“You want to write the kind of play where people are going to go home and talk about it, and think about it, and talk about themselves a little bit. You know, my God, if it got people to think about their own mortality a little bit, how could that be a bad thing? We all run around scared to talk about it, but we’re fascinated by it at the same time. The idea that we’re mortal. Just to have that discussion opened up wouldn’t hurt.”
Meredith Taylor-Parry is a Calgary based actor and playwright. Her play, Survival Skills won the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest in 2013 and was produced Off Off Broadway by the 13 Street Repertory Company, in New York City in April 2014.
Her most recent work, Book Club was developed as part of the Suncor Stage One Festival at Lunchbox Theatre and will receive a world premiere at Lunchbox in February.
I sat down with Meredith, while her four month old Beagle Tucker, lay happily nearby chewing puppy toys, to talk with her about Survival Skills and Book Club, as well as her writing process.
When you go to a play what is it you go for? What is it you hope to get out of it?
I guess I want to be moved emotionally, always. I like Opera. I always write while I listen to Opera. I want to be moved. I like the tragic. I like stories where you watch people getting put through the wringer. Watching characters go through hell and then some. And I like stories and plays with some expression of hope at the end. That’s very important. It doesn’t need to be wrapped up perfectly, but just something.
Tell me about the reason you wrote Survival Skills.
Well, my Dad committed suicide in two thousand and two after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I always knew that I wanted to write about it. I never thought about writing a novel – I always thought it would be a play.
How difficult was it to put that out into the world? Because that’s a very personal thing.
It was difficult, but when an experience like that happens to you – or at least my experience is – you’re compelled to tell that story over and over and over again.
And I’ve heard some people say, yeah but some people never want to talk about it again – but that wasn’t me. I was compelled to tell that story to friends – to grief groups –I’m just compelled to share it. I don’t know how many times my mom and I would get on the phone after it happened and we’d end up retelling that day – the actual event – when we found the suicide note – when we called the police – when my brother went out to look at the body that afternoon.
And I originally thought the play was going to open with that scene, but then I went to a Playworks Ink Conference in 2011 and I signed up early and got into Daniel MacIvor’s workshop. And he started the workshop by reading the scene you’d submitted. And he’s a pretty fantastic actor and he did all the different parts. I had my sister there, my brother there, my mother in the scene, and the character that represented me. We were all there and he just read through that first scene from beginning to end and when he finished – it was silent and he said, “That’s a hell of a way to start a play. People discovering a suicide note.”
And I went, “Yeah, yeah I guess it is. I wasn’t really thinking about that.”
He said, “We’re going to end the scene right here where your brother hangs up the phone and I want you to write the next scene.”
And I wrote the next scene and that became the first scene of the play because I took his advice – that is a hell of a way to start a play. But I think I needed to write the suicide scene first because that was the hardest scene to write – bar none – and to go back and remember those moments in specific detail.
How much do you credit that workshop with moving forward on the play?
Huge. He looked at me and said, because I had some humour in there, “Meredith, any play that can bring levity to the topic of death needs to be written.” He said, “I myself am terrified of the medical system. I’m not afraid of dying – I’m terrified about becoming a patient of the medical system.”
And here’s this man who has written all these beautiful plays with all this fabulous experience and wisdom but at the same time he’s a really good teacher too. He really has the right touch. And I think he just knew the right thing to say to help keep me going. He also made us promise, before we left the workshop, to send him the first draft by a certain date. And I did, because it’s Daniel MacIvor, right. I wasn’t not going to do it. I was two weeks late, but it made me finish it.
You worked on the play for a couple more years and then entered it into the New Plays of Merit Contest in 2013 and won. What was it like getting the phone call that the play had won?
That’s what my dream was up to that point. That someone was going to phone me up and tell me that I was good enough to win a contest. And I felt really good about it because it was New York. Because to me that was the place where all the good playwrights go. So, that was a real shot in the arm – no question. I felt pretty good about that – but I was stunned.
What was it like to go see your play on stage?
I vowed that I wasn’t going to be critical of my work because I don’t know if this is ever going to happen to me again. The idea of going to New York to see your play – Off Off Broadway in a little old theatre with a little old 92 year old Broadway performer running it. I mean this theatre had a lot of history. Tennessee Williams’ plays were performed there. And I thought, don’t ruin it by sitting there thinking about all the things that are wrong with your play. It wasn’t perfect, and I still think there are things that can be improved about the play, but I just vowed I was going to go and enjoy it.
It’s interesting to me because there’s a certain completion to the journey. From the experience of your father having committed suicide, to writing the script, to winning the contest, to getting it produced. How you would sum up the whole experience as you were watching the production with your family?
Well the first word that popped into my mind was surreal, and the second thing was how much I enjoyed the performances, and how much the actors brought to it. I just vowed I was going to go and enjoy it and I wasn’t going to worry about my family as far as taking care of them or worry about their reactions to it either. But you know, I also worked through a lot of stuff with that play.
When dad was suspecting a bad diagnosis – this was three days before he completed suicide – I phoned his room at the Moncton Hospital from Calgary. And he said, “Oh they’re going to do some tests and things.” Because at first they thought it might be a bowel infection and a reaction to antibiotics. But there was a moment where he hesitated on the phone and in my mind I wondered what was he was going to say next. To me there was something that he meant to say and tell me. Like he opened his mouth to say it and it didn’t come out and I wondered if it was, “Listen if it’s a bad diagnoses this is what I’m going to do.” But he didn’t say anything, and I heard this kind of breath, or hesitation, and I wondered, and wondered, and wondered about that afterwards.
