High Karate

Rating: NNNNNI'm sitting in the Tarragon green room, and frankly I'm a little spooked. Imagine all the people who've sat.


Rating: NNNNN


I’m sitting in the Tarragon green room, and frankly I’m a little spooked. Imagine all the people who’ve sat here before. Through chain-smoking opening nights. Drunk, embarrassed seductions. Furious rewrites. Quiet closings.

Then Morwyn Brebner bursts through the door and shakes my hand and all those ghosts vanish.

Talk about symbolic entrances. Next Tuesday (October 3), the Tarragon launches its 30th season with her new comedy, Liquor Guns Karate.

The script is wise, edgy, moving and read-aloud-to-your-friends funny. It firmly announces the arrival of a major new playwright, and should usher in the Tarragon’s fourth decade in a big way.

That’s a lot of weight to put on a young artist’s shoulders. But Brebner’s not showing any strain, even with the sound of a construction crew renovating the building in the background (new accessible washrooms, a refurbished lobby).

“Isn’t this something?” she asks, motioning to the construction site. She’s fascinated by a second-floor door that opens out onto nothing.


Full swing

She might as well be talking about her career, in full swing since the Tarragon premiered her play Music For Contortionist last season in its tiny Extra Space.

That show, an original look at an aging German cabaret star, earned her a Dora nomination yet proved a mature and unexpected professional debut for a young writer.

Her new play, Liquor, gets under the skin of three aimless young adults — one’s dubbed the apathy poster girl — and a hard-drinking, middle-aged loser who once abandoned his daughter. The characters all tap into Brebner’s strong streak of empathy.

“People say write what you know, but I think we know more than we think,” she says in a voice that hints at self-assured cockiness, self-deprecation and hell-let’s-just-have-a-good-time abandon.

“I don’t mean facts. I mean intuitively, emotionally. There are certain kinds of experiences, where if you put yourself at a certain angle you can see what the world would be like.”

Writing, it turns out, is the only activity she’s ever had a facility for.

“So I just assumed it wasn’t worth doing,” she laughs.

Born in Wales and brought up in Ottawa, she began writing seriously during her final year at Montreal’s Concordia University.

“It took me all year and I wrote two scenes, each a page and a half long,” she admits. “It was so stressful, but they went well. Then I did a musical adaptation of Candide, because, of course, the world needed another. And then I wrote this strange musical for children.”

The turning point came when she entered the National Theatre School. Her final-year play was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who’s directing Liquor.

“It was the play about your family you’re supposed to wait until they’re dead to write,” she says. “I didn’t wait. My mom didn’t come. But working on it, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.'”

Maxwell showed the script to the Tarragon’s Urjo Kareda. Impressed, Kareda told Brebner that if she ever moved to Toronto there’d be a spot for her in the Tarragon/Chalmers Playwrighting Unit.

She moved here in 1997, joined the unit and soon began work on Liquor, then Contortionist.

“It seems like the turnaround’s been really quick, but I’ve been working on the same two things for years,” she says.

Brebner admits that director Maxwell taught her to write truthfully. “She didn’t let me get away with any shit. I’d be too intellectual, or too clever, or too tangential, and she’d say, ‘What is this?'”


Personal material

So, what is this? How’d she come to write a play set in L.A. about funerals, screenplays and daughters looking for fathers?

“What I like about theatre is that you can use personal material in a sneaky way, so nobody knows what’s real and what’s not,” she says, guardedly.

I wait.

“I have an ex-boyfriend in L.A., and for a while I was bicoastal,” she says.

Another pause.

“And I have a father I don’t know. A lot of the feelings of the characters are mine, for sure.”

It’s obviously a painful, personal topic. I keep pressing. It’s my job.

“Of course it’s affected me and my work,” she says, chuckling nervously.

“I think how we grow up has a huge affect on everything. You’re always the sum of your parts. And anyone who’s in any way involved in the performing arts tends to have an approval complex.”

She pauses, reflects.

“I probably don’t have a sense of the world being safe. But I don’t know if that’s because of him.”

She changes the subject slightly. Good for her. She tells me about writers she admires.

“I like those playwrights who put all of themselves into their work. Look at Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings. It’s a maudlin and fucked-up play. But it contains all of him in the strangest way. Even his used-upness is in there. There’s something admirable about doing that.

“Look at George F. Walker. His characters are real, but their desperation is so overweening that they’re almost unreal. That fascinates me. I know people like that. Hell, I can be like that myself.”

glenns@nowtoronto.com


LIQUOR GUNS KARATE, by Morwyn Brebner, directed by Jackie Maxwell, with Ann Baggley, Tom Barnett, Victor Ertmanis and Waneta Storms. Presented by Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews to Sunday (October 1), opens Tuesday (October 3) and runs to October 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $23-$29, stu/srs $19-$24, previews $16, Sunday pwyc. 531-1827.

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