Talking about Mx with Joanna Garfinkel and Lili Robinson
Lili Robinson is the creator/playwright of Mx, the project that won our hearts and minds in the 2019 Fringe New Play Prize competition. As we prepare for the launch of this new work on September 6 (6:45 pm, Revue Stage), and as we solicit entries for FNPP 2020, we asked Project Dramaturg Joanna Garfinkel to interview Lili about how she perceives the process from this point just before final rehearsals begin.
JG: What led you to apply to the FNPP?
LR: I was very interested in working with a dramaturg on a multidisciplinary show like this one and seeing how that process would take shape. The whole package of the FNPP also just seemed like an amazing springboard from which to dive into writing and performing my own work.
JG: How has it been different from working independently, or with peer writing partners?
LR: Compared to working totally independently, it has been really good to know that someone else has the show in their head and is keeping an eye on not only the sense and integrity of the writing itself, but the myriad little things to keep on top of, knowing that this is a self-produced show we’ll be doing at a Fringe festival.
Knowing that I can write whatever wacky idea comes into my head and there is someone else, with a lot of experience in this stuff, looking out for the overall cohesion of the piece is a huge comfort, especially for a play as jam-packed as this one. Having a dramaturg allows me to be able to work towards the very specific, very personal vision of this piece while still having the gift of a collaborator working with me to figure out the best execution of it.
JG: This piece has modern, bouffon elements, how do you “write” clown for the page?
LR: A lot of it has been a real rigour of thinking through the physical steps of what’s happening onstage, whether it’s in terms of a gag or in terms of conveying the internal journey of a character like Mx, who for much of the show communicates more with their body than they do with words.
This is another place that having your dramaturgy has been really really helpful, in terms of having you there to point out the spots where there’s a “domino” missing in the action that maybe was happening in my mind’s eye but didn’t make it on to the page.
JG: We are breaking down some topics that are both heavy and personal to your experience; what is your perception of how we have built that process, and do you have any suggestions for other people broaching that kind of material?
LR: I think in terms of our relationship working together, from the start we’ve both really prioritized accountability in terms of owning our various privileges and different backgrounds/bodies of knowledge, both lived and academic. Because of that honesty about where we’re each coming from in relation to the topics of race, queerness, etc. broached in the script, I’ve always felt really supported in that I know you will offer your experience or understanding of the things I bring up, while always leaving space for the individuality of my experience and the differences of our lived experiences.
We also happen to share a similar dark humour, which helps. For me, my writing/performance is where I feel most empowered to dig into the heavier things in my life, and I feel like I really lucked out in being paired with a dramaturg with very similar artistic and political values. I think that that similarity of values alone has been huge to allowing me to feel very supported in digging in to some of the things that scare me to share with the world; I think your dedication to making sure the story is told clearly, and well, has given me a strong structure within which to get in to the muck.
JG: You are bringing in an amazing director from Toronto for the project, how did that come about?
LR: From the beginning it was really important to me that Mx be directed by a Black director. For reasons both of Vancouver’s population makeup, and systemic barriers to the arts industry (theatre in particular), there aren’t a whole lot of Black directors locally to begin with, and the folks we connected with in our initial search through the Vancouver community were unavailable for the timeline of the project. As well, the further we got along in the development of the script, the clearer it became to me that it would really be ideal to have a queer Black woman direct. Because of the bouffon-style satire inherent in the piece, it was really important to me that the show be directed from a place of lived experience and embodied knowledge of the communities being represented. As we started asking around about this even more specific ask, Jiv Parasram at Rumble, who’s been an amazing mentor to both myself and producer Shanae Sodhi over the past year, brought up the name of Donna-Michelle (DM) Saint Bernard, a good friend and collaborator of his from Toronto. Shanae happened to be in Victoria at the same time as Donna-Michelle was for Sparks Festival, and after seeing her piece, The Sound of the Beast, and sitting down with her to talk with her about Mx and see if the vibe was right, he called me and basically said, “She’s the one.” Luckily, DM felt the same way about us!
We ran a GoFundMe campaign that garnered a lot of really kind support from the community, and an amazingly generous sponsorship from Agentic Digital Media which allowed us to reach our goal. We are so so thrilled to have DM on board, and so grateful to all the folks who have helped make it happen.
JG: What about this writing process will you take with you into your next play(s)?
LR: I feel like I’ll be taking a ton of new self-knowledge about my process as a playwright, and the sorts of phases and stages inside of the writing process for me. As an emerging playwright, simply being pushed by the experience of the FNPP to figure out what my needs are within a writing process, and getting a better sense of my own ideals in a process, has been extremely valuable, and will undoubtedly inform my next work.