Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman wrote the first draft of Scratch at 16.
SCRATCH written by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, with Corbeil-Coleman, Kevin Bundy, Monica Dottor and Mary Ann McDonald. Presented by Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (Thursday, October 9) and runs to November 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. Pwyc-$37. 416-504-9971, factorytheatre.ca.
Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman's lustrous, auburn-coloured hair seems perfectly healthy. Thick and shiny, it's curled gently over her shoulders. Nothing's twitching.
I mention this only because her new play, Scratch, is about a 15-year-old girl who's contracted one helluva case of lice, all while her mother is dying from cancer. It's semi-autobiographical. Her mother, the writer Carole Corbeil, died eight years ago, and during her illness the young Charlotte was furiously scratching and nitpicking, literally and figuratively.
"It wasn't as bad as it is in the play, but it was pretty persistent," she laughs, a week before the show premieres at the Factory. "I had lice on and off for seven years. They'd built up a resistance to the shampoo. I've had lots of parasite problems. Fleas. Last year, I came down with malaria in Africa."
Corbeil-Coleman can joke about it now. She exudes intelligence and warmth, and seems a mix of both her parents, Corbeil and actor/director Layne Coleman. She wrote the first draft of the play at 16 as a creative response to her grief.
"I grew up in the theatre, and that was my understanding of what you did with pain," she says. "You put on a play, which I know now is absurd. But for me that was the quickest way to release something."
A draft of that script helped get her into the National Theatre School's playwriting program, and during vacation breaks she workshopped it with jury member/dramaturge Iris Turcott. Initially, she didn't want to play the central role of Anna - it was too close and too personal. But a trip to Newfoundland helped change her mind.
"I went to these communities that were being resettled and experienced first-hand this storytelling culture," she says. "I realized how powerful it is to tell your own story. That's how we get closer to people. I wanted to take responsibility for this story. I wanted to be the one to share it and allow other people to engage in their pain and be a little less lonely for a moment."
She admits she's much more at peace with her mother's death than she was back in 2002, when she co-wrote, directed and starred in the autobiographical The End Of Pretending with her friend Emily Sugarman.
"I have emotional moments outside of the working process, but I'm less raw," she says. "I don't want this to be a disconnected experience. I'm working hard as an actor and really engaged with the cast. They bring it to a very real and very different place."
Corbeil-Coleman's aware that some people in the theatre and literary communities might be curious to see the play, but she says she's most interested in what young audiences think.
"Especially those who may have lost someone," she says. "They don't care who my parents are."
Like it or not, she's currently fusing both parts of her parents in her work. Like Corbeil, she's writing fiction - in particular a collection of stories - and she's working on a play about the last night of hockey player John Kordic.
"Yes, hockey has commercial appeal in this country, but I want to write a different kind of hockey play. Something from a 23-year-old woman's perspective, you know?"
Other interview audio clips
On the play's seamless structure:
On The End Of Pretending and National Theatre School: