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playwright, actor, artist Colleen Wagner

by Colleen Wagner | April 17, 1998

Colleen Wagner has won the Governor General’s Award for drama, she teaches part-time and works with a women’s peace organization. And, of course, she’s still writing – with passion – as you’ll see when you read her story:

If we do not follow our “bliss,” our passion, we forfeit our one opportunity in this life to come to know our true nature. Life is like a river and we are all in it. We do not know what’s up ahead nor what awaits us on either shore. We are simply in the river making choices.

From the time I was very young I knew two things – I was a child of God and I was an artist.

I was born in Elk Point, Alberta, during a blizzard on February 18, 1949. My mother, Lucille Wagner (née Caskey), walked to the hospital with a small suitcase and I was induced so the doctor could get out before the storm made travel impossible. My great-grandmother, known affectionately as “Ma” Caskey, was a pioneer women in northern Alberta. She owned and operated the only hotel in Caskeyville, ran the pony express – the first woman to do so – and was the area mid-wife and herbalist. I come from a line of strong and independent women. I never believed that “man” was superior, and still don’t.

The prairie landscape shaped much of my thoughts. The Rockies were at my back, like the past, permanent, unchangeable, and the flat horizon stretched into infinity before me, like the future, an uncapturable wind. I loved to draw and write stories, acting out the characters for anyone who’d watch and I wrote and acted in my first play in grade four.

I studied at the Ontario College of Art, and had my first exhibition of photographs in 1973 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. That summer, I studied at L’institut du Film et Théâtre, in Lodz and Lublin, Poland. The course didn’t interest me, so I convinced our English tutor and guide to take me around and introduce me to artists. The Polish Solidarity movement was in its infancy and I met underground poets, painters, and political activists who were willing to risk their safety to speak out for human rights. I left Poland by train and travelled into East Germany to stay with relatives of a boyfriend. Army tanks and Russian soldiers were everywhere. Just before crossing the border into West Germany, guard dogs and soldiers stormed the train in search of stowaways. I sat in horror as the train inched past the towers where soldiers stood on armed guard, past the barbed-wire strip of “no man’s land” and into the commercial and entrepreneurial west. This Eastern European experience is forever etched in my mind. Human rights are hard won, and so easily lost.

During this same period I was also studying theatre performance and I auditioned for an experimental theatre company in Montréal, and began a career as a professional actress. I performed in contemporary Canadian plays as well as the classics in various theatres across Canada. Many of the plays I performed in echoed my life experiences and resonated the struggle of people.

In 1980, I returned once again to writing. I felt like a literary Neanderthal and so undertook English and Drama studies at the University of Toronto. In 1986 I wrote, what I call my first play, Sand. It was short-listed for best international play at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, England in 1989. I wrote a second play, Eclipsed, and joined up with Canadian Stage Company in Toronto, as part of their playwright development programme.

In 1991, I decided to spend a year travelling in southeast Asia, China and India. I saw the atrocity of civil wars, violent suppression of student protests for democracy, disease, incredible poverty, oppression, corruption, and the enormous gap between rich and poor. I worked briefly at Prem Don, one of the sanctuaries run by Mother Theresa, and have never seen such wretched poverty and suffering. Nor have I seen as much joy.

When I returned to Toronto, I wrote a play, The Monument. It’s about war, the ambiguities of morality and justice, the paradox of the soldier today, and the distance that must be travelled to find potential forgiveness. The first draft exploded on the page in three weeks. In 1995, Canadian Stage Company, in co-production with Necessary Angel Theatre and Manitoba Theatre Centre, premiered the play. It was published in 1996, and won the Governor General’s award for drama in the same year.

The Monument came to me, like a gift, and I think that says something about trusting one’s impulse. I’m currently working on a film script of The Monument, a new play, Home, and a collection of short stories. I teach part-time at Sheridan College, Ryerson and University of Toronto. And I am involved with Voice of Women, a Canadian peace organization which began in 1950, and with The Quakers, a spiritual community with a focus on social witness and justice.

The river flows deep and wide, and my choices are defining the landscape around the river’s edge.

resources for this story
  • Colleen teaches scriptwriting at Sheridan College (and Playwrighting at the University of Toronto). For information on the courses, e-mail Sheridan College at the University of Toronto at constud_registrar@scs.utoronto.ca
  • The Monument can be purchased at:
    — TheatreBooks and World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto
    — Chapters bookstores
    — through the publisher – Playwrights Canada Press, 54 Wolseley Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1A5 (416) 703-0201.
  • The Fire was published by Dandelion Press. It can be purchased at Pages, Chapters and other bookstores. Sand and Eclipsed can be purchased at Chapters or from Canada Press.
  • On Wednesday, April 29, 1998, starting at 8 p.m., Colleen will be speaking at Harbourfront in downtown Toronto as part of the Harbourfront Reading Services.
  • On Saturday, May 2, 1998, actors will be reading from Colleen’s new play, Home, as part of the World Stage Festival. The reading will occur at Canadian Stage on Berkeley Street.
related reading
  • Dialogue and Dialectic: A Canadian Anthology of short plays, Alive Theatre Workshop, Alive Press, Guelph | 1973
  • NeWest Plays by Women, by DIANE BESSAI and DON KERR, eds., NeWest Press, Edmonton | 1977
  • Beyond the Pale: Dramatic Writing from First Nations Writers and Women of Colour, by YVETTE NOLAN et al., Playwrights Canada Press, Toronto | 1996
  • Workshopping, Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada, volume 29, issue 2, pg. 31 | spring 1995
  • Penguin Book of Modern Canadian Drama, by RICHARD PLANT, ed., Penguin Books, Markham Ontario | 1984
  • Catalogue of Canadian Plays and Who’s Who in the Playwrights Union, Playwrights Union of Canada, Toronto | 1997

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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