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Winnipeg playwright has her characters worrying about filthy lucre

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Winnipeg playwright Carolyn Gray remembers a recent time in her life when she was obsessing about money -- mainly the lack of it.

The 47-year-old West End resident had reached a point where she could no longer ignore her craving for a big house, stainless steel appliances and perhaps a newer car than the "beater piece of crap" she drives with 340,000 kilometres on the odometer.

"I thought about sitting in a big gold house, counting my money," says the author of the plays The Elmwood Visitation and North Main Gothic. "Nothing sounded sweeter to me than that.

"It came out of my own money issues. I was thinking about money. I wanted money and there was no way I could foresee getting it."

That's was on Gray's mind as she considered a subject for the third play in her Winnipeg Trilogy. She liked the idea of a comedy, something she hadn't attempted before. To measure the challenge she was setting for herself, she decided to go the source and read the works of French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by the stage name Molière, regarded as one of the greatest masters of comedy. She read Molière's work The Miser.

"It seemed so fresh and current," she recalls during a recent interview. "All that comic timing that we appreciate so much today is all there. I couldn't believe it was written in the 1600s. It reminded me of screwball comedies."

So was born The Miser of Middlegate, Gray's update of Molière's 1668 satirical comedy flavoured by her longtime affinity for the screwball movie comedies of the 1930s. The zone41 theatre/ Theatre Projects co-production premieres Thursday at U of W's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film. Its original title was The Miser of River Heights but after strolling through Armstrong Point with its desirable homes, Gray decided that was where she would most want to reside. And the alliteration in the title didn't hurt, either.

The title character is Winchell, a man obsessed with his wealth and sick about the prospect of losing any of it to his wife in a divorce settlement or having to spend thousands on the posh wedding of his spendthrift daughter. The family's hankering for material things offers a critique on our contemporary culture that is obsessed with acquisition.

"Carolyn's writing is very quirky and funny and lives in a world of farce and satire," says zone41 artistic director Krista Jackson, who is also helming the two-hour production. "I thought it would be a great combination, Molière and Carolyn Gray, using his structure and her modern, quirky sensibility."

As she wrote it, the story became less about Molière's plot and more reminiscent of the kind of screwball comedies that amused America during the Depression. Gray and Jackson watched about 25 of them, including the genre's greatest hits: Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday. Some of the scenes were screened for the cast of Nicholas Rice, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Ryan James Miller, Shannon Guile and Andrew Cecon.

"I wanted to repeat the fast repartee, which I love," Gray says. "I wanted to match the verbal and physical comedy and I wanted a female character totally dominating, like Kate Hepburn always did."

Another influence was Jack Benny and his self-proclaimed cheapskate character, which she enhanced with recollections of the penny-pinching customers during her decade as a waitress at Pembina Village Restaurant. Several of those stories have made it into The Miser of Middlegate.

Gray has been writing for the stage since she was 19 and a member of the Rude Players, made up of University of Winnipeg students. It's been a tough slog at times, especially with the poverty that comes with being a contemporary playwright. The pay is paltry, but she has been buoyed by getting to see her work staged, which doesn't happen for all dramatists. In 2008 she won the $2,500 John Hirsch Award for most promising Manitoba writer for her historical drama The Elmwood Visitation.

"That award really opened a lot of doors for me," she says. "It made me take myself seriously as a writer."

In May she was appointed executive director of the Writers Guild, a day job that allows her to spend more of her off-hours on her own writing projects, such as a play called Escape, about Winnipeg escapologist Dean Gunnarson, as well as kids' picture book and a psychological thriller for teens.

"This is a dream job," she says. "I get to work in my field but is also lets me go home and do my writing. I've been here three months and I wrote a 20,000-word chapter book."

Gray says that after dealing with doubts about the economics of being a playwright, she has found peace with her modest lifestyle. Writing The Miser of Middlegate was the best time of her life and quenched her thirst for more stuff.

"I came to realize in my play, I've allowed my characters to lust for money in my stead. They worked it all out for me."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2013 C3

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Updated on Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 9:38 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo, adds video

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