Playwright Sherry MacDonald shares her secrets to the creative process

Sherry MacDonald, the newest writer-in-residence at Dawson City’s Berton House, has a place secured in heaven.

“There’s a special place in heaven for single moms who have raised three boys,” she says.

MacDonald is a playwright and her plays have been seen on stages in Vancouver, Calgary, and Florida.

Her sons are now grown and in their twenties, but the question still remains: how did a single mother of three boys ever manage to eke out a career as a playwright?

“It’s about always trying to find a balance,” she says.

Sometimes her writing had to take a backseat for a while, she says, but there was always a moment here or there.

“While my first child was having a nap, I would pull out the typewriter and start writing,” MacDonald recalls.

Before starting her family, MacDonald had studied acting in school. While that didn’t work out as a career choice, she did come away with a respect for Canadian drama. She became intrigued with how plays were made and started reading and collecting them. Eventually, MacDonald decided to try her hand at writing one.

“I wasn’t a writer that went into theatre,” clarifies MacDonald. “I was a theatre artist who tried writing a play.”

In order to make ends meet while she was raising her family, MacDonald sold insurance for a while, among other things. But she never lost her passion for writing. Eventually, when her youngest was in grade one, she went back to school to complete her undergraduate degree.

“That’s when I was able to take writing more seriously again,” she says.

MacDonald completed her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, and now teaches writing for stage there.

Most of MacDonald’s plays have been comedies with quirky plot lines. Her play Stoneface, for example,is about a director visiting famed actor Buster Keaton at his home and finding the legend playing cards with imaginary dead people.

When asked where she gets her ideas from, MacDonald thinks for a minute.

“I’m attracted to stories that catch your attention,” she finally says. “It needs to be entertaining for me, as well as the audience.”

MacDonald has also tried her hand at other forms of writing. She learned how to write poetry and screenplays in school.

“I didn’t like the poetry much, but I did write a few screenplays,” she says. One of these, Blindspot, was made into a film that eventually screened in Iran, Italy, and Canada. But in the end, writing for film didn’t hold her interest.

“In film, you’re creating pictures for the screen—there is lots told with little dialogue,” she says. “Things are more removed. Theatre happens now, in real time. The audience is part of it—it can be very demanding.”

Writing dialogue and the immediacy of theatre is what holds MacDonald’s attention.

“When I write, I see a stage in my mind,” she says.

However, getting a play produced in Canada is extremely difficult, MacDonald says, and getting to know people in the business and establishing a relationship is very important.

“You don’t just send your scripts out cold,” MacDonald emphasizes.

Most theatre companies are funded through the Canadian government, she explains. There is usually a call for submissions either asking for a synopsis, a letter of introduction, or an actual script. Plays then go through a development stage by being workshopped with professional actors sitting around a table and reading the script.

This is followed by blocking on stage with an audience (at new theatre festivals, for example), and sometimes, a theatre company might pick up the script and make it into a real production, although MacDonald stresses that doesn’t happen very often.

With Stoneface, MacDonald did what most playwrights are driven to do if they ever want to see their plays on stage: she self-produced them, developing her own company and successfully raising funds to stage her work. It did, however, turn out to be a lot more work than MacDonald had anticipated.

“It ended up being a mixed experience,” she says ruefully.

MacDonald has not made any writing plans for her stay at Berton House.

“I was just going to go with the flow and see what would happen,” she says. That’s why she surprised herself when she decided, during her first two weeks at the writers’ retreat, to rewrite an old play of hers, The Duchess of Alba, a story about blood, murder, art, and sex in 19th century Spain.

“I had no idea that I would do that,” she says with some bewilderment. “But it was lots of fun.”

And what does the future hold for MacDonald?

“I have lots of projects on the go,” she says. She is currently working on a contemporary play set in Alberta and is also in the process of writing several short stories about her life.

“It’s a comedy/tragedy about a single mom raising three boys,” she says with a chuckle.

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