The first and last time Kate Hewlett came to town with a play was in 2003, as a newly graduated theatre student making her fringe festival debut in the dance/musical drama On the Body.
"It was a disaster -- we got one star," says Hewlett, recalling her Free Press review. "We were proud of the show but it just got slammed and no one came. It was a very disappointing time. You can say that physical theatre show is what got me writing."
Theatre works in mysterious ways. Flash forward nearly a decade and the Toronto actress/dramatist/TV writer returns to town, where her most enduring play, The Swearing Jar, is getting its first professional production at Prairie Theatre Exchange beginning Nov. 15.
The writing of this contemporary love story virtually spans the 35-year-old's entire career. It began in playwriting class at the National Theatre School in Montreal, where her teacher instructed each student to sit in a chair in the middle of the room and take the first sentence that came out of their mouths as the basis for a monologue they then had to write. (Her line, "Turn it up, baby," has long been excised from the new two-act version being premièred at PTE, featuring Sarah Constible, Gabriel Gosselin, Christopher Stanton and Terri Cherniack.)
While a member of the Playwright's Unit at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, she expanded The Swearing Jar, then called The Glass Girl, about infertility and a couple struggling to have a baby. Hewlett self-produced The Swearing Jar for the 2008 Toronto Fringe Festival, where it garnered best of fringe and best ensemble awards. The Bridge Theatre Company, a New York City-based troupe dedicated to presenting Canadian plays, had staged Hewlett's previous hit, Humans Anonymous, and wanted to mount The Swearing Jar -- not for itself this time, but as an entry into the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival.
"Again, I had no luck with reviewers," says the sister of David Hewlett (Rodney McKay on TV's Stargate Atlantis) during a recent telephone interview she conducted while walking her dog around Cabbagetown in Toronto. "The New York Times was very harsh, although it was very exciting that it was there -- the New York Times reviewing a fringe play, which we thought meant something. He said it was manipulative but we won best new play and Talking Broadway gave us some awards."
The Swearing Jar might then have been destined for the shelf and a dusty end if the director of the New York run -- Stewart Arnott, who is also helming the PTE production -- hadn't championed the script by sending it to artistic directors across the country. He thought it was ridiculous it never had a Canadian première, so Hewlett spent another month expanding it into a more sellable two-act version.
She might have made some costly contributions to her own swearing jar when she thought about going to all this trouble to accommodate an intermission, during which theatres could peddle cookies and drinks. But the rewrite was made easier -- in between penning episodes of the CW series The L.A. Complex and the CBC comedy Insecurity -- by the knowledge that audiences related to the relationship of the contemporary couple, Simon and Carey, as well as Hewlett's songs.
"I don't want someone to say, 'Hey, let's take The Swearing Jar to Broadway and put Claire Danes in it,'" says Hewlett, who will be in the audience Thursday night. "Sure, I would say yes, but that's not the goal any more. Having a Canadian première of the play was a big, big goal. So I can check off that box."
The plot now revolves around a 40th-birthday concert/party Carey throws for Simon, who has a secret -- the greatest lie he's ever told. She has also met Owen, a bookstore worker and sometimes guitarist, and they hit it off, maybe too well.
Recalling the genesis of The Swearing Jar means a stroll down memory lane into Hewlett's love life.
"When I started working on it in 2001, I was still smitten with my ex-boyfriend," says Hewlett, who is also penning a screenplay for the movie version. "The voices of the characters were definitely myself and him.
"The strange thing is that about a year ago, we got back together -- now we're engaged and he's the age he is in the play."
The Swearing Jar
Prairie Theatre Exchange
óè Opens Nov. 15, to Dec. 22
óè Tickets: $27-$47 at www.pte.mb.ca or 204-942-5483