Q&A with Beth Graham

Nov 10, 2014

Playwright of
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble

Beth Graham - Headshot

How did you get into play writing?
I’ve always liked to write. I did the whole ‘dark poetry’ thing, as a teenager. Then, I wrote a few short stories. I studied acting in University and that is how I, eventually, found my way into playwriting.
What was the first play you wrote? Why did you write it?
I began writing collaboratively with Daniela Vlaskalic and Charlie Tomlinson. We wrote a play for the Edmonton Fringe in 1999 called ‘The Drowning Girls’. Daniela, Charlie and I all met at the University of Alberta. Daniela and I were in the same acting class. After graduating, we wanted to continue working together. We were reading plays and looking for one to do. For whatever reason, we couldn’t find a play that we all agreed on. Then, with much bravado and a bit of naivety, we thought, “hey, let’s write one ourselves.”
You are also an accomplished actor. How do the skills of an actor feed into play writing and vice versa?
I definitely approach playwriting from an actor’s perspective. For me, it’s all about living through the imagination, finding the character’s voice, their intention. When I write, I often act it out, talk out loud. My dog thinks I’m insane.
What inspired you to write The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble?
A whole bunch of things inspired the play. It’s hard to put my finger on one incident or inspiration. I had been thinking about my parents getting older and imagining how I would handle that, how I would cope. My biggest fear, apart from death, is losing my mind. Our memories are who we are, so when we lose those, we lose ourselves. When we witness someone else losing their memory, we lose them. They become strangers. It’s terrifying. I wanted to explore that fear. I wanted to imagine how I might react if I was in the same situation, as Iris, as Bernice, as Sarah and as Peter.
When did you write the first draft of Bernice? What was the history of its development from there?
I wrote the first draft in the Citadel Playwright’s Forum in the fall of 2010. There were re-writes and workshops (Colleen Murphy and Brian Dooley gave me a great deal of valuable feedback during the play’s development). Then, I went to the Banff Playwrights Colony with the play in 2012. Philip Akin, the artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, had been on the reading committee for Banff. While I was in Banff, he called me up and asked me if Obsidian Theatre could produce it at Factory Theatre. I said, “Hell, yeah!”
Has the play changed at all since the production from Factory Theatre? Or are you the type that likes to be done with it?
The play has changed very slightly from its production at Factory Theatre. I’m not the type to be done with a play. I love to tinker! I have to be careful because sometimes I tinker too much.
Why focus on the character of Iris rather than the title character Bernice Trimble?
Iris’ voice was the one that told me the story. My heart went out to her. That’s the only way I can explain it. It’s just how the play emerged. The play isn’t about the disease or about the decision that Bernice makes. It’s about family. In a way, it’s a love letter to all the mothers out there.
Was there a particular dynamic of “family” that you wanted to explore?
I was really interested in exploring the mother daughter relationship. For me, it is a wonderfully rich and complicated dynamic. I began with that relationship and then the rest of the family emerged. I ended up seeing the family from the middle child’s perspective. Sarah, the oldest wears her heart on her sleeve and has no problem sounding off. Peter, the youngest, is very private and withdrawn. Iris, the middle child, lies somewhere in between. She identifies with both of her siblings and is also wildly frustrated with them at times. I like contradictions and extremes. The three children reflect that. Even though we have known people all of our lives they still have the ability to surprise us. Every family is different but I hope everyone will see elements of their own family dynamics reflected on stage.
Does anyone in your family have a gravitational pull of their own?
Oh yeah. Family pulls me. Both of my parents pull. That’s why I pick up the phone. I just start wondering how they’re doing or I see something that reminds me of them and I get pulled in. They are a force in my life.
Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?
Write, write, write.
Finally, what non-theatre (or art) related activities do you enjoy in your down time?
Walk my dog, yoga, read, shovel snow, the usual.