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Playwright brings inspiration to class

March, 2011

The historic, beautifully renovated yellow brick building on Sherbrooke that stretches from Atwater to Wood, once the motherhouse of Congregation Notre-Dame, is the home turf of one of this city’s prime educational institutions.

Dawson College is bursting at the seams, with about 10,000 day and evening students. Because of its location, extensive and innovative programs and dedicated, creative teachers, it has become so popular it has rented rooms at the nearby AMC Forum to accommodate the overflow. There are many reasons the college has achieved its reputation, and English teacher Ann Lambert is one example. One of Montreal’s top playwrights, Lambert belies the cliché that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. Not only does she do both, winning awards and accolades for her work, she brings her creative impulse and drive into the classroom.

We visited Lambert recently at the office she shares with three other teachers. Her desk is crowded with miniature sets of plays her students have created. Her wall is full of posters of plays she’s written, and other momentos from 30 years writing, directing, producing and teaching theatre.

Lambert was born in Beaconsfield, and raised there and at the family cottage on Lake Massawippi. Of the approximately 20 plays she’s written, the first was in1983. The Greenhouse is about the death of her father, accountant Russell Lambert. It was produced for the Quebec Drama Festival at the Centaur Theatre, a showcase for new writers. The follow-up, The Wall, was inspired by a newspaper photograph of an East German shot trying to cross the wall into West Germany.

“The image in The Gazette showed the face of the soldier who was carrying the body. I thought I would tell the guard’s story. I wanted to show what that felt like, to shoot someone. I didn’t specify where it took place.”

When The Wall was remounted four years ago, the theme resonated with such recent developments as the barriers separating Israel from Palestinian territories and between the U.S. and Mexico, she noted. It was originally written as a monologue for Lambert’s Master’s degree in creative writing at Concordia University. “My teacher took a big red pen and crossed through the pages. He said: ‘It’s full of grammatical mistakes,’ and I said: ‘That’s deliberate because the person speaking is not educated and I’m trying to capture his voice’.”

She refused to correct the dialogue; he gave her a failing grade. Lambert submitted the play to a national competition and won first prize at the Ottawa Little Theatre National Playwriting Competition. She re-applied and was admitted to the program. “I think winning the award, plus a few others, helped somewhat,” Lambert noted wryly.

She continued to write plays for CBC radio and for the stage, including Very Heaven and The Mary Project, co-written with fellow Dawson teacher Laura Mitchell. The Mary Project was featured at a conference of international female playwrights in Athens and played to sold-out crowds at Infinitheatre in Montreal in 2001 and in Melbourne, Australia.

What drew Lambert to the stage was her penchant for dialogue when writing stories.

“I used to hand in these short stories that had one sentence of description and then dialogue. I worked at Beauty’s (restaurant on St. Urbain and Mount Royal) at the time and the people who worked there were so fascinating.

“Hymie, Freda, and their son Larry would say the most remarkable things. I would just record them and submit them as short stories to my teacher. He liked them. Then one night he asked me: ‘Why aren’t you writing plays? You seem to have a good ear for this.’

“I love listening to people. I am like a professional eavesdropper. That’s what I do. The art is when you take what you eavesdrop on and turn it into something.”

Lambert, who was nurtured on opera and ballet and studied the violin, went to see David Fennario’s Balconville, and remembers thinking: “This is very different from anything I have seen, and I said to myself, I can do that.” The other inspiration came from the anti-Apartheid plays of South African Athol Fugard.

In the “wished-I’d-written category,” Lambert names Fugard’s “Master Harold” ... and the Boys, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Incendies (Scorched), the Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of the Wajdi Mouawad play, as contemporary plays that most impressed her.

Ann Lambert’s Dawson office is filled with students’ miniature sets.

To the question of why more female playwrights are not being produced, Lambert observed that most women’s stories are perceived to be “some kind of chick lit.”

“We’ve become marginalized. There is a belief that our stories are not part of the cultural narrative. I remember someone referring to my play Very Heaven as a chick-lit play. Well, it had chicks in it, but it’s a play about sisters, and forgiveness, and class. “Also, theatre and film are still male-dominated. There must be some kind of disconnect between getting the training and the desire of having your work produced. There is this idea that our stories are not part of mainstream culture.”

Lambert also wondered whether female playwrights are pushing hard enough to get their work produced because “maybe we don’t believe in ourselves as much, we don’t have that kind of confidence. I wonder if it’s humility or arrogance – come and find me. But that’s not how it works, not in this country. To get a second production in this country is very hard. “

Lambert did a couple of self-produced plays with Laura Mitchell and runs the Dawson Theatre Collective. Apart from highly successful adaptations of Shakespeare plays for children by Grade 5 and 6 kids, Lambert carved out new territory last year at Dawson with the collective and its production of A Midsummer Night’s KickAss Dream, which played to sold-out audiences.

It is a play about students doing the play, within which lies a sub-plot, written by Lambert with material and ideas from the students.

Woven into it is the story of Pakistani student Salma, a Muslim from a traditional background who falls in love with one of the actors, named Christian. Her family finds out and she’s forced to return to Pakistan. “The inspiration for that was the story I read about an Iraqi girl who was beaten to death by her father for talking to a British soldier. I wanted to take Shakespeare and show that even at the heart of his comedies are honour killings. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia is told by her father, either you marry Demetrius or you go to a nunnery or you die.”

Lambert’s first play with the collective was Uphill Both Ways, a comparison of sex, religion and politics in 1969, when Dawson opened, with the Dawson of 2009. The students did the research and most of the writing, while Lambert handled the night when astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This year’s working title is Not Julius Caesar, about a teacher who proposes to her Dawson Theatre Collective that they do another Shakespeare play. They mutiny. It’s about two kids who write the play they want to write.

It was written by three students – Vishesh Abeyratne, a creative writing student at Concordia; Alice Abracen, Lambert’s daughter; and Danielle Szydlowski, daughter of Dawson teacher Louise Arsenault, also a playwright.

“With Uphill Both Ways, I proposed a bigger idea, comparing kids today with the way they were. We had a soundtrack with tunes from the 1960s, which everyone loved.” The idea of “saying no to the teacher” came from Lambert’s son, Isaac Abracen, who also is in the play. (Lambert is married to high-school principal David Abracen.) Before she retires from the college, Lambert vows she will do Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus Rocks, the musical. This year it’s a joke at the end of the play.

Not Julius Caesar will be performed by the Dawson Theatre Collective May 4, 5, and 6. Tickets $10. Proceeds will go toward digging a well in the Malawian town of Mnjale, part of a campaign to raise funds for the Theresa Foundation, started by Lambert’s mother, Thérèse Bourque-Lambert.



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