A few years ago I saw a poster in a hallway filled with posters at the Red Deer College. It had a simple question: Have you ever thought of writing a play? It was a serendipitous moment in my life, to say the least. The question landed in me with much force. I had an impression for a story at the time – just a seed – and I didn’t know how to write it. It wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t even a short story. It was centred in dialogue. The question posed on the small 11×14 inch piece of paper helped open the door to solve the riddle that what I needed to write was a play, and it began a whole new chapter in my writing life.
Tanya Ryga is partly to blame! As co-founder of Scripts at Work in Red Deer and an instructor for 20 years, Tanya has helped to open many such doors for people across Canada. For me it was by being part of an incredible playwright series in central Alberta that offers opportunity to new and emerging playwrights through workshops and an annual Playwright Competition that for eight years has given writers the privilege to learn from leading Canadian theatre professionals.
If you’ve stopped by my site before, you know I like to ask questions of artists, activists, and bold thinkers. And so I wanted to pick Tanya’s brain about theatre in central Alberta, the creative process and why she has given much of her career to championing and developing the talent in others.
I connected with her through email in Red Deer, in the lead up to the Scripts at Work annual playwright competition in the 2011/12 Series.
Andrew Kooman: Who are some of the artists that have most inspired you in your career?
Tanya Ryga: The ‘big picture’ inspirations for me came from those out of reach: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, William Shakespeare, Tom Waits. But closer to home I’ve been fortunate to know and/ or work with artists who give me day-to-day moments of ‘gasp’ as well. Artists you might know? David More , Glynis Boultbee, Lynda Adams, definitely Larry Reese.
AK:. What do you love about theatre?
TR: Everything. Doing it, reading it, seeing it.
AK: What should people know about theatre in central Alberta that they don’t?
TR: Theatrical activity is thriving. We have more companies doing theatre than ever before – there is always something on. There are setbacks, sure, but theatre companies are very resourceful, exceedingly supportive of each other and the audiences are enthusiastic. The type of theatre available to see is broadening all the time – and that means audiences are wanting choices. In the midst of all the creativity Scripts at Work has emerged to flush out and support the growing number of playwrights in the area.
AK: What first drew you into acting? What drew you into instructing theatre artists?
TR: My father was one of Canada’s foremost playwrights but that wasn’t what did it for me. No, I thought he typed for a living. What hooked me was when Holiday Playhouse (the touring arm of the Vancouver Playhouse) brought a production of Romeo and Juliet to my school. It’s the first time I remember ever seeing a play. At twelve I signed up for summer school with that company and have never stopped doing and learning about theatre. One who loves to learn is eventually lured back to school. I’ve been an instructor at RDC for 20 years.
AK: Tell me about the beginnings of Scripts at Work: why did you start it and with who?
TR: There have always been Acting students who are also writing plays or wanting to write for theatre. During the winter of 2004 with the help of theatre faculty, current students and alumni an evening of brand new short plays was presented on campus to a surprisingly enthusiastic audience. Who knew? The idea for an annual play competition grew from there. Lynda Adams was the founding faculty member and has kept SAW going and growing since then. It has a talented Advisory Board and brings professional dramaturgs and directors to Central Alberta annually to work with our emerging playwrights and local actors. SAW playwrights have had successful productions of their works here and elsewhere plus continue to write for theatre and film.
AK: When I’ve connect with people who’ve had the fortune to work with you or learn from you, they always comment on your generosity and say you’re their biggest encouragement. What motivates you to foster and develop talent?
TR: Gosh. I could be flippant and say ‘compliments like that!’ Teachers are always in a privileged position to encourage and develop others. In the arts, working with others is always about process and creation. Something is being created and there is often no template. It’s so important to thrive in the not knowing and just trust in the talent all around. As for developing that talent, if you can see it in them so will they.
AK: Dramaturgy is a term many people aren’t familiar with. How do you define it and why is it important in the theatre world?
TR: Every province has organizations that provide supports to writers and new plays. In Alberta we have many: Alberta Playwrights Network, Scripts at Work , the Citadel and Banff Playwrights Colony to name a few. Rarely do plays go from creator to production without a dramaturgical process. Mentorship can come from any of these organizations or a dramaturg may be provided by the theatre company who is producing the new play. Together the writer and dramaturg look at every aspect of the play from theme to structure to character arc.
A lot of questions are asked to ensure that what the writer is thinking is actually on the page. With an existing play that we are preparing to direct or rehearse we will mine the world of the play and the world of the characters to get a deeper understanding of the work. That process can also be referred to as dramaturgy.
AK: Why is Scripts at Work important for the arts in Red Deer and central Alberta?
TR: SAW has provided opportunities for over 70 playwrights and 150 actors since it began eight years ago. There are workshops such as ‘How to Write a Play’ and ‘Stand And Deliver-for actors. Two playwright Circles are offered where new plays are written, developed or adapted for film under the guidance of a professional dramaturg. SAW is most known for its development of winning plays from the annual playwright competition culminating in staged readings at the Festival of New Plays in Red Deer.
AK: What has surprised you about Scripts at Work over the last 8 years, and where do you see it going in the future?
TR: I’m surprised at the number of people wishing to write for theatre but I’m not surprised at how good the writing is. SAW has thrived due to thousands of volunteer hours and the dedication of those involved humbles and cheers me. Artists from the professional theatre community are happy to come to work with our writers and actors, or serve as jurors reading all the plays submitted to the competition and I’m always surprised and thrilled with this generosity. We get financial support annually from the Alberta Foundation of The Arts and the City of Red Deer, which helps us bring in the professional artists but everything else is done by volunteers and organizers – people who love the theatre.
I see the programs growing. We’ve very occasionally had longer intensives for the full length plays and we’d like to be able to offer more of that.
Something new for us recently is partnering with Central Alberta Theatre to showcase the plays once the SAW phase of development is complete. We dream about having the capacity to fully mount one of the SAW plays one day, but our biggest contribution continues to be encouraging writing.
About Tanya Ryga: As a long-time instructor in the theatre program at Red Deer College, Tanya Ryga has taught many of the artists who are writing, directing and acting in theatre productions all over Canada and beyond. She received a Women of Excellence Awards for Community Building (2010) from the Red Deer & District Community Foundation for her work with Scripts at Work and two theatre companies: Butt Ugly and BITE: Body Image Theatre Education for which she is the Artistic Director.
To learn more about Scripts at work visit www.scriptsatwork.com