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Canada Reads executive producer Susan Feldman reflects on the theatrical side of Ann-Marie MacDonald

The phrase "triple threat" could have been invented for Ann-Marie MacDonald. First an actor, then a playwright, finally a novelist. But the lines of this unusual career path are fluid, and don't follow any particular order. At the same time that she's being celebrated as a Canada Reads finalist for her novel Fall on Your Knees, the author is deep in rehearsal in Toronto for a revival of British playwright Caryl Churchill's play Cloud Nine. She's still following a passion for the theatre that goes back to her student days at the National Theatre School in Montreal. And I've been following her career since she turned up in Toronto as an aspiring actor.

I first saw Ann-Marie MacDonald on stage at an after-hours cabaret at Theatre Passe Muraille in the mid-80s. She was playing the iconic female detective Nancy Drew. In their episodic play, Nancy Drew: Clue in the Fast Lane, Ann-Marie and co-writer and performer Beverley Cooper spoofed the adventures of the "relentlessly perky" teen detective. And over many alcohol-fuelled late nights, it became hilariously addictive viewing for me and fellow Nancy Drew cult followers.

Around this same time, Ann-Marie became part of Nightwood Theatre, the women's theatre company known for their collective style of theatre. Ann-Marie collaborated on writing and performing in a number of their shows including This is For You, Anna, which took up the subject of violence against women, and Smoke Damage, about the witch-hunts in medieval Europe.

Then in 1988, Nightwood produced Ann-Marie's first solo play, Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet. With an inspired stroke of brazenness, she took on the Bard and beat him at his own game. Written entirely in iambic pentameter, the play is a feminist satire, conjuring new endings for Shakespeare's victimized women. It rocked the theatre, won a Governor General's Award and a Chalmers Award, and has been produced around the world.

Gender-bending clearly appeals to Ann-Marie's instincts as an actor. Recently she played Pope Joan in a production of Top Girls, another play by Caryl Churchill. (Primer: Legend has it Pope Joan was Pope John for several years in the ninth century until she went into labour during a procession from St. Peters and was found to be a woman.)

Now, Ann-Marie is in rehearsal for Cloud Nine, a Churchill comedy about gender and sexual relations. The first act of the play is set in British colonial Africa, and the second act in London in 1979. The actors play different characters in each act, often with men playing women and vice versa.

Ann-Marie plays the nine-year old Edward in act one (she's channelling him in the photo above), and in the second act she's Betty, the wife of the colonial administrator. In her blog on the Cloud Nine website, she talks about working to find the right voice for these characters.

"Part of what's weird is that Betty is much closer to me in many ways than is Edward. Edward is a nine-year-old boy who is struggling with his identity and sexuality, and going through some formative — and deforming — experiences. He feels like a much shorter walk from me than Betty. And yet Betty is only two or three years older than I am. Plus, she's a woman. And yet, I had felt the need of an almost Are You Being Served?/Hiacynthe Bucket/Thames-side/Ealing Studios/Brit-comedy take on her to get any traction."

The play starts its run in Toronto at the Panasonic Theatre on January 19. I don't know what Ann-Marie MacDonald will finally come up with for Edward and Betty, but I can't wait to find out.


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