The hills are alive: How a nurturing artist residency in Banff helps playwrights move mountains
'My time in Banff helped me realize how important space, time and energy are to storytelling'
"Here's the key," said Jenna Rodgers, associate dramaturg of the Banff Playwrights Colony as she gave me access to a tiny cabin nestled amongst cedar trees. "If it doesn't seem like the kind of place you want to write in, we can find another space that can suit you."
I rubbed my eyes in bewilderment. "What is this magical place?" I thought to myself. You see, over my many years of being a writer, I have worked in some pretty precarious situations. Good writing comes when a writer is given a good environment to write in — and nothing makes you realize that more than when you're working somewhere soul-sucking and creativity-stunting.
Here are a few of my all-time favourites:
- 2004: My newborn baby was strapped onto me while I rocked her to sleep, my $150 palm pilot/keyboard set up sat atop a rickety TV table, while I wrote my first play, Singkil.
- 2008: During a playwright residency, the only place the theatre company could set me up was at a receptionist desk. During the theatre company's Christmas party, guests handed me their coats assuming I worked there while I attempted to write my contributions to the play Future Folk. Ironically, the play was about Filipina nannies.
- 2011: After fleeing an abusive partner, my wonderful family took me and my daughter into their small townhome. The only place I could write was at the top of the stairs, next to the bathroom.
- 2012: We moved into a basement apartment, which we later found out was owned by a white supremacist. I penned the first draft of my novel Scarborough while listening to my landlord scream the N word several times a day and fearing for my life.
Given my past experiences, when I was accepted into the 2017 Playwrights Colony, I wanted to manage my expectations. The program occurs every year and welcomes playwrights from across the country to develop their work at the high-profile Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. This year, they welcomed folks including Mieko Ouchi, Makambe K Simamba and Santee Smith who were working on Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) scripts. Administration staff told me I would be fed well, housed, given space to write and actors to read my work. Past participants told me to expect swimming pools and ample opportunities to take selfies amongst the mountains. I did not believe a word of this. To guard myself from further disappointment, I chose to imagine lopsided bunk beds shared with other disgruntled playwrights.
I was wrong.
"We want the program to empower playwrights to make the central decisions about how they create their work," says Brian Quirt, director of the Banff Playwrights Colony. "The program is structured to give playwrights — who, in so many areas of the theatre, are marginalized even though their scripts are at the heart of most productions — as much control as possible over what they want to write, how they want to write, when they want to write, with collaborators of their choice, in spaces that inspire them."
I was inspired indeed, albeit a bit out of sorts. I could not stop bumping into lamp posts because I was too busy gawking at mountain vistas. I was so distracted by the breathtaking surroundings that I got lost on my way to my first workshop. I tried to play it cool at the sight of actors Mike Payette, Evelyn Chew, Bahareh Yaraghi and Duval Lang reading through my play Library, about child soldiers choosing books over war. I tried to act casual when I finally found my most perfect office to write from, facing a mountain. In truth, every day I felt like Maria in Sound of Music, minus the apron and bowl haircut. No offense to my white supremacist ex-landlord, but this place was the cat's pyjamas.
It's not just about having a solid desk to put a proper laptop on — it's about community and that community's belief that your story is worth hearing and growing.- Catherine Hernandez
Thanks to not having to work coat check or rock babies to sleep, I was able to move my script two very bold drafts forward. And everyone involved in the program was helping me get there: my loving partner who cared for our daughter in Toronto while I was away; the Banff Centre's administration staff; my actors; my dramaturg Beatriz Pizano; my fellow playwrights. Even the cooking and cleaning staff ensured that I would not lift a finger save for typing away at my laptop. Everyone was cheering for my words to come forth, abundant and brave.
My time in Banff helped me realize how important space, time and energy are to storytelling. It's not just about having a solid desk to put a proper laptop on — it's about community and that community's belief that your story is worth hearing and growing. And it's not about the ego boost of having people applaud your writing after it is performed — it's about fellow artists seeing the importance of what you have to offer and giving you a platform to share it. A room to write. Actors to play. A dramaturge to guide. Colleagues to give you feedback.
"This is an important story," said Beatriz as we discussed my play's call for the safety of child combatants, "because we need to heal." We both cried a bit, because that's what writers do. They cry when new words are born the way we cry when babies take their first breath.
Now that I am back in my home office by the Scarborough shores of Lake Ontario, I am ready to continue writing — and there is no way in hell I will work coat check at the same time ever again.