When it comes to their theses, UVic’s graduate students are always looking for something new. Recently, Master of Education student Mike Irvine became the first person to conduct an underwater webcast defence of his thesis. Now, Department of Writing MFA candidate and playwright Leah Callen will present a staged reading of her thesis—the surreal play Enter Vodka—followed by a public defence . . . in front of a live audience.
“Originally, I asked to do my defence under-vodka, but that was a no-go,” quips Callen. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have my play read by some lovely actors to an audience. A script doesn’t mean much unless it is heard out loud.”
Enter Vodka marries the personal histories of two dead Russians—Stalin’s daughter and the Romanov Princess Anastasia—both stuck at 17, and trapped inside a melting Fabrage egg. In Enter Vodka, nothing is as red or white as it seems. The 90-minute show begins at 8pm Sunday, April 26, at the Intrepid Theatre Club (1609 Blanshard, at Fisgard) with Callen’s thesis defence to follow. Admission is by donation.
The staged reading—directed by Melissa Taylor, featuring Kathleen O’Reilly & Julie Forrest, and designed by Kerri Flannigan & Colette Habel (all UVic students or alumni)—is part of Intrepid’s monthly New Play Reading Series and in support of the Equity in Theatre Initiative, which continues to celebrate the work of local women playwrights at all stages of their careers. “We are happy to be working with the UVic writing program on this project to bring new plays to life,” says Intrepid artistic director, playwright and celebrated Department of Theatre alumna Janet Munsil.
Nervousness aside, Callen is looking forward to the opportunity of having her new play presented in public. “UVic’s Writing program is wonderful, but I felt pretty cloistered as a playwriting graduate student, typing away by myself for two years,” she says. “I’m both excited and terrified by the defence part—but if I can’t stand up to a little public scrutiny, what kind of a playwright am I? My characters have to go through the fire literally, so the least I can do is honour them figuratively with a little Q&A.”
The idea behind the public defence came from Callen’s MFA supervisor—award-winning playwright and Writing professor Kevin Kerr—who wanted her project to step off the page. “A stage play is meant to be seen in performance and, as a writer, it’s important to see the work handled by the other collaborating theatre artists who bring the work to life,” he explains. “The success of the thesis is not only on the page, but also in the way that it inspires other artists to create a living experience for an audience.”
Kerr feels this is an ideal opportunity to showcase the creative academic process. “It seemed to be an exciting way to handle this formal step in Leah’s academic journey,” he says. “It’s potentially an opportunity for an audience to get a first-hand encounter with what a Fine Arts graduate degree entails, and demonstrates the connection between the work done inside a university Fine Arts program and the professional practice the students are working towards.”
Both Kerr and Callen expect it to be more than just a standard theatrical talk-back session. “There will be a different level of stakes attached to the process, as the questions—and answers—are part of the final step for Leah to complete her MFA,” he says. “People witnessing the defence will also be able to contribute to that experience with questions of their own.”
Not that Kerr is out to add extra pressure to an already daunting experience. “Will it be nerve-wracking? Yes—but exciting as well,” he chuckles. “Leah is being supported by a team of artists who are invested in presenting the work to the best of their abilities. Their passion is already a vote of confidence in the candidate’s talent and ability, so Leah’s not alone in this experience.”
Callen—who spent the past two years studying with playwriting faculty Kerr and Joan MacLeod—had her first one-act play, The Daughter of Turpentine, produced by Phoenix Theatre’s SATCo in 2014. She has also reviewed theatre for local online magazines Coastal Spectator and CVV Magazine. A revamped version of Turpentine will reemerge as a full production at the Victoria Fringe Festival in August this year; directed by Phoenix Theatre’s Chase Hiebert, Callen promises it will “literally set the stage on fire.”
The inspiration for Enter Vodka originally came from a poem she wrote about the Romanovs for Writing professor Tim Lilburn’s poetry workshop. “This story is inspired by the two real women, but it’s a metaphor for the places people visit when wounded, to escape or revisit pain in ways that are as ritualistic as drinking tea, lighting candles or doing shots of vodka,” explains Callen, who cites the likes of Tennessee Williams, Tomson Highway, Sarah Ruhl, and Wajdi Mouawad as influences.
“Anastasia ordering Svetlana about could easily be modern-day Russia trying to drag Ukraine back home. I’m playing with the historical forces that have led to this moment in time, and in the end their holy kiss has explosive repercussions literally and figuratively. But this is not a biographical play. It is symbolic and thematic of the Russian struggle, but it’s mostly about women trying to find joy and freedom in the face of death.”
Kerr is also looking at this as something of a pilot project. “I’d be interested in continuing to find more opportunities to connect our grad students to the larger theatre community and audience as part of their time here,” he says. “I think it could be an important part of what we can offer as a program.”