November 20, 2018

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Bring it on home

Winnipeg-born playwright finally finds her Happy Place, thanks to the PTE

Here’s a maddening irony. A Winnipeg-born playwright earns major adulation elsewhere in Canada. But her work goes unproduced in the city of her birth.

So it was for Pamela Mala Sinha. Primarily known from appearances on TV shows such as ER and Street Legal, the actress/playwright subsequently won two Dora Awards — one for best new play and another for best actress — in Toronto in 2012 for her first play Crash, an autobiographical account of a woman recounting a harrowing sexual assault in the aftermath of her father’s funeral.

Sinha herself suffered a horrifying assault when she was attending theatre school in Montreal.

It is Sinha’s follow-up to that work, Happy Place, that finally earned a berth in Prairie Theatre Exchange’s 2018-19 season, thanks largely to the company’s new artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones, who also directs this second show in PTE’s season.

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Here’s a maddening irony. A Winnipeg-born playwright earns major adulation elsewhere in Canada. But her work goes unproduced in the city of her birth.

Click to Expand

THEATRE PREVIEW

Happy Place
By Pamela Mala Sinha
Prairie Theatre Exchange
● To Nov. 25
● Tickets $25-$53 at pte.mb.ca

So it was for Pamela Mala Sinha. Primarily known from appearances on TV shows such as ER and Street Legal, the actress/playwright subsequently won two Dora Awards — one for best new play and another for best actress — in Toronto in 2012 for her first play Crash, an autobiographical account of a woman recounting a harrowing sexual assault in the aftermath of her father’s funeral.

Playwright Pamela Mala Sinha (Supplied photo)

Playwright Pamela Mala Sinha (Supplied photo)

Sinha herself suffered a horrifying assault when she was attending theatre school in Montreal.

It is Sinha’s follow-up to that work, Happy Place, that finally earned a berth in Prairie Theatre Exchange’s 2018-19 season, thanks largely to the company’s new artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones, who also directs this second show in PTE’s season.

The drama focuses on seven women living together in an in-patient care facility for women dealing with trauma. Again, it was based on Sinha’s experience — her stage proxy is a 23-year-old woman named Samira, played by Darla Contois.

"The ‘Happy Place’ of the title is inspired by a place I’ve been," she says on the phone from her home in Toronto. "And the Samira (character) is autobiographical.

"But the women in this play are composites of women I’ve met and they’re inventions of my imagination. It’s a cross-section of both."

Jones’s assumption of the PTE artistic director office following the departure of Robert Metcalfe proved to be an incentive for Sinha to make her pitch.

"Right after I was appointed, Pamela reached out immediately," says Jones.

Thomas Morgan Jones directs the seven-member cast of Happy Place, which became possible after PTE received a funding boost from the Canada Council for the Arts. (Haanita Seval photo)

Thomas Morgan Jones directs the seven-member cast of Happy Place, which became possible after PTE received a funding boost from the Canada Council for the Arts. (Haanita Seval photo)

Ordinarily, the cost of producing Happy Place might have been prohibitive, since it requires a cast of seven actors, a tall order for a modest Canadian theatre company.

"But her emotional plea was she’s had all the success in all of North America with her script, but she’s never had one of her place done in Winnipeg where she is from," Jones says. "The words that stuck with me were: ‘I just want one of my plays to come home.’ So I said: ‘Why don’t you send it to me?’ "

That worked out, thanks in part to a boost in PTE’s funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.

"I had my première of Crash off-Broadway last year," says Sinha. "And when he told me he was going to do Happy Place, I was more excited about my work being seen in Winnipeg than I was in New York. It’s God’s honest truth."

Though Happy Place has been published following its debut at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre in 2015, Sinha took the opportunity to rewrite some of the play, with Jones’s blessing.

PTE artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones (left) and Darla Contois. (Haanita Seval photo)

PTE artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones (left) and Darla Contois. (Haanita Seval photo)

"It was an opportunity that I had to take," she says. "He had committed to doing the publication version of Happy Place. He had that version, and I told him, ‘I’m going to send you the new scenes. You tell me which one you want to do and I’m fine either way.’

"And he wanted to do the second."

The new draft offered Sinha a chance to more deeply explore the character of Samira.

"Playwriting is an evolution, and I don’t believe anybody who says they got it right the first time," she says, adding that viewpoint is evidently shared by her romantic partner, playwright John Mighton. "He rewrote Possible Worlds after he won the Governor General Award," she says.

"So many theatre creators that I have been inspired by are constantly working and reworking," she says. "They’re not ever satisfied."

Happy Place focuses on an in-patient care facility for women who are coping with trauma. (Leif Norman photo)

Happy Place focuses on an in-patient care facility for women who are coping with trauma. (Leif Norman photo)

A story about a group of women contending with the psychological damage of sexual assault seems an especially good fit in the era of #MeToo, a cultural paradigm shift that confronts sexual abuse and exploitation on an unprecedented scale. Apparently, that is one reason Happy Place will be adapted for film, with Sinha writing and starring. ("I’m not going to play my 23-year-old self," she says. "Unfortunately those days are gone but I’m playing another of the characters.") The film, which will be directed by Helen Shaver, will go to camera in February.

"I think it’s a long time coming and at great cost," she says. "But I am very happy that the tide is turning, however slowly, in that direction in our favour."

As for the homecoming aspect of the PTE production, Sinha is proud to be back.

"Winnipeg will always be home to me," she says. "And I want the city to be proud of what I’m making in the world."

On Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m., Pamela Mala Sinha will read an excerpt from her work in the PTE Lobby Lounge, followed by a Q & A session, before the performance of Happy Place.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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