Following Judith Thompson

Sep 21, 2006

Following Judith Thompson – Insight into one of Canada’s most prolific playwrights
By Nicole Moeller
When acclaimed playwright Judith Thompson hears a story that catches her interest, it stirs in her mind until she writes about it.
“It has to haunt me,” Thompson told The Globe and Mail, “to write about it, I can help understand it, and I just know that I’m going to key into other people if it haunts me that much.”
Her process for writing Habitat was no exception. One story that caught her interest was of a 14-year-old girl who dealt with her mother’s fatal illness by refusing to visit her in the hospital. When the mother told the daughter that despite her actions she would always love her, the daughter, unable to deal with the emotion, replied, “Whatever.”
Another source of inspiration had to do with a situation happening in the neighbourhood of an acquaintance. An old age home was being converted into a home for refugee claimants and the residents of the wealthy Toronto neighbourhood, thinking it would lower property values, did everything they could to stop it.
“… I was trying to ask questions, to provoke discussion and self scrutiny,” explains Thompson, who was commissioned by Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company to write the stirring drama, premiering at the Bluma Appel Theatre in 2001.
“It [playwriting] would be my calling and it will be my legacy, I think.”
Born in 1954 in Montreal, Thompson spent her childhood growing up in Middletown, Connecticut and Kingston, Ontario. Influenced by her mother who taught Drama at Queens University, Thompson began acting in plays when she was just 11-years-old. It became her passion and after high school she studied Drama at Queen’s University and then headed to Montreal after being accepted into Canada’s National Theatre School.
Although it was acting Thompson was studying at NTS, it was there that she would begin her career as a playwright. During a mask class, Thompson created the character Therese, a mentally challenged woman, based on people she met in Kingston while working as an assistant social worker during the summers. Therese quickly became the focal point of Thompson’s first play, The Crackwalker, premiering on the Theatre Passe Muraille stage in 1980. An arresting play that captured the music, dialect and realities of the inner city, The Crackwalker quickly caught the country’s attention and sparked her career as one of the most respected playwrights in Canada.
“All authentic theatre is a deeply political act because to make the invisible visible is in itself political, to expose denial or the lies a culture lives with – that is a political act. The real play is the dragon beneath the story that rises out through it.”
 Thompson’s next play White Biting Dog, an eccentric dark comedy about a suicidal man who is rescued by a dog who tells him to save his father, was given the Governor General’s Literary Award. This was the first of two Governor General’s Awards Thompson received, the other was for her collection of plays, The Other Side of Dark.
Early in her career, Thompson gained a reputation as a socially active playwright who gave a voice to the voiceless – a reputation that still stands today, 26 years after her first play premiered.
“…I have a mandate to give a voice to those who are not heard (a privilege to do so)—sometimes those not heard ARE middle class, and often they are not,” says Thompson. “Also, the voices/language of the less educated and affluent are usually much more theatrical—musical, juicy, poetic…”
Thompson, who has described her work as magic realism, often breaches the fourth wall, forcing her audience into the world of the play. Considered by many to be a master of dialogue and character, Thompson refuses to shy away from violence or graphic imagery. As John Bemrose put it in Maclean’s, Thompson has “used infanticide, sexual abuse, suicide, wife-beating and cancer to explore the secret inner live of individuals, but she explores the darkness with such exuberant intelligence, humour and empathy that her plays brim with the healing light of revelation.”
“My experience with motherhood has been fantastic.”
A mother of five, Thompson’s other success is at home as she continues to astound people with her ability to balance motherhood and a busy career.
 Aside from her two Governor General’s Awards, Thompson has received a number of other awards including two Chalmer’s Awards for her plays I Am Yours and Lion in the Streets, and the Order of Canada in 2005. Currently an instructor of playwriting at the University of Guelph, Thompson has also gained recognition for a successful career in film and television. She was nominated for the Genie Award for Best Screenplay for Lost and Delirious, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay for Perfect Pie.
“…there are no shortcuts. It’s like a fairy tale, where you have to go through the whole thicket, the whole labyrinth.”i
The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.: Sep 8, 2001. Pg. R.3
Examiner.Barrie, Ont. Oct 19, B.6
Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Sep 20, 2001 pg. G.08