Judy Wensel on the boringness of issues
by James Brotheridge
Artesian on 13th
Jeanne McTate is a fiery character. She’s a 14-year-old young woman living in 1960s small-town Saskatchewan who’s lively, outspoken and funny. She’s also the centre of Shangri-La, Judy Wensel’s one-person play about teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and repressive small-town culture.
“As soon as you hear ‘teen pregnancy’ and ‘play,’ you’re like, ‘Uh,’” says Wensel, the play’s writer and performer. “There’s such a connotation of cheese or boringness that comes with ‘issue plays.’ I always wanted to avoid that.”
She’s avoided it. Wensel and her character Jeanne deal with the subjects honestly. She also, thanks in part to a keen sense of humour honed in Globe Theatre productions and in improv troupes such as Combat Improv, Dot and Mae and Middle Children, keeps Shangri-La a fun experience.
Shangri-La started with the theatre company One Yellow Rabbit. “They’ve been around since the 1980s, and now they’re an iconic Canadian company that produces really cool work and interesting stuff. They’re kind of a punk rock theatre,” says Wensel.
She was taking part in their Summer Lab Intensive, a three-week program where they help theatre artists “[discover their] artistic preferences and aesthetics, and what makes them tick.”
For Wensel, that was a long-running interest in the teenage experience of baby boomers. This interest isn’t new for her; readers may remember her throwback dance, the Hop, held twice now at the Artful Dodger.
Part of the Summer Lab Intensive was creating a 10-minute solo piece. In creating hers, Wensel drew on that period as well as her mom’s own story of growing up in 1960s small-town Saskatchewan. Her mom is the middle sister of three, and both of her sisters became pregnant at a young age.
Jeanne came from that piece, growing into the charismatic young lady who’d eventually hold audiences’ attention as she spoke to them from her bedroom.
The play debuted as part of the Globe’s Shumiatcher Sandbox Series in the fall of 2013. Now, Wensel is restaging it in Regina under the banner of SodHouse Theatre, a new company she’s started to develop theatre projects in Regina. Following two performances on May 9 in Regina, she’ll be touring Shangri-La over the summer, hitting Victoria, Saskatoon, and Edmonton before she’s done.
It’s a lot of work that Wensel has to take on, including shipping and transporting her set around. I ask if she regrets writing so many beer bottles into the set, and she answers before the question is even done.
“Kinda, yeah. Because now, we need to rework it and the hiding places for the bottles will be different. We’ll have to figure that out in rehearsals. But yeah, I was like, ‘Ugh! There are so many places I have to find to hide them now.’”
If Wensel’s taking great lengths to bring Shangri-La to audiences, it’s because she thinks Jeanne is worth it.
“I think the real joy of this story is seeing this character just be in front of you. The strength of the piece is in the character. It’s not necessarily the narrative. There’s not a big, ‘Oh my God’ ending. It’s a gentle unfolding of events that allows you to get to know this interesting teenage girl.”