A slaying has rocked a small Ontario town, leaving an aftermath of grief, worry, and confusion. That’s the world inhabited by The Concessions, first-time playwright Briana Brown’s haunting, poetic script—and it’s one that she knows firsthand, having experienced a similar tragedy in her native Huron County before moving west to study creative writing at UBC.
“In 2008 there was a really violent act that happened in our community,” Brown explains, on the line from her Vancouver home. “It’s not the same as the one in the play, but it caused the same sort of stirring and sense of panic and loss of safety.…It was that event that made me want to explore this topic, but I tried to stay away from the truth of that event and all of the people involved.”
One indication of the kind of skewed intelligence that Brown has brought to The Concessions is that its central character is a psychic. Faye ekes out a living reading tarot cards, but failed to register any premonitions of violence. “She starts struggling with her faith in her health and in her abilities, having been unable to stop the murder,” Brown notes. “And then there are other characters who get thrown into other kinds of existential crises as a result.”
The playwright admits that her own sense of security was overturned by the real-life double murder that inspired her script. “The thing that I really came to question,” she says carefully, “is ‘How dare we, living in the world that we live in, ever assume that we deserve safety?’ ”
Brown doesn’t suggest that this shifting emotional foundation led her to pursue the decidedly unsafe life of a full-time artist. But if her own inner turmoil played a part, she’s lucky that she’s landed in an unusually nurturing environment—and we’re not just speaking about Vancouver. The Concessions is being produced by Touchstone’s innovative Flying Start program, a collaboration with Playwrights Theatre Centre and the Firehall Arts Centre that’s designed to give emerging writers access to the professional stage. In Brown’s case, that’s meant a nearly two-year gestation for.
“A couple of things come into play in our selection process,” says Touchstone’s artistic director Katrina Dunn, who chosefrom a shortlist of over 25 scripts and who will helm its debut. “First of all, you’re looking for a new voice, somebody who has a sense of their own style, a sense of the content-world they’re exploring, and a sense of theatrical structure.
“And then you’re also really looking at the playwright,” she continues. “We’ve found that it’s very important to get somebody at exactly the right stage of their development.…It takes a little bit of experience to know how to use things like workshops and a dramaturge’s input, and we really felt like Briana was just at that place. She was ready for the opportunity.”
And grateful for it, too. Brown enthuses about working with Dunn, dramaturge Kathleen Flaherty, and The Concessions’ accomplished cast, which includes Jillian Fargey, Sebastian Kroon, Marilyn Norry, Emma Slipp, and Alec Willows.
“One of the things that I found really interesting,” she says, “is that if a character references something that happened to another character off-stage, it feels fake. It feels like a convenient playwriting device. But if somebody tells another character something that happened off-stage, if they’re sharing that information, all of a sudden it feels absolutely true. I know that sounds maybe like a small thing, but it was a huge epiphany.
“Katrina and Kathleen have both struck this wonderful balance of really pushing me to do my very best while also being very supportive,” she adds. “They’ve offered me sort of a safe space.”
That’s not easy to find in this cruel world, but it’s a great place to start.
The Concessions runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from Thursday (June 5) to June 14.