Atkins upon Avon

Oprah and Jann Arden help Damien Atkins conquer Stratford


GOOD MOTHER by Damien Atkins, directed by Miles Potter, with Seana McKenna, Atkins, Wayne Best, Michele Graff, Jane Spidell, Kim Horsman and Andrew Dodd. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to September 27. $48.90-$67.15. 1-800-567-1600.


Damien Atkins misses Toronto.

You can hear it in his voice, over the phone long-distance from Stratford.

“I spend every day off in the city,” he admits. “This past Monday I was so upset. Every seat on the train was taken.

“I have nothing against Stratford. But you can be anonymous in Toronto — you can go to movies and stuff. I can’t lose myself here.”

This week, Atkins probably couldn’t lose himself in Toronto either. His new play, Good Mother, opens at the festival. It’s a big deal.

After all, not many 20-somethings get to see their second script premiere at a world-class rep festival, in the same season as works by Noel Coward, Edward Albee and Robertson Davies — not to mention Will Shakespeare.

But then again, Atkins is no ordinary playwright.

His first play, Miss Chatelaine, was a 46-character solo show about coming out and coming of age in homophobic Alberta. His next, Real Live Girl, to be produced at Buddies in December, finds him singing songs traditionally sung by women.

Onstage since he was five, the Edmonton native has played everything from a singing Jack and the Beanstalk — in Canadian Stage’s production of Into The Woods — to a teen male prostitute in Shopping And Fucking.

OK, so his resume doesn’t scream Stratford. But he’s cobbled together enough roles there — one of the boy actors in Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, a dignified Osric in the Paul Gross Hamlet — to make an impression.

“I’m the poster child for “shit happens,'” he says about his eclectic and fortuitous career.

“Whenever I talk to young actors, I tell them not to limit themselves. Don’t convince yourself not to do something because you think it’ll never get done. There’s too much evidence in my life to prove that wrong.”

After a reading of a draft of Good Mother at Stratford in 1999, actors Seana McKenna and Diane D’Aquila championed the show, but little did Atkins know that artistic director Richard Monette would one day produce it.

Last year, his script for the play won the inaugural $25,000 University of British Columbia Creative Writing Residency Prize for an unpublished script.

The play, which runs until September 27, looks at how one middle-class suburban family copes when the mother (McKenna) suffers a stroke and brain injury.

Given the title and subject matter — family, illness, coping — you’d think the show was autobiographical. It’s anything but.

“I saw a short segment on Oprah,” explains Atkins, about the play’s genesis, clearly embarrassed.

“Seriously. It was about a woman, a brain injury and how the family coped with it.”

He also drew inspiration from Jann Arden’s song of the same name. Less embarrassed about that.

But even if Atkins isn’t drawing on his own life, some personal details did help him create the piece. For instance, in an early draft, he described the mother wearing a peach-coloured nightgown, much like one he remembers his own mother wearing.

“Details like this help you get specific,” he explains. “They help you to conceive of a full character and a full life. That brings about an emotional specificity. You create the spirit of a well-rounded person, and help establish a specific voice. Then you cut away all the stuff that’s repetitive.”

And in the role of Nancy, the family’s 18-year-old hellraising daughter, there’s something of a Damien Atkins-ish character.

“She’s highly argumentative, with all the verbal firepower and arrogance I had at 18,” laughs Atkins.

“The crux of her character is deeply selfish, like mine. She feels empowered and powerful, thinking she can make anything work. What she learns, and what I’ve learned, is that sometimes you can’t fix things, sometimes you have to just accept them.”

While there are no gay characters in the play, that’s not to suggest that Atkins has toned his voice down for the Stratford set.

“In preview performances, you could feel people in the audience feeling uncomfortable,” he says. “There’s a lot of swearing and a lot of suggestive sexual language. Heterosexual sex, yes. But you definitely can’t accuse me of pandering.”

glenns@nowtoronto.com

SELECTED BIOGRAPHY

DAMIEN ATKINS

— 2001 Our Country’s Good Good Mother

— 2000 Real Live Girl Elizabeth Rex Hamlet

— 1999 Miss Chatelaine Shopping And Fucking

— 1997 The Chocolate Soldier

— 1995 Into The Woods

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