And then I thought, well what would you have done if he had said, you know, this is not going to go well…would I have suspected…because we knew his philosophical stance on end of life. He always said, “If I ever got a bad diagnosis that would be it.” But it’s a leap in your mind to hear those words and really imagine your father actually doing that.
So I thought, in my state of mind, what would I have done? I probably would have called mom and told her not to leave him for a minute. And then there’s a part of you that would have said, “Okay – whatever you need – I’ll do it – I’ll help you.”
And I did end up inadvertently helping him complete the act by flying to the Maritimes, because when my mother came to pick me up at the airport that’s when he completed. So I felt complicit in that, and that bothered me for a long time, even though it was inadvertent. It was a window of opportunity, and he took it, and I provided that. So, in a way I helped whether I wanted to or not.
I changed the play so that the character who plays me actually does make the decision to fly home to get her mother out of the house so that her father will have the window of opportunity very knowingly not inadvertently.
Dramatically that’s a good choice.
Dramatically it was a hell of a lot better choice than what really happened.
Because then the character is active.
What do you think your dad would think of this play?
Wow. I just think he’d be horrified, because he was such a private person. I had to struggle past that a little bit because he’d be so horrified that I laid it all out. But you know what? Whatever form – and I do believe there is some kind of spiritual form that he takes now – I don’t think he has those same opinions any more.
And after he was gone, I pretty quickly said this is more about me than it is about him. This is more about us. And that’s how I was able to write it. I was lucky, because my family wasn’t upset. But dad would have been. I think for sure. But I wouldn’t have had to write it – you know what I mean – unless it had happened.
Was it cathartic for your family in some ways?
Maybe in some ways. I sat right beside my mom and my aunt and I could feel the seat shaking because they cried and cried and they laughed too, but there was a lot of tears you know. I know that my aunt and mom told me they sat up all night in the hotel room talking about it. My brother said, “Man it’s weird to see your life up on stage like that.” But it was probably not as cathartic for them as it was for me
What are your hopes for the story?
I would love to see it produced again, of course. Published and produced. Those are the things that I’m looking for with all my plays. I don’t really want them to just sit stagnant. You want to write the kind of play where people are going to go home and talk about it, and think about it, and talk about themselves a little bit. You know, my God, if it got people to think about their own mortality a little bit, how could that be a bad thing? We all run around scared to talk about it, but we’re fascinated by it at the same time. The idea that we’re mortal. Just to have that discussion opened up wouldn’t hurt.
Survival Skills by Meredith Taylor-Parry
A father takes his life. The family gathers to mourn. Only one saw the body. Only one knows what really happened.
Winner: 2013 New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest
Premeired at 13th Street Repertory – NYC April 3 – May 1, 2014 with the following cast and crew.
- Directed by Leanora Lange
- Kathleen – Aimee Thrasher
- Annalise – Kristen Busalacchi
- Eliza – Mary Ruth Baggott
- Oscar – Jason Kirk
- Len – Danny Sauls
- Stage Manager – Alex Bishop
- Properties Assistant – Aimee Thrasher
- Dramatrug – Kurt Hollender
- Producer – Sandra Nordgren
Meredith Taylor-Parry is a playwright based in Calgary, Alberta. Her play Survival Skills won the New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest in 2013 and was produced Off Off Broadway by the 13th Street Repertory Company, NYC in April 2014. Her play Devices received a production in Week One of the New Ideas Festival at Alumnae Theatre in Toronto in March of 2015. Her most recent work, Book Club, was developed as part of the Suncor Energy Stage One Festival of New Canadian Work at Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary in 2014 and will receive a world premiere at Lunchbox in February 2016. Meredith is Co-Artistic Director of Bigs and Littles Theatre Society and also enjoys writing and performing for young audiences.
You can contact Meredith at LinkedIn by clicking the link above or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Survival Skills – Synopsis
“He saw a window of opportunity.”
A man diagnosed with terminal cancer commits suicide, leaving his family behind to struggle with the aftermath. Our journey begins 20 years later as Annalise and her sister sit at their dying mother’s bedside. The daughters are compelled to relive with the audience the horrible days following their father’s death when those closest to him came together to mourn and try to understand his choice. The play moves between past and present.
Their father’s decision is a controversial one. It was terribly painful for his wife and children to experience such a sudden, violent loss. But as we watch the sisters sit with their mother we begin to understand the motives behind his action. Is the choice to let death come in its prolonged and often agonizing way any less traumatic for those involved? Should we have the right to choose?
As in any time of family crises, personalities clash and sibling rivalries are revisited. Annalise’s frustration grows as her father is both accused of being a coward and applauded as hero. Finally she reveals an awful secret; her father needed her help. It is only by sifting through the memories that haunt her, that she will find forgiveness.
New Works of Merit is an international playwriting contest developed in 2003 to bring works of social significance to the general public.
The 13th Street Repertory Company, founded in 1972 by Artistic Director Edith O’Hara, provides a place for actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians to develop their craft in a caring, nurturing, professional environment.