Wolves, Words & French Press

Not everyone who enters Nakai Theatre‘s 24-hour playwriting competition is as prolific as Eva van Loon.

Some writers manage to eke out nine pages or so. Others produce a respectable 28 or 30. Some miraculously manage 60 pages or more in the time allotted.

In 2009, van Loon cranked out a full three-act play, called Just Shoot Me, with no fewer than nine characters.

While most competitors are sequestered in a downtown hotel for the event, van Loon was one of the first to enter from outside Whitehorse – a practice Nakai now actively encourages.

Writing from her home in Powell River, B.C., with a group of fellow writers and event organizers cheering her on by phone from the Whitehorse end, van Loon applied the finishing touches to her script and hit “send” seconds before the deadline.

“I did a three-act in 24 hours, can you believe it? I can’t believe it. A three-act?”

Only later, speaking with a 90-year-old retired actor on Gabriola Island, did she learn that the market for three-act plays is practically non-existent.

“Nobody does three acts. Everybody wants one act or two acts, so they can have an intermission. I had no idea,” she says with a hearty laugh.

A few weeks later, the day of the 24-Hour Cabaret, when excerpts from that year’s plays are read and prizes are awarded, van Loon got a cryptic email, followed by a phone call from Whitehorse.

Just Shoot Me had won the competition – three acts, nine characters and all.

The play, which touches on such topics as obesity, euthanasia, blended families and the so-called “sandwich” generation, centres on an elderly woman’s announcement during Christmas dinner that this will be her last Christmas, and that she wants her family to help end her life.

By the way, it’s a comedy – although van Loon says there’s one scene that still makes her break into tears whenever she sees workshop presentations of the play.

For most people, one playwriting marathon a year is plenty. But when Nakai announced it was changing the event from spring to fall, with a second competition in 2009, van Loon snapped at the bait once again.

This time, she was one of two ex-Yukoners to enter the competition from British Columbia.

And this time, she did something different. True, she still wrote a three-act play, despite knowing there probably wasn’t a market. And it still had nine characters.

But this time, her play centered on three distinct legal documents, with each act taking place in a different bathroom.

Its title? The Bathroom Documents, of course.

So where does someone find the inspiration to write so prolifically?

In van Loon’s case, it was from a dog. A wolf-dog hybrid to be precise.

“I’ve always had wolfy dogs, wolf hybrids,” explains the writer, who often goes by her adopted name of Wolffy. “In fact, one of them channeled a book through me, called How to Keep a Human.

In that book, she says by phone from Powell River, the dog persuades its human to “straighten up and fly right” and move North of 60.

“And that’s what I did. He was right. It was my heart home; that’s where I should have been all along.”

Van Loon moved to Yukon in 1976 as a teacher. She later dabbled briefly in politics before pursuing a law degree and being admitted to the B.C. bar in 1985. When she was called to the Yukon bar in 1986, the ceremony took place during Sourdough Rendezvous.

“I was called as a Yukon lawyer in the pretty brown walking suit of Martha Black. I borrowed it from Flo Whyard,” she recalls.

Although she handled a few cases here, a medical condition that doesn’t tolerate extreme cold weather kept her from moving back to the territory.

It was during her years living in Hawaii – what she calls being “exiled to the United States” – that van Loon got turned on to writing plays, through a daughter who went straight from high school into professional stage-management in New York.

Along the way, van Loon has also found time to write the odd novel, publish books for other writers, and even compete in three-day novel-writing competitions.

“If you think the 24-hour playwriting thing is hell, wait till you get to the three-day novel,” she says. “It’s not just one night without sleep, it’s three, or two, or whatever.”

A week before Nakai’s entry deadline, van Loon was still “dithering” about whether or not to write this year.

She’s also planning to knock off a 50,000-word novel this month as part of the annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) competition.

Still, she’s quick to offer advice to anyone tackling the Nakai event for the first time – whether they’re doing it in the Westmark Whitehorse, or from home. In her words:

Make sure you have a supply of excellent coffee. And do it with a French press, so you don’t burn your stomach out.

If you’re old, it’s going to be harder.

Close your curtains; tell everybody you’re leaving for the weekend.

In terms of biorhythms, forget ’em.

Get protein into you, and a little supply of sugar for when you need the boosts.

Put the dog into the kennel. That’s a start.

As for van Loon, she’s likely to ignore her own last piece of advice.

If she does write this year, her latest wolf-dog hybrid – a 100-pound “teenaged galoot” called His Exuberance Lord Tyee Houdini Wolf – will be at her side.

“He just listens, maybe howls, but he doesn’t bug me with his stuff. He doesn’t say, ‘Hey, listen. I’m having a problem with the cat.'”

But what’s van Loon’s advice for that moment around 3:27 a.m. when the most robust would-be playwright hits “the wall”?

“I don’t know about that. I don’t hit the wall,” she says.

And for the really, really competitive competitor??”You may win, you may not win. It may get on the boards, it may not get on the boards. But here’s what you can say afterwards: ‘I am a playwright.’ That’s what you can say afterwards,” van Loon stresses.

“That’s a really wonderful thing. And in my case, I was able to say, ‘I am Powell River’s only award-winning playwright.’ That was pretty cool!”

Nakai’s 2011 24-hour Playwriting Competition starts at 11 a.m. Saturday, November 5 at the Westmark Whitehorse. Although registrations closed October 31, cheerleaders are welcome.

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