Brontë sisters Emily, Charlotte, and Anne have come to a crossroads. While they've long enjoyed writing as a hobby, with a father gravely ill and a brother struggling with addiction, it's up to them to keep their family afloat. Never ones to settle down with a man, the women realize that their gifts of storytelling may be their ticket to survival. As envy, creative differences, and competitiveness work against them, however, the sisters risk being torn apart by their own stubborn ambition.
Spanning three years, Jordi Man's new play Brontë: The World Without (Playwrights Canada) traces the careers and personal lives of the Brontë sisters, documenting their artistic struggles as well as the challenges of being trailblazing independent women in the 19th century.
We're very excited to have Jordi at Open Book today, where she discusses how an eye-opening festival experience led her to be a playwright, her advice for dealing with writer's block, and the biggest differences between writing for film and television and writing for the theatre.
Do you remember an early experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a playwright?
I trained as an actor at the National Theatre School of Canada. In my second year there, we had to write and perform a 10-minute solo show. My show was a very personal retelling of an event that happened to my family when I was in high school. Working on that project opened up the possibility of being an artist that told my own stories rather than just acting in stories that other people wrote. After I graduated, I applied to the SummerWorks Theatre Festival with my solo show. I was invited to participate in a wonderful program they ran at the time where they gave a handful of emerging artists the chance to develop their script with a dramaturge and workshop the play during the Festival. One day, Michael Rubenfeld (who was the artistic director of SummerWorks at the time) told me that they were going to hire someone to read my play so that I could just be the playwright and listen and learn. At first, I was taken aback – this play was personal and very much about me and my family. But I embraced it and as I did, I started changing details in the show to make it feel more appropriate for another actor to jump into. It was the first time I wrote for someone else and not with the intention of performing something myself. This was important, because I’d only been thinking of ideas that I could act as a performer – which was surprisingly limited. The ideas were only as good as my acting ability, as opposed to writing whatever I wanted. Attending the workshop and seeing someone else perform my work was the first real lightbulb moment for me as a playwright. I knew from that point on that I wanted to write for other people and not limit myself in terms of the stories I wanted to tell.
Is your writing process totally page-based, or do you sometimes speak dialogue aloud or try physically blocking out scenes while writing to work through things?
My process is a little bit of everything. To start, I think about an idea for a long time before I ever put words down on a page. I like to have a sense of where I think a story is going. Some write to find the end as they go along. I’ve tried that and it just doesn’t work for me. I like to have a sense of where my story is going and how it will end before I even start writing. That doesn’t mean the ending doesn’t change. It often does. But I like to have an idea of the path I’m trying to carve out. Once I have some clarity around this, I sit down to write. And I’ll write until a first draft is done. When it is, I print the pages out and read them out loud – always. I read it multiple times looking for different things each time. It’s then that I’m acting the play out and trying to do it as fully as possible. Then I’ll go back to writing. I keep doing this until the draft is in a place where I finally feel it’s ready to be shared.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
My family has proven to be a very unlikely source of inspiration (much to their chagrin – sorry mom and dad). I consider myself to be a fairly private person. I think my family is quite private, too. And yet I find our dynamics and shared experiences together endlessly fascinating. I think it’s because I love exploring interpersonal politics and relationships, and your family is really the first group/community one is exposed to. You are your own contained political unit filled with contrasting needs and wants. A mini ecosystem ripe with conflict and emotion. One can see my work and not necessarily know that my family and I have been the initial source of inspiration. Usually, by the end, things have been abstracted in such a way that it’s hard to tell. But I’ve been surprised by how my family and the idea of family continually make appearances in my work.
If you've written for other mediums, what (if anything) changes when you're writing for the stage?
In the last two years, I've started writing for TV and film on top of theatre, and I’ve actually found a long list of changes, but I’ll focus on just three: length, resources, and rules.
Length – especially in TV, there are real restrictions in terms of how long something can be because you’re usually writing for either a 30- or 60-minute slot of television. In theatre, unless someone has said that a piece needs to be a certain length, plays can be however long you want them to be. Or at least, however long feels right.
Resources – even when resources are limited, in TV and film there is still almost always a bigger budget than in theatre. Unless you’re working on a play with a larger theatre company, you will have to make do with significantly less. But that means that there are also more creative opportunities to think outside the box when writing for the stage. Doing more with less means you have to be more agile and flexible in your imagining of things.
Rules – in my experience the theatre has fewer rules. You can break the fourth wall, you can move back and forth in time, you can play with magic realism. You can do all of this at the same time if you want. TV and film have more restrictions. Small example, but there are certain writing programs you need to use in TV and film. In theatre (or at least theatre in Canada) there is no one way a play needs to appear on the page. There isn’t even a consistent font used in theatre. Certain TV shows and films require that you follow certain structures. But in theatre you can make the rules up more easily as you go along.
What do you do with a play in progress or a scene that just isn't working?
I have a few things I tend to do. The first is that I’m a notorious project cheater. If something isn’t working, I’ll often jump onto another project. I cheat on my projects with other projects all the time. It doesn’t necessarily help me with the play/scene that isn’t working, but it doesn’t stop me in my tracks, either. Sometimes I end up thinking about it anyway and solve the problem that was causing me to be stuck in the first place. Second, I will sometimes back track and try to figure out where the problem started in the play or scene. I find that rarely things just stop working. If they do, it’s usually because something that comes earlier hasn’t been set up properly. I also reach out for help a lot. I talk to other writers and ask them for their advice. That often does the trick. And then, if none of this works, I take a step away and give it some time. I’ll take a walk, do the dishes, fold laundry. I’ll leave it for a few hours or days or weeks until I feel ready to tackle it again. Sometimes it’s more an issue of morale than anything else, and time usually helps with that.
Jordi Mand is a Toronto-based writer for theatre, TV, and film. Her plays include Between the Sheets, Caught, This Will Be Excellent, and Brontë: The World Without. Her work has been produced nationally and internationally and has been published by Playwrights Canada Press. She is a graduate of the Bell Media Prime TV Program at the Canadian Film Centre and the National Theatre School of Canada. Jordi is a writer on the fourth season of the hit CTV crime drama Cardinal and on the upcoming film adaptation of Harriet Alida Lye’s thriller The Honey Farm.