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Complications and connections

Victoria playwright Joan MacLeod drills below the headlines to examine mental illness, violence

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In recent years, when it came time to choose the subject of the next Master Playwright Festival, those in favour of adding Canadian content or a rare woman to the discussion tendered the name of Joan MacLeod.

Over almost three decades, the Victoria-based MacLeod has won a shelf full of awards for her plays, including the 2011 Siminovitch Prize, Canada's richest theatre award. She is taken aback by the news that anyone thinks of her as a groundbreaking dramatist.

"That's extremely flattering and shocking," MacLeod says from her office at the University of Victoria, where she teaches. "When I sit down to write, I never feel like a master playwright. It's nice to hear people think that. I'm blushing."

Early in her career, she burst onto the Winnipeg stage with Toronto, Mississippi at the Warehouse and the Governor General's Award-winning Amigo's Blue Guitar at Prairie Theatre Exchange, staged within months of each other during the 1990-91 season. But other than a presentation of The Hope Slide at our fringe festival, we've seen nothing since.

She returns to PTE Feb. 27 with her 10th play, The Valley, which is centred around the families of Dan and Connor, a police constable and the mentally ill teen he arrests following a disturbance on Vancouver's SkyTrain. MacLeod has always had her pen on the pulse of contemporary issues, using national tragedies like the 1997 murder of Reena Virk and the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig as springboards for her plays The Shape of a Girl and Jewel.

The Valley was first inspired by the 2007 death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after being Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver's airport. MacLeod was waiting to go on radio to talk about the 10th anniversary of Virk's beating death when she became enthralled with the interview subject on the air ahead of her, the man who shot the video of Dziekanski's Tasering.

"As I began to write, I wanted to look at the everydayness of mental illness and policing and how those two things intersected," says Macleod, who recently turned 60.

How society deals with people with psychological problems has changed in the 21th century, but that's not reflected by police training, says the self-described police reformer. An increasing number of calls that officers respond to involve citizens with mental illness -- if they are to act as front-line workers, they need upgraded education and instruction.

There is a general mistrust of police in Vancouver, generated by high-profile cases involving Dziekanski and serial killer Robert Pickton, Macleod says. So when Connor, her play's 18-year-old university dropout, has a run-in with the law, many in the audience will expect the worst. The teen's mother blames the police officer, whose own home life is in turmoil because his wife is suffering from postpartum depression.

"We assume in the play that this is going to be about police brutality and it isn't," she says. "It's more complicated than that. Like all my work, it comes down to family. I'm trying to find the connection between these two families."

MacLeod didn't have to look very far to find students on which to base Connor. Every year at her university, she notices two or three of her students don't make it past Thanksgiving and she is aware of at least one suicide attempt.

"I realized, in particular, young men of that age are vulnerable to mental illness and I did want to write about that," she says.

The Valley premièred last March at the playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays in Calgary and was revived in November at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, where, in July, a knife-wielding 18-year-old on a streetcar was shot eight times by a police officer now facing a second-degree murder charge.

"I was really worried everyone would be thinking about that," she says. "Every review mentioned the Sammy Yatim case. It was seen as topical and people wanted to talk about that. So we have to have that conversation."

Tarragon officials told MacLeod that the theatre had never received such a high volume of viewer feedback as it did with The Valley. Audience members were identifying, she says, with the play through their own experience or that of their children. That's what she was hoping to trigger.

"I want them to see other people's point of view, the point of view of the kid who flips out on the SkyTrain or the police officer who has to deal with that kid and doesn't know if the kid is cracked-out," she says. "What do those people go through in their day-to-day life with their families? I want the audience to look at what connects them."

The public is invited to meet MacLeod at a gathering in the PTE lounge Friday, Feb. 28, from 5 to 7 p.m.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 C3

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