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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Vancouver playwrights take shorts to New York festival

Competing against 1,500 submissions from countries around the world, two emerging Vancouver playwrights, James Gordon King and Sean Harris Oliver, have found themselves as two of the thirty finalists in this year’s Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival (OOB Festival).

Both King and Oliver will travel to New York City in early August for the competition and see their plays professionally produced on an Off Broadway stage. The two are vying to be among six winners, who will each have their play published and licensed by Samuel French, one of the world’s largest play publishers.

Both members of Vancouver’s Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC), it was through their affiliation with this incubator for Canadian playwrights that initially helped them on their way to the OOB Festival.

“I had joined PTC to keep more up-to-date with what was going on, and when I read about the festival in their newsletter I submitted the play. I had no expectations though when I entered,” says King.

Sean Harris Oliver's play Eight Seconds is inspired by an obituary
Sean Harris Oliver’s play Eight Seconds is inspired by an obituary he read in MacLean’s magazine.

For Oliver it was a similar experience and, like King, had completely forgotten about having entered until he received word his play had been chosen to compete.

“I was pretty excited, but a bit stunned because I forgot that I had done this,” says Oliver. “Once I started reading what was involved though I got more excited.”

Oliver’s play, Eight Seconds, comes from reading the obituaries in MacLean’s magazine on a regular basis, thanks to a subscription from his grandmother. Oliver was drawn to an obit that recounted the death of 16-year-old Benjamin Steiger, who was killed by a horse during a practice saddle-bronc run, and despite his father’s attempts to revive him, died before being taken to hospital. In Eight Seconds, Oliver created a father-son journey that captures the moments of their life together.

“I was crushed when I read that particular obituary,” says Oliver. “That Benjamin’s father was with him at the time of the accident and tried to save him was utterly devastating.”

Oliver believes that it was the tragic nature of his short play that may have actually helped him to reach the final thirty in the competition.

“I find with short plays there is a tendency towards comedy,” he says. “I think sometimes it is somehow easier to write a short play as a comedy because tragedy requires more time to really connect with the characters. For short play festivals it can be tough for programmers to find work outside the comedy genre.”

James King's Seabird is in a Happy Place
James King’s Seabird is in a Happy Place is a post-apocalyptic story of a woman come back from the dead.

For King, the start of his journey to New York began at a time when he found himself alone in Nelson, B.C.

“The sad thing I was in utter isolation at the time I found out, and it was a shame not to have any one to celebrate with,” says King. “I did call my friends and family, and I remember actually screaming at my dad that I had been chosen.”

King brings his short Seabird is in a Happy Place to the competition. The play tells the story of a young woman, Seabird, who dies and comes back to life under the condition that she must die once again as soon as it stops raining. Finding herself in a romantic relationship with another woman after her resurrection, Seabird puts her past life behind her as she embraces this new bond, complicated by her knowledge that it will end soon.

Inspired by a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes – “Also if two lie down together they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone” – King began thinking of the relationship of the two women in his post-apocalyptic play.

“Ecclesiastes has such a stark, bleak, and stoic outlook, but there is this ounce of sentimentality about having this other person to share this world with,” he says. “I was also in the beginnings of a relationship at the time as well, and was thinking that there really are never any guarantees in life; there are no assurances that any promises you make to be with someone for a long time will be true because we’re all mortal and bound to death.”

Admitting that there is a morbid side to his writing, King says that view can actually be a saving grace for him as a writer.

“I’m actually a pretty happy person,” he laughs. “But we have to be careful in expressing very deep and personal moments of joy so they don’t become destroyed as clichés. Mixing those personal moments of joy with grisly, rough language is to me a perfect way at this point to contain their essence, which really is about love.”

While Seabird is in a Happy Place takes place during a long rain, which might conjure images of renewal as Seabird leaves her old life behind, King digs a little deeper, seeing the water references in the play more akin to sexuality. “There is a fluidity to water, a luscious quality that I think is very sexual,” he says.

While both playwrights will be traveling to the competition, unlike King, Oliver will only be in attendance to see Eight Seconds produced by the festival. “I’ve had a couple talks with the director, but that is pretty much it. I show up on the day and watch the play.”

But showing up is okay by Oliver as it is part of his writing philosophy.

“I want to write and see how other people interpret the work,” he says. “The kind of writing I like is when you literally allowing the artistic team involved to do what they want to do with it. I am only one part of the process. I want it to be a discovery for those involved.”

For King, the production of Seabird is in a Happy Place, is a bit more hands-on as he is traveling with both the director and actor from the recent Vancouver production of the play.

“It’s really exciting to be able to travel with Marie [director Marie Farsi] and Emilie [actor Emilie Leclerc] and remount the show at the festival,” says King.

While King and Oliver won’t know until August 9 if either of them make it into the top six, it is a safe bet that this kind of recognition is a big boost to their writing ambitions.

“Writing is such a tough career to get into, and to get this type of recognition from an institution like Samuel French is pretty big,” says King.

Oliver agrees: “It really is amazing that Samuel French could publish the play and it would exist as a tangible form.”

For more information on the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival visit

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