A Q&A with playwright Muriel Falkenstein

Every year at NotaBle Acts, we strive to make our playwrights feel welcome and valued. Having the privilege to share their work as part of each new festival is something we take seriously. For many of the writers who join us each year, our festival offers their first experience seeing their work come to life on stage. Nothing can compare to that moment when the curtain goes up and the first lines are performed. But getting there is a process, and one that doesn’t happen overnight. There are hours and hours of dramaturgy (script development), hours and hours of rehearsal with actors and directors, and depending on the script, there could also be sets and costumes to consider. For any young writer, the experience can be equal parts exhausting and fulfilling. When done correctly, a positive first experience can be all a young writer needs to unlock a passion that can last a lifetime. So, when we sat down with playwright Muriel Falkenstein to chat about her return to NotaBle Acts for a second straight year, our hopes and intentions were affirmed. By all accounts, we got this one right.

“It was really incredible to be featured in last year’s NotaBle Acts, especially as a young artist,” said Falkenstein. “I had written my entry from the previous year, Camp, before the pandemic, and its subject matter, which centered on a summer camp, worked well in 2020. It was comic relief in a time of hopelessness. I found the whole production process was very smooth and I was lucky enough to get a wonderful cast and director on my script. I really enjoyed attending the rehearsals just to hear the different ways directors and actors were interpreting my words. Sometimes I hadn’t even considered certain interpretations. I also got a couple dramaturgy sessions to polish my script before the rehearsals started, which was a very helpful and enjoyable aspect of my experience. After Camp went up last July, I knew I had to write another play to enter in the festival for 2021, and I was lucky enough to have this script chosen as one of the two one-acts.”

This year, Falkenstein has made the leap from writing a 10-minute script for our Taking it to the Streets series to becoming one of two featured playwrights in our Acting Out series of one-act plays. No small feat for a playwright still in high school.

“My biggest takeaway from last year’s NotaBle experience was that it is always important to edit and revise your work,” she said. “Even if you think that it’s ‘good enough’ and you don’t feel like putting in the extra time, the finished product will just be that much better once the script has been polished. 

“A less logistical takeaway that I also noticed last year was just how important art is to people, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. In New Brunswick, we were fortunate enough to have been able to do most of our summer shows with live audiences, but I know that around the world, that wasn’t the case, and I was always so humbled to see the large, socially -distanced crowds at all our performances. At my various acting and playwriting classes and gigs throughout the pandemic, I found that one of the phrases I heard said most often was, ‘How I missed live theatre.’”

In short, Falkenstein’s new play Life Goes On is a story about living through a pandemic as a teenager. Teenage years can be difficult as the best of times, even without a global health crisis. 

“I think that teenagers are often overlooked in society as either being too old for some things or too young for others,” said Falkenstein, “but in reality we have very interesting perspectives and are at a crucial state in our emotional development. Throughout 10-ish monologues and a few scenes between six characters, I tried to highlight some of the key parts of COVID-19 that really affected teenagers. An exchange student trapped abroad, a young couple trying to navigate a first relationship with COVID, an anti-masker who begins to question the knowledge and authority of his conservative parents, and more. As a teen, this play is really close to my heart.”

They say to write what you know, so for Falkenstein, a grade ten student at Fredericton High School, writing a play that ties in some of her own personal experiences over the past year was very much a natural creative path to follow. In Life Goes On, fear and optimism find equal footing.

“This play is basically a written account of what 2020 was like for myself and for my peers. Scary, awkward, messy and disappointing, but also hopeful. I have a lot of faith in my generation that I didn’t have before the pandemic hit. At the time I wrote this play, I just needed someone to hear this story from the perspective of an actual teenager, because our experiences were so unique in terms of our emotional obstacles and important milestones lost to the Coronavirus.  I wrote this play last August in a spurt of inspiration over the course of the four days before the TNB Fall Festival deadline. I didn’t get selected, but hey, I still wrote a one-act in four days!

“I prefer writing in prose, so monologue form came easily to me. I usually write young adult fiction as well, which is essentially the teenager of literature in my opinion – misrepresented and highly judged, but can be done very well – so this play was very much just a usual week of writing for me. It means a lot to me to have this play produced by NotaBle Acts.”

