Evan Placey: from Liza Minnelli to the UK and back to Scarberia
by Drew Rowsome-
"I started being interested in writing about the two Scarboroughs," says Evan Placey about his play Scarberia. "I grew up in Toronto so I knew Scarbourough really well, and my partner is from Scarborough in the UK which the Canadian one is named after. The two are nothing alike. I had this idea that I wanted to link the two. I came up with a girl who goes missing in one Scarborough and her body winds up in the other. I had no idea how I was going to make it work but I started exploring the desire to escape where you're from or get out of the confines of what you think is holding you back because of where you're from."
What resulted is Scarberia which has been called a "sci-fi CSI." Placey doesn't want to explain too much but the words "quantum physics" slip into the conversation leading to the novel aspect of casting two actors as the four boys involved. "Are they the same characters in different dimensions? There is playing with mirroring but there's no break in the play," says Placey of the actors having to change identity quickly and fluidly. "And it requires that as soon as they switch that we absolutely know who they are. It's very exciting as a writer to put that challenge to an actor - there's a scene at the end where they're playing different characters line by line."
The actors worked with an accent coach and director Nina Lee Aquino (Banana Boys) who Placey says, "focuses on the clarity and themes to get the two worlds across. She's found a way to make it work. I'm was trying to find a way to understand characters and the choices they make. It's a sort of modern day Romeo and Juliet, how these two young boys got involved with a gang." Romeo and Juliet implies romance and Placey skates around that theme. "I said to the actor who is playing Simon and Simian, that he has to do his own interpretation that there is a subtext that he is gay but it is never overt. What is spoken is that he has a girlfriend who is kind of leading him and a best friend, and he doesn't want to grow up and let him go. He wants the relationship and the bond they had when younger to continue. It plays out like a break-up, a romance, and it's up to the actor to decide if he's actually in love with him or with the idea of their childhood. For me he's very much the kid who is never seen as masculine and is the outsider."
Placey, who in his third year at McGill did an exchange year in England, met his partner, fell in love and decided to stay, has had international success with his plays, many aimed at youth audiences. "The UK is smaller geographically so you get a chance to work across the country. In Toronto you can't pop to Vancouver for the day but here, a mile down the road, is a different culture. Girls Like That, my most commercially successful play, was co-commissioned by three different theatres in three different cities but all within an easy drive." Now it is consistently produced by school and youth theatres with a French and a German version about to open.
This is Placey's first play to be produced in hometown. "I used to go to YPT all the time as a kid. I still remember vividly seeing Dracula and Jacob Two Two, so it feels absolutely fitting - and exciting, and also rather daunting - that this is where my first show in Canada is. And certainly nerve-wracking having the first play in my home town. I just hope the story and its theatrical form challenge and excite the young people who come to see it." The first version of Scarberia was developed at the British Takeover Festival at the York Theatre Royal where youth take on all aspects of a production, including programming and producing. Young People's Theatre commissioned it for this production and Placey headed to the Banff Playwright's Colony for re-writing and a staged reading.
It was there that he discovered another difference between UK and Canadian theatre. "In Canada people seem to do more than thing," he says. "They are playwright slash actors or playwright slash producers. At Banff I was the only playwright who wasn't something else. I had to do a reading and asked where the actors were." But Placey is somewhat of a slasher in his past: he began his theatrical career as a child actor dancing in commercials and won notoriety as the M&M Meat Boy. "I went to a performing arts school," he says, "but by high school I realized that I wasn't passionate enough about acting. Or good enough. I wanted to be a playwright." Fortunately there is still evidence of Placey's thespian prowess though not proof he could play two different characters at once as Scarberia demands. "I was in Liza Minnelli's video for "The Day After That," a cover of a song from Kiss of the Spider Woman that was a fundraiser for AIDS, a friend of hers had just died," he says. "We stood in the background holding candles. My mom still has pictures from that all over her house."