Arts·Queeries

Ann-Marie MacDonald's life-changing novel Fall On Your Knees is now an epic six-hour play

27 years after the massively successful book was published, it's making a grand debut on the stage in Toronto, Halifax, Ottawa, and London.

27 years after the massively successful book was published, it's making a grand onstage debut across Canada

Actress Amaka Umeh is standing in a white dress in front of a backdrop of mountains and a sunset in a promotional image from Fall On Your Knees.
Amaka Umeh in a promotional image from Fall On Your Knees. (© Lorne Bridgman, All Rights Reserved)

It's one of the most anticipated Canadian theatre events in recent memory: an adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald's first novel Fall On Your Knees, some 27 years after it was released. The two-part, six-hour play has been ten years in the making — and MacDonald is more than ready for audiences to experience this transformation of her work.

"My dream is that a person who loves the book comes to see the show, and while they're watching it, they forget that the book exists," she says.

It'll be up to the many fans of Fall On Your Knees surely already with tickets in hand to let MacDonald know if her dream ends up being realized in the show. But the mere existence of the play, which will be staged in four Canadian cities (Toronto beginning January 21st, followed by Ottawa, Halifax and London, Ont.), is already a dream.

First published in 1996, Fall On Your Knees has been a wildly popular read — particularly for queer women, on whom the book centres — ever since. Chronicling three generations of Cape Breton Island's Piper family across the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the epic novel was translated into 19 languages, won countless awards (including the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book) and, most famously, was chosen to be a part of Oprah's Book Club in 2002.

"The experience of publishing that book was really definitive," MacDonald says. "Because it was a big first for me. I had written plays. I'd acted in plays. I had co-created plays either collectively or with one other partner. I'd acted in film and television and written television. So that was my milieu. When I started writing Fall On Your Knees, I really did believe I was writing another play." 

Writer Ann-Marie MacDonald in a headshot against a white wall.
Ann-Marie MacDonald. (Canadian Stage)

But the stage directions in that supposed play ended up getting really long — and all of a sudden MacDonald discovered she wasn't writing a play at all. 

"I realized that it was, in fact, prose fiction," she laughs. "So that was a big turning point for me. And I thought, 'This is accidental, I didn't mean to be doing this.' I didn't know how to write a novel."

Turns out she very much did. 

"It was a big, huge thing because it was such a big career shift," she says of the book's success. "I mean, I continued to work in theatre, but now there was this other big ship. And novels take longer to write, so everything else had to kind of move over and make space for that."

"And then getting that sort of attention — that had a big impact, too. First off, I was able to earn some money from that book, which gave me some creative freedom. And I had that bracing, if not startling, brush with American celebrity, which is just nuclear-sized, right? It's huge, the power of that."

And she's not just talking about the effect on book sales.

"Sales were impressive, sure," she says  "But I mean more the American celebrity machine. It was like being next to a nuclear reactor."

"The metabolic effect was like, 'Oh my God, I feel like I've just almost been run over by a sports car.' I mean, Oprah was so nice. She was fantastic. I had a lovely, lovely encounter with her. She's really good at her job; she's a very gracious individual. I'm talking about simply the size of that machine that they've got down there."

Say what you will about that machine, but it did ultimately help catapult Fall On Your Knees to its status as an international bestseller, which is part of the reason why its stage adaptation is such a big deal. But it's also notable because it's both a decade in the making and marks a collaboration between MacDonald and renowned theatre artist Alisa Palmer, who co-created and directed the production. Palmer just so happens to also be MacDonald's wife. 

"We had collaborated a lot before we even got together," MacDonald says. "So working together is our natural happy place. Over ten years ago now, she said, 'I want to adapt Fall On Your Knees for the stage.' And I said, 'Well, if anyone can do it, you can. And good luck with that!'"

"But I thought, 'This is monumental.' And it's her drive and persistence and vision that has made this happen."

MacDonald also told Palmer that she did not feel like she was the right person to adapt her own novel for the stage. Someone else was going to have to help Palmer with that.

"'You need somebody who is a really good playwright," MacDonald recalls telling Palmer. "Somebody who understands structure, somebody with the work ethic, the stamina and the inspiration and vision to do this. And the first person I thought of, and I think we thought of her simultaneously, was Hannah Moscovitch."

Actresses Amaka Umeh and Deborah Hay hold hands as they stand in white gowns in front of a backdrop of mountains and a sunset in a promotional image from Fall On Your Knees.
Amaka Umeh (left) and Deborah Hay in a promotional image from Fall On Your Knees. (Lorne Bridgman/Canadian Stage)

Moscovitch — one of Canada's most notable playwrights and winner of the 2021 Governor General's Award for her play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes — worked with Palmer for a decade on the adaptation (with the length of time being extended in part due to a certain pandemic). MacDonald jokingly refers to herself during that process as "a grizzled writer off to the side."

"No, but seriously, my role really has been as production consultant, basically," she says. "I've been on tap for whoever needs me, whether it's Hannah saying, 'Hey, read this draft' or working pretty closely with Alisa in terms of everything she has done. I've been at every workshop, so I've given a lot of feedback. I've been in and out of rehearsals."

"Yes, I wrote the underlying novel that's important and I'm a resource in that way, especially now to the actors. But I think where I'm really useful is the fact that I have this other skill set, which is as a theatre professional. I'm not at all a stranger to the entire process from page to stage from the point of view of a playwright, as an actor, from working very closely with directors and designers. So in that way, I'm a good ingredient, you know? I'm a fresh eye on fresh blood."

MacDonald has been putting that fresh eye on rehearsals over the last several weeks. And she's found an unexpected gratitude for the fact that she, like everyone else who is not an actor in the production, has had to wear a mask during that process.

"We're trying to keep everybody safe and healthy," she says. "But I found myself frequently grateful for the mask — not because of COVID, but because I was watching the actors just work through scenes under work lights in the rehearsal hall. And my jaw is hanging open and I'm getting chills all over my body just watching them work."

"I thought, 'Ok, this show is on track to give the audience the same experience as the reader has when they read the book.' I think that's the alchemy that is being achieved. And I think that's extraordinary." 

Fall On Your Knees will hold its world premiere (in two parts, each with intermission) at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto from January 21 – February 4, 2023. It will then continue to the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, February 10 – March 5, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, March 8 – 25, and the Grand Theatre in London, March 29 – April 2. More info and tickets can be found here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now