UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 2 | Feb.
Workshop Helps to Separate Fact from Fiction in Real Life
Finding the truth is not easy
By Cristina Calboreanu
What do we read when we read auto/biography? And what exactly
are we watching when we watch auto/biographical plays?
We commonly expect to find the truth in auto/biographical
narratives and plays. But, as one of UBC's experts in auto/biography
studies explains, that expectation may not be entirely realistic.
"Auto/biography is something compiled, written, or produced,
by another human being, so it's a form of art in its own right,"
explains English professor Sherrill Grace. "And that is manifestly
the case when we're talking about theatre, because there are
all these other players who come in: playwright, director,
actors, script, stage manager, lights and stage designer."
According to Grace, auto/biographical plays have become more
and more common in 20th century literature, but the interplay
between theatre and auto/biography, and the reasons for the
prevalence of the genre have still to be investigated. That
is what an innovative exploratory workshop organized by UBC's
English and Theatre departments with support from the Peter
Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, the UBC Hampton Fund
and the McLean Chair for Canadian Studies, has set out to
The workshop, titled "Putting a Life on Stage", will explore
the challenges of staging and performing auto/biography. It
includes keynote lectures, panel sessions, and roundtable
discussions featuring a stellar cast of scholars from around
the world and some of Canada's most respected playwrights,
including Sharon Pollock, Joy Coghill, Mavor Moore and Linda
The focal point of the workshop is a performance of Song
of This Place, by renowned UBC alumna Joy Coghill. The play,
which explores a storyteller's struggle to portray B.C. artist
Emily Carr on stage, is, according to director Robert More,
"unique" in its approach and its courage to examine "the creative
process and the artistic vision in itself." It contains both
biographical and autobiographical elements, which are explored
through the use of Bunraku-style puppets, or animated masks,
held by manipulators visible to the audience. Four UBC students
will give life to the 19 puppets.
"We're moving across a divide here, by involving students
in a live play production," says Grace. "Working with Robert
More, who is Canada's leading expert on puppets, they're getting
a course in a very specialized area which is not part of the
For the students, this is an opportunity and also a challenge.
"The manipulators are walking, listening apparati," explains
More. "They must be an open channel to serve the mask and
the script. All the acting dials must be dimmed down and the
emotions released into the mask, so that the audience can
believe the mask is a living breathing being."
And that's not easy. Says More, "I can bring them technique,
but that isn't going to make you go, 'God, that's Emily Carr,'
and be astonished. They have to listen to the mask and respond,
listen to the text and to their fellow actors, and be empathetic
to everything around them. Learning to be that open and confident
could take 20 years of acting."
For Grace, this production of Song of This Place is an experiment,
but also a way of bringing together two worlds. "This event
doesn't fit into the academic mode and it bursts beyond the
theatre production to bring the two together," she explains.
"We tend to live in disciplinary solitudes, but it is exciting
and mutually beneficial when academia and theatre meet."
The workshop runs February 18-22. For more information, visit