Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Playwright's culture shock inspired first full-length work

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Ginny Collins arrived in Namibia in 2007 with a newly earned master's degree in peace and conflict studies, intent on making a significant difference in her job as communications officer for a United Nations development program.

The East Kildonan product was not ready for the jarring cultural differences she encountered, unable to speak the language or understand the customs. As Collins helped lay the foundation for women's rights, she had to deal with villagers who believed in witches and spells.

"You arrive with a new degree in these issues and you think you are pretty smart and you get there and it's -- nope," says Collins, 30, the author of her first full-length play, Good Intentions, which is based on her years in Africa. "I just thought I didn't know anything about anything."

In 2011, when the Miles Macdonell Collegiate graduate returned home to Winnipeg, she pitched several ideas for plays to Winnipeg Jewish Theatre artistic director Michael Nathanson, including one she said scared her. Of course, that was one the one Nathanson wanted to see -- the story of a female Canadian doctor working in the maternity ward of a South African hospital where the women are disappearing before they give birth.

"The play is an extension of my own journals I wrote while I was over there," says Collins, the communications and marketing director for Manitoba Film and Music. "I was working through the cultural shock in an environment in which I didn't know up from down, right from wrong. Working through that sparked Good Intentions."

The 80-minute drama, which opens WJT's all-local, all-new 2013-14 season tonight, is not autobiographical but her attempt at capturing the feelings of disorientation she felt while working as a journalist in Zambia in 2005, where she wrote for Kwacha Kum'mawa, a local women's magazine. After earning her master's in Costa Rica in 2006, Collins returned to southern Africa the following year with the UN.

"You get there with the best intentions and, of course, that is never enough," says Collins, who studied theatre at the University of Winnipeg and has penned a couple of fringe festival plays (The Good Daughter and Prairie Spirits). "You have to get a context for where you are and learn where people are coming from."

She remembers meeting well-educated locals with doctorates from the United States who still believed in putting curses on people. Others would claim that had seen witch doctors flying. Her reaction initially was to laugh and pronounce such thinking ridiculous.

"The more I encountered these stories, the more I began to think, 'Who am I to come here and say what is real?'" she says. "How can I discount their ideas of what reality is?"

Collins, whose younger sister Gwendolyn Collins is a Winnipeg actor, took up playwriting after completing a U of W course with author Per Brask. She was an aspiring actor at the time, but was perturbed by the lack of challenging, fun pieces for female performers. Her answer was to pen The Good Daughter, which is now being performed by a new generation of wannabe actresses and was presented at the 2007 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival.

She is one of the seven local female playwrights -- an unprecedented number -- who are presenting new works in Winnipeg this season. Many of them, like Collins, were frustrated by the lack of female viewpoint on local stages.

"A lot of us started writing plays with the idea that someone has got to do this, and why can't it be us," says Collins, who has a new commission from Prairie Theatre Exchange, where she is a member of the playwright's unit. "The thinking was that it's not going to change unless we change it."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2013 C3

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