Theatre and film often depict how losing or drifting apart from a loved one or can affect someone. The new play Before They Cut Down Our Tree by Jenna Masuhara tells the story of two former friends who grew up before the rise of social media. Meeting again in 2018, find themselves forced to deal with their past issues with each other when they are unexpectedly reunited after the death of a loved one.
Presenting the play in a pandemic presents some unique challenges but the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), in association with the Playwrights Theatre Centre has found a way to present it online. It has moved its annual new play development program, the MSG Lab, online to offer a safe theatrical experience while giving emerging playwrights the support and opportunity they need to share their perspective and creativity. It is available via Zoom on Jan. 17.
Even with the online format, the reading of the play helps us reflect on how time apart shapes relations, identity, what it means to lose a friend, but also how the confinement changed theatre and other live arts. “But I think there is something to be said about the loss of a friend and how that impacts you,” shares Masuhara.
Friendship, like a tree, needs to be cared for, protected, and valued or it dries off. It also needs time. But in Before They Cut Down Our Tree, it is time that creates distance and the space needed by the two characters to evolve in a different direction, away from the childhood memories of two kids meeting under a tree. The story behind the play is partly autobiographical.
“[The] inspiration [came] from running into this person who I used to be friends with and hadn’t seen in nearly a decade and noting how awkward and unfamiliar this person was to me now,” explains Masuhara. “From there the idea for this story about broken friendships and confronting your past came about and it turned into this play.”
Bumping into a friend
The confinement had a noticeable impact on how people reach out to one another and how often. “Something that has become clear due to the pandemic […] is the effort you have to put in to maintain friendships,” points out Masuhara. “You can’t just bump into a friend for coffee now, you need to set a time for video calls and sometimes suffer through laggy Wi-Fi… Sometimes it may seem like it’s easier to not make that effort and justify not doing so, even if in the long run you suffer for it.”
Masuhara also explores how these characters have changed in their time apart, leading to an uncanny reunion. “We all have changed during this pandemic and I think that is something that might be interesting for audience members to explore in relation to this play and the pandemic,” adds the playwright.
Creative ways to adapt
The fact that the characters feel so relatable is also due to the MSG Lab program. Masuhara got tailored support from their dramaturge, Davey Calderon, but also from Sally Lee, a cultural consultant at VACT. “One of my characters is Korean Canadian and as I’m not of that background, talking to Sally Lee about growing up Korean Canadian helped flesh out aspects of my play and that character,” Masuhara shares. VACT’s dramaturge also helped the young playwright to adapt the reading to the online format.
“In our first workshop online [for example], we discovered that characters speaking at the same time doesn’t work that well via Zoom, so I had to alter some of the dialogue to make it work for the medium,” says Masuhara.
All of which goes to show how artists are continuing to find more creative ways to display and adapt their work. And while it may be challenging at times, this can often lead to eye-opening performances and very interesting art.
In addition to Masuhara’s play, readers can catch free readings of the works of two other playwrights that are part of the program. Meghna Hadar’s Termite is scheduled for Jan 15 and Grace Chin’s A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Canada will be presented on Jan. 16.
Go to www.vact.ca/save-the-date-for-our-msg-lab-readings-20-21 to book a reservation for the reading. The admission is free.