“Teaching is theatre, you know.” So says Linda Griffiths, actor and storyteller extraordinaire. “Anything that smacks of theatre, I’m interested in.”
This time, the setting is the Concordia Writers Read series, where she’s slated to conduct a master class on Jan. 14. The audience is a group of creative writers who will be doing double duty as both students and performers. In fact, Griffiths’ course plan, if she had one, would probably consist of “15 people acting or telling stories.”
Griffiths, who by choice and circumstance has pursued a career largely independent of academic institutions, is not one to pass up an opportunity to connect with young students. “There’s an energy and an optimism to people beginning in the theatre which can be pretty rare later on in your life,” she half-joked.
The storyteller took her first shaky steps in theatre more than 30 years ago. Griffiths said that after being “kicked out” of the National Theatre School of Canada after a year, she completed a one-year teacher’s diploma at McGill University. It was “a kind of fallback,” she admitted. However, she said that “people in theatre mostly end up teaching at some point or continue to teach as part of what they do,” again in part because of the rapprochements between the two vocations.
Despite those similarities, what is taught as part of formal training has not always aligned with the actual goings-on in Canadian theatre. “It was a huge division between the real pulse and energy of what was exciting in theatre and a very staid approach by the universities,” explained Griffiths. “When I started working, that was when Canadian theatre was making this huge leap forward… what was really hot was the original theatre that was going on everywhere else in small little mole houses and rooms and you know, leaking factories and all that kind of thing.”
Without the anchor of a single establishment, Griffiths has gone with the flow. In the three decades over which her career has spanned, she has lived in Montreal, Saskatoon, and Toronto, founded her own company, Duchess Productions, and produced four award-winning plays, including the 1980 theatrical deconstruction of the Trudeaus’ marriage, Maggie and Pierre, which she co-wrote with Paul Thompson.
“I have a friend of mine who was quite a mentor to me who used to say, “there are two ways of doing it: the academy and the street. Both are valid,'” she said. Choosing the latter did not preclude the playwright from expanding her abilities. “When I performed Maggie and Pierre, I did an hour vocal warm-up every show, so I did search for that training but it didn’t come from one particular place,” she pointed out.
The sheer variety of the playwright’s body of work speaks volumes about the equally diverse sources of her inspiration. She wrote Age of Arousal after picking up a book about the Victorian era for a dollar; she created The Last Dog of War to see if she still possessed her improvisational chops. “It goes in waves,” she said. “I juxtaposed [Age of Arousal] with The Last Dog of War which was much freer form in the beginning […] where Age of Arousal was like nuts and bolts writing.”
Her completion of the year-long teaching degree was a plan B. At this point, she will continue to foray into the occasional teaching position &- like an upcoming visitorship at the University of Toronto. “I have a way of looking at the theatre and a history that I do like to pass on,” she said.
The latest instalment of the Writers Read series featuring Linda Griffiths takes place on Friday, Jan. 14. It includes a master class open to all creative writing students and a free public reading. For more information, visit writersread.concordia.ca.