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Playwright feels like a rookie before 'big girl's theatre' debut

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The 140th premiere in the 40-year history of Prairie Theatre Exchange will be the first for Ellen Peterson.

She's never had a full-length play staged before at what she calls "a big girl's theatre" and on the eve of the debut of The Brink tonight, she's feeling like a raw rookie, despite being only months away from hitting the big five-oh.

"What's strange about this experience is to be a novice at 49," says Peterson. "It sort of has the feeling of 'It's about time.' I'm new in town, in a way."

Aside from the novelty seeing "Ellen Peterson" on the cover of the PTE program where the playwright's name is written, she is hardly a fresh face in Winnipeg. The mother of two children graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 1984 as an actor and has since branched out into teaching and directing, as well as writing fringe plays and other one-act pieces. In 2007 she became a founding member of PTE's Playwrights Unit, where she developed The Brink, a family drama that launches the Portage Place-based theatre's anniversary season.

"PTE is one of the reasons people like me have careers," says Peterson, who lives in the North End. "It's because of the nerve of all those playwrights."

She is well aware that she is standing on a lot of shoulders to reach this special moment in her career. Of the139 playwrights who debuted their plays at PTE, 137 were homegrown and represent a who's who of local dramatists.

"What I find extraordinary is that PTE has premiered 140 plays and yet never identified itself as a development company," says artistic director Bob Metcalfe. "It's an amazing contribution to a national canon of work and helped us move into a place where 70 per cent of work on Canadian stages is Canadian."

Peterson is discovering that the bigger the stage, the bigger the exposure.

"You have to have a fair bit of nerve to do this," says Peterson, who wrote and performed The Eight Tiny Reindeer of the Apocalypse for Theatre Projects Manitoba last season. "Playwriting is kind of a stupid thing to do. One of my fellow playwrights said, 'It's so embarrassing.'"

Peterson has been writing The Brink, originally titled Tokyo, for the last five years, but the groundwork was laid a decade before that with a draft focused on a character named Jim, a one-time champion pole vaulter whose participation in the 1940 Olympics Games in the Japanese capital is cancelled by the Second World War. He subsequently survives the Battle of Hong Kong.

The project was shelved until Peterson joined the Playwrights Unit after almost a decade-long maternity leave. She started to build a family around Jim, but another character named Pat emerged as the main protagonist. When part of the play was read at the Carol Shields Festival of New Works three years ago it became clear that she had too much plot -- "20 pounds of play in a one pound bag" -- and decided to divide the story into what she is now calling the Chippawa Trilogy.

The Brink is set in 1969. A family is struggling to save a failing print shop once owned by the embittered matriarch Shirley, who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Her daughter, Pat, secures a big order that could save the company but a slight miscalculation could change everything. About the same time, a deserter from the United States army shows up at their door seeking shelter.

One of the revelations for Peterson during rehearsals was the moment she first caught a glimpse of Brian Perchaluk's set.

"I was talking to (actress/playwright) Sharon Bajer about how weird that is," says Peterson. "It's like you have a dream and then you go to work and it's like they built it. It's like they go in your head and build your dream. It is very strange."

Tonight's premiere is the culmination of Peterson's theatre career -- one she has occasionally questioned.

"I've wondered if there is something more I could be doing," she says. "It occasionally can seem a little frivolous. I'm not in it to be frivolous."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Theatre preview

The Brink

Prairie Theatre Exchange

Opens today, to Oct. 28

Tickets: $25-$47 at pte.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2012 D5

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