Brand Storyteller • Playwright

How Canada saved Dead Leaves

Mountain dramaturgy with Liz Engelman and Nan Barnett. 

Mountain dramaturgy with Liz Engelman and Nan Barnett. 

I've been up at the Banff Playwrights Colony for the last two weeks as a guest artist, working with the fabulous Liz Engelman on two of my new plays. The Banff Centre asked for a blog post about my experience. Here's what I gave them:

I destroyed the play again. Another draft, another 60 pages into the recycling. I have been writing Dead Leaves—a play about ghosts with original bluegrass and mountain gospel music— for over a year now. The pattern was: Write 2/3. Sit with it. Revisit it. Hate it. Throw it all away. Jose Rivera said, "Often, writer's block happens to you because somewhere in your work you've lied to yourself and your subconscious won't let you go
any further until you've gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over."

The truth of Dead Leaves had slipped through my fingers. Since starting the play, I have worked with a number of collaborators. They've all helped shape it in different ways, but their voices have been loud and often contradictory. Coming to Banff, I wondered if what I needed was to manifest this play in silence. 

I've been considering the multiple meanings of the word "retreat." We go on retreat as a time of rest and rejuvenation. But we also retreat, pull back, move away. When must you step back in order to move forward? Banff came at just the right time: on the heels of sending another draft of Dead Leaves to the trash, and in the midst of months of self-producing a different play with little space to generate new work.

The first few days at the Centre, I spent morning to evening upstairs in the Painter House, padding around in socked feet, trading ideas with the trees. This time of retreat was an immediate unlocking. I returned to the core of my play, looked at its soft, lovely parts, and fell in love again. I wrote 30 pages in two days and finally, finally typed the words “End of Play.” There are a lot of questions. There are a lot of places that need attention and fleshing, and now I am ready for some other voices to join mine (namely dramaturg extraordinaire Liz Engelman). But that the truth of the play finally surfaced. It just needed a little space.


Joanna Garner