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How to Write a Play: Imagine the Worst that Could HappenMarianne Ackerman
2 June 2020
Triplex Nervosa was born of a frenzied mood, near the end of a two-month long Christmas holiday when my husband’s daughter and two sons were visiting from South Africa. In a whimsical moment, we’d decided to forgo Yuletide tradition in favour of a Greek theme: Eastern Orthodox music, three kinds of moussaka instead of turkey, whatever decorations that Delphi, our local dépanneur, had on offer. The spirit of reinvention spilled over to the elder son’s birthday in mid-January. He opted for a breakfast theme: cold pizza in the morning, cereal for lunch, followed by a spread of Eggs Benedict with trimmings for dinner. While the birthday boy stayed in his pyjamas all day, the rest of us went James Bond — suit and tie, fancy dress, OJ cocktails from martini glasses. After all, he was turning 25.
I relate these homey details only to explain the mood I was in as I fired up my laptop on the dining room table and started typing. Normally, creative concentration requires an empty space, silence and hours of meditation, but I was bursting to get at my New Year’s resolution, to write a fast-paced crime novel and join the lucrative world of bestselling authors. I’d already written the first chapter before Christmas. Hoping to enter the mind of the killer, I decided to start with dialogue. That’s when the novel turned into a play.
Tass Nazor has abandoned a promising career as a cellist to buy a triplex. She’s in over her head, swamped by renovations, squeezed by tenants who won’t pay market rents: a womanizing Frenchman on the second floor, a morose producer grieving the death of his son on the third. The seller, Rebb Klein, Hassidic father of many daughters, won’t finish the repairs he agreed to make as part of the sale. Handyman Rakie means well, but he’s falling in love with Tass, an unreliable accomplice. Meanwhile, in the real world, the mortgage and stock market crisis of 2008 is whipping international capitalism into a tailspin. People like Tass could be wiped out in a flash.
This precarious state of world affairs collided with my personal creative woes. While I typed, people around me made toast, drank tea, moaned about the weather.
Though I’ve never owned a triplex, I have experienced quite a few property-related adventures, bits of which were transformed and woven through the play. Several characters resemble people I’d met or observed on the streets of Mile End. With no plot in mind, I followed the logic of their situation, grabbing old Aristotelian standbys: reversal and revelation. Imagine the worst and make it happen.
A minor miracle, the first draft was written over an extended long weekend. But I’d seen enough plays through production to know that a pile of pages with a beginning, middle and end is only permission to begin the arduous journey towards a producible script.
Five years later, after many more drafts, readings, nibbles and periodic pestering on my part, Triplex Nervosa opened at the Centaur Theatre.
The result was a hit. Close to 9,000 people saw the play over five weeks. I began dreaming of a future for the multi-generational comedy that seemed to have hit a chord. With the actors’ voices in my head, I started a sequel that would deal with where the characters were in real time, May of 2015. While maintaining the comic tone, I wanted the sequel, called Rooftop Eden, to be about something important and useful, dig deeper into characters. The eleven roles played by seven actors included a small, non-speaking part for a ghost and, in the last scene, a short appearance from a dead person. I decided the hereafter should be one of the locations of the sequel, hence the title.
Rooftop Eden adheres to Aristotle’s most often ignored rule: the action takes place over a 24-hour period. Tass being a kind of alter ego (albeit much younger version of myself), I decided to push her journey forward, into the central struggle of my existence: how to be a creative person and have a personal life. I became a single mother at 25, founded and ran a theatre company while my daughter was in grade school. I’d felt I had to give up the hectic world of theatre in order to get a personal life. It’s a quandary most women face at some point in their lives. Maybe men do too, though history has given them clearly defined roles and generally put women at their sides. The answers women seek are urgent, of the moment. How to be more than we have been, and yet not submit to a model forged in other times, for men. I was sure the question would add substance to an entertaining play.
I began by imagining the worst that could happen. For me, the writer, that meant killing off the most delicious character, so I did. For Tass, it was being handed a chance at glory -- and a heavy domestic obstacle. Over one long day, this crisis in her life is resolved internally, while all hell breaks loose around her. Famously, a sequel to Rooftop Eden, concludes the story, faces head-on the question I asked myself as I set up my laptop on the dining room table, in the middle of household bustle. Is family life lethal to art?
The new management at Centaur Theatre is not interested in these plays. So, I have opted for the unusual path of publishing two unproduced scripts along with one that has been tested by the fire of production. I was greatly encouraged by input from the Royal Court Theatre’s senior reader, Grace Gummer, whose praise and critique of Triplex Nervosa set me on track for the sequels. I hope she’s right, that these plays “will resonate with many different international audiences.”
Maybe they will find a life outside Montreal, or be discovered by some enterprising TV producer who sees the potential for a series. I would like nothing better than to catch up with these characters elsewhere, or sit back and watch them live out their lives on screen.
Triplex Nervosa Trilogy is available at Paragraphe Bookstore, 2220 McGill College, and directly from Guernica Editions, for $20. Write to email@example.com for free shipping and a chance to win Guernica's Virtual Launch Prize!
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A long-time Montrealer, Marianne Ackerman was born in Belleville, Ontario. She has an MA in drama from the University of Toronto and studied French at the Sorbonne. Her three published novels include the best-seller Jump. A frequently produced playwright, her comedy Triplex Nervosa, the first of the Triplex Nervosa Trilogy, premiered at the Centaur Theatre in 2015.