Grand Bend playwright Paul Ciufo nominated for Governor-General’s literary award for Reverend Jonah
Born in Toronto, raised in Guelph and Mississauga, Paul Ciufo has called Grand Bend home for more than two decades. His first professional play, Reverend Jonah, was recently nominated for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Drama. “It was probably the most pleasant surprise of my life,” says Blyth Festival artistic director Eric Coates of his response to Ciufo’s news. Blyth developed Ciufo’s and produced the play for the festival’s 2007 season. “It was one of the most gratifying moments in my career as someone who develops and produces new Canadian work.” Blyth scripts have been nominated for Governor-General’s awards twice over the years; both plays, The Drawer Boy and Quiet in the Land, won the award. “Competition is stiff,” Coates says. “Paul’s work stood out among the best new plays in the country. “This play really forced people to take a look at faith, tolerance and inclusion, and they responded very well to it.”
As told to Casey Lessard
Reverend Jonah is inspired by a couple of ministers, primarily a minister I know who got into conflict with the powerful families in the church where he was a minister, and there was a real clash, and it was quite devastating to him health-wise. It was quite poisonous for the church; quite a few members of the congregation stopped going over this because they disagreed with the antagonism toward the minister. I got incensed about that. This is a church, a place of love and support amongst its membership. I felt angry and sad that even that kind of human institution can be so flawed, that people can be seeking power there. I also had a relative who was a minister and it was quite taxing on him. He struggled with addiction issues and died at a young age. These are the starting points. I went to Blyth Festival and presented my idea for the play, and they said they liked it and would commission me. ‘We will work with you and we’ll get the first opportunity to produce the play when it’s done.’ That was a long process because it took me a long time to get this play right. When I started, what caused the conflict in the fictional church was much less controversial and smaller than what ultimately is the cause of the conflict in the church. The people at Blyth Festival were the ones who said, ‘Choose a bigger issue. It’s not realistic and it’s not incendiary enough.’ So I thought, why not choose the biggest issue facing churches right now, which is acceptance of gay and lesbian people. I’m really glad I did. This wasn’t the only thing I was working on for those years. I’d take a run at it and take it to Blyth, and they’d say, ‘It’s getting better, but it’s still not ready.’ We did readings of it with actors, and they did that several times. This process started in 1999, and it wasn’t until 2006 that Blyth said, ‘Yes, we’re going to go ahead with this.’ And in summer 2007, it finally made its way to the stage.
One thing I learned along the way was the process of a theatre company commissioning a writer. I always envisioned just sort of going off and doing your thing and then making the approach. I didn’t realize that you could go to a theatre company and say, ‘I’ve got an idea. Here’s an outline of the plot and the characters,’ and have them jump aboard with you in the process. I didn’t realize it would take so long. I almost totally lost faith in the project several times and gave up on it. The fact that it finally occurred was somewhat surprising. I got to a point where I thought, I just can’t get it to be good enough to be worthy of being on stage. But something about that story got me to give it another try. It finally paid off. The monetary payment is a very modest amount, and it’s in several installments. It’s not a lot of money (for seven years work). Do you want to do the hourly rate (laughs)? Knowing that someone is waiting to read your draft gives you extra motivation to get done, apart from your own satisfaction. Of course there’s always the chance that they might say, ‘It’s ready to be produced.’ That didn’t happen until the summer/fall of 2006.
My emotions would ebb and flow. I would be out for a run in the Pinery and suddenly think about the play and say, That’s how I solve that problem. I’d come home and spend all weekend working on that. I’d get excited and that process of working on problems, deleting some characters, adding some subplot would lead to a new draft. I’d take it to Blyth and wait expectantly. In the early days, the artistic director was Anne Chislett, and she has won a Governor-General’s award for her play Quiet in the Land. She would say, you’re on to something, but you just need to keep working on it. To show you how long it took, there’s a new artistic director there. Fortunately, Eric Coates, who took over, also saw the value and potential in the play and kept encouraging me. When they say there’s something here, but it’s still lacking, it’s like you’ve completed a marathon and there’s another one in front of you because you put your best into that draft and it wasn’t good enough. Sometimes that meant putting it away and working on something else. For example, I did a radio play for CBC in 2002. Or I got a new idea for a play and would work on that. But I always circled back to Reverend Jonah and tried to get it right. It was this flow of hope followed by despair, followed by hope, followed by despair. There was a further complicating factor, and I’ll never know how big of a factor it was. I believe Blyth Festival saw it as a risk to put the play on because they have a core audience that may be deeply offended by a play with sensitive religious issues. The play had to be bang on artistically, but there was always the question of what the impact would be. Would sponsors stop supporting the festival? Eric Coates had a public reading of the play in the summer of 2006, and that may have been as much to road test it from an artistic merit standpoint as from a community reaction standpoint. The feedback was incredibly positive. The ministers at that reading stood up and said, ‘Paul, you got that right. That’s what ministers go through.’ Or, ‘Thank you for tackling this issue.’ Or, ‘This isn’t a play about one issue; it’s about community and acceptance.’ A lot of people connected to it in all sorts of ways.
I’m also a rookie. I’ve only written one stage play before this called On Convoy. That got a tremendous non-professional production at the Livery Theatre in Goderich, and was produced as a radio play for CBC. But this was my first professionally produced stage play, so I had a lot to learn. I learned some things doing that CBC production working with very knowledgeable people there, such as executive producer James Roy and script editor Dave Carley. They really helped me understand parts of the craft, like how to structure a scene, how conflict works to drive a scene forward; basic things that are essential. I learned that writing is not just a talent. It’s a skill you have to hone and hone and hone. (When Blyth said it was ready,) first of all I felt joy. Yes! It’s going to see the light of day. It’s actually going to reach people and be seen. I was really excited and I essentially had the goal of having a play produced by Blyth for about a decade, so it was a realization of a long-term goal. I was very excited and very happy. Then there’s the buildup as the season was approaching. Then there was, surprisingly to me, a lot of work to be done on the script over the winter and spring. I was asked to be at the first week of rehearsals. I thought there would be some tweaking as the actors were rehearsing, but major rewriting happened that week. I’d wake up in the morning and email the new script to the actors and the process would start again. What you’ve written on the page, when it’s a play, doesn’t tell the whole story. Actors move around, insights