Life Goes On will be performed along with Ron Kelly Spurles’ MAD About Van Horne as part of this year’s Acting Out series of one-act plays. Both performances will take place July 29-31 at Memorial Hall, 7:30 p.m. nightly. 

Muriel Falkenstein is a grade ten student at Fredericton High School. She is an amateur writer, actor and musician, who has been a part of Theatre New Brunswick’s musical theatre program since the third grade, and their Young Playwrights class for almost two years. The other play she has written, Camp, was chosen to be part of the Notable Acts Theatre Festival’s Street Theatre category this last summer, as well as preformed by TUNB’s second-year acting class. She is thrilled to have her play Life Goes On, presented by NotaBle Acts this summer!

McKenna James Boeckner on their new play, Marionettes.

McKenna James Boeckner was a featured playwright in our 2019 festival. Their play The Year When No One Dies was included in our Taking it to the Streets series, and we’re proud to have Boeckner back with us again and to present their new 10 minute play, Marionettes

Boeckner is a queer playwright and writer serotinously transplanted to Fredericton from Thunder Bay, Ontario to pursue a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. Their current research and writing interests are geared towards fairy tales and other forms of storied historical records as vehicles to explore contemporary masculinity as it relates to queer identities. Their most recent full-length play, A Real Boy was live-streamed as part of the Plain Sight Theatre Festival and was directed by Kelly McAllister of Spearhead Theatre in October 2020.

This year’s feature, Marionettes, can trace its roots back to A Real Boy by way of the story’s two principal characters.

Marionettes originates from a very early but recently revisited draft of my most recent full-length play, A Real Boy,” said Boeckner. “While A Real Boy narrated a contemporary adaptation of Pinocchio set in Northwestern Ontario by way of examining what it means to be or become a ‘real boy’ today, this much shorter script zeroes in on two characters that were abandoned in the larger script, Connor and Crys, to explore their unique and haunted avoidance mechanisms of toxic masculinity in rural Canada. Oedipal death plots, everlasting bog bodies, and beastly boreal forests make cameos throughout.”

Boeckner further describes Marionettes origins as stemming from the person they were and the people they knew growing up queer in Murillo, Ontario, a 30 minutes outside of the murder capital of Canada, Thunder Bay. 

“Of all of my stories, this script has the most heightened, unrealistic, and poetic dialogue (shout out to fabulous dramaturge Lara Lewis who confidently talked me through this odd shift). In the dialogue, I’ve poured artistic rambles of self-doubt and social anxiety that I would usually cut from a script. This strategy, of course, was an attempt to mirror the mental states of people coming out of isolation during the pandemic. It did not make sense to me to go back to characters who speak normally or coherently to each other when many of our minds have very much been untrained to understand and interact in this way. I am, I suppose, nervous to present writing in a format that I am not entirely used to writing. That said, I think it is a necessary shift, at least for now.”

Boeckner’s work as a playwright has led to numerous commissions and performances by various festivals over the past five years. As they explain, the limited room for character and story development is part of what attracts them to the 10-minute play format.

“Something in the quick build-up and release of tension has always drawn me to this format. But also the lack of commitment to creating definitive answers and conclusions. By leaving with ambiguity, ten minutes can cause a mental replay and last way way longer than the categorical title would suggest.”

Boeckner credits NotaBle Acts for providing a valuable window into a local theatre community that has helped shape their understanding of the region and the impact theatre can have as a means of building community amongst artists of various backgrounds. 

“I don’t think I have missed one NotaBle Acts show since arriving in Fredericton three years ago,” they said. “As a writer from out-of-province who only momentarily calls Fredericton home, the festival has really attuned me to the local. It very much showcases the theatre-based talent – actors, directors, writers, etc – that flourishes in this city. The stories I’ve seen on stage, or over computer screens in 2020, are inspiring, and the connections I have made have forever changed my writing.”

Boeckner’s play Marionettes will be featured as part of this year’s Taking it to the Streets series of 10-minutes plays performed in Officer’s Square July 26-29 at 7:30m p.m.