black Women From History, republished from NOW’s August 4, 2016 issue.
Hot-button-issue playwright deals with racism, slut-shaming & academic political correctness in a play about the misunderstood Mata Hari
By Glenn Sumi
Andrea Scott is proving Black lives matter in the theatre.
After all, it’s one of the reasons why she became a playwright.
“You know what they say about writing the book you want to read?” says Scott. “Well, I decided to write plays with characters I definitely wasn’t seeing onstage.”
Her 2013 SummerWorks play, Eating Pomegranates Naked, concerned relationships, race and pregnancy. In last year’s festival hit Better Angels: A Parable, a comfortable white couple hire a Ghanaian nanny/housekeeper and end up imprisoning her. And at this year’s festival, her most ambitious play yet, Don’t Talk To Me Like I’m Your Wife, looks back at the final days of so-called femme fatale Mata Hari, as well as France’s colonialism in Africa and modern-day political correctness in academia.
All feature strong, fierce roles for Black women.
Even with all the talk about the need for diversity in the theatre, Scott says many companies turned down Better Angels, which has since gone on to have multiple lives. Besides winning SummerWorks’s best production prize last year (which got her a guaranteed spot at this year’s festival), the play was part of Idle Muse Theatre’s Athena Festival in Chicago last winter, is upcoming at Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre this fall and may be produced by an Albany, New York, theatre company, too.
She simultaneously fumes and laughs over the artistic director of a theatre company who, when the issue of the unbearable whiteness of many companies’ seasons comes up, said that he can’t find scripts by women of colour.
“With all due respect,” she says, “Eating Pomegranates Naked had a cast of five that was multiracial. It did well. Better Angels had a multiracial cast. It won production of the year, got lots of press. Has my phone rung? I’m not hiding, you know, I’m quite visible! So,” she says, flatly, “people are making a choice not to program certain things.”
Snap! Still, you get the sense that Scott would rather not stew over the negative.
“I am keeping my head down and continuing to write. I can’t remember who originally said it, but I love the expression: ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ That’s what I’m trying to do.”
First up is the work that she has been calling “the Mata Hari play,” a shorthand title provided by her friend David in the old-school Wellesley-and-Yonge Coach House diner, where we’re currently sitting over breakfast.
Scott’s interest in the controversial figure goes back a couple of years when she took part in a b current festival reading of Harriet’s Daughter. She played a woman obsessed with Mata Hari, so to understand her character better she embarked on research. Mata Hari was a historical figure who was a lightning rod for many fascinating issues: sexual and economic freedom, class, slut shaming, colonialism.
Sharing a cell with Mata Hari – born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands – is another intriguing figure, an African prostitute the actor in the role, Lisa Karen Cox, also plays a modern-day single mom who takes a class in women’s studies, where she argues with the white professor about Mata Hari’s significance.
“I wondered, ‘What did Mata Hari talk about the day before she died?’” says Scott. “When we look back at history and read books set in certain time periods, we never see people of colour. We’re never portrayed unless we’re a plot point or there to make somebody look better. I wanted a three-dimensional woman who could serve as almost a foil to Mata Hari and have just as many awful problems, joys and funny lines as her.”
And her race was a given.
“France colonized so many places in Africa that there were lots of Black people in France at the time, but no one ever talks about that,” she says. “I thought it would be interesting to put a Black woman in that cell and see her relationship with this other person, a Dutch woman appropriating a South Asian culture.”
Between mouthfuls of home fries and sausage, she shows me her notebook, filled with fundraising ideas, monologues from scripts-in-progress and other lightbulb moments. She has a ton of them.
“In the middle of writing this play, I came up with a monologue from the perspective of one of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram,” she says. “I’d read in the Times that girls were being used as suicide bombers. People were horrified by it, but I started researching and getting into the mind of one of these girls. If I were a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, if I’d been raped repeatedly for months and they told me they’d make me a suicide bomber, I’d say, ‘Yes. Anything to escape this.’
“So I wrote a scene. I even have a title: Before They Stole Our Names. But I don’t have time to work on it. I had to put it away.”
She then rattles off the other scripts she’s working on: Decimation, inspired by the life and work of Dr. Oswald Withrow, an early 1900s Toronto physician who performed abortions on women he thought unfit to be mothers: Indigenous women, “feeble-minded” women, biracial women. And then there’s Almost Belonging, a play about Black Lives Matter, riots and what Toronto was like at the turn of the 20th century.
Scott has a real knack for hot-button issues. Her first script, the solo show Damaged, was about a transgender woman. She wrote it six years ago, well before the issue became a common topic.
“It was based on my friend Lillian, who gave me her blessing and the information to write this story,” she says, sensitive about appropriation.
Trans issues slut shaming Black lives matter eugenics – these are bold themes, and as a producer as well as a writer, Scott knows they could find an audience.
“How can you not talk about these issues when you’re a woman who writes?” she says, laughing. “I could write fluffy plays. Actually, scratch that. I wouldn’t know how. Somebody asked me to write a comedy a few years ago, and I said, ‘I can’t do that. I can write a serious play with funny moments, but I can’t write a comedy. It’s too hard.’”
She’s also not afraid to integrate bits of her personal life into her work. The title for her SummerWorks play came when she witnessed a male friend talking with his then wife in a way that was rude and condescending.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Man, I would never put up with that.’ So when I learned many months later that they had separated, I wasn’t surprised. And when he and I would have a disagreement about something, he kept interrupting me and being very patronizing. My first instinct was to say, ‘Don’t talk to me like I’m your wife.’ But I thought, ‘No, I can’t say that because it would be rude.’ But I knew one day I’d use it for something.”
Throughout our talk, one thing becomes clear. Scott has a bit of magic about her. It’s not just her ability to sell an idea or line. She believes it, and she’ll make you a believer yourself. It might be her experience in the corporate world showing. But more likely it’s something innate.
Midway through our talk, another diner patron, an older trans woman, comes over and asks to meet her.
“Are you a public speaker?” she says. “You should be. I agree with everything you’ve said.” She asks for a hug. The two embrace. I tell her about Scott’s SummerWorks show.
Yes, magic and human connection are still possible in the world, as long as Andrea Scott’s around.
Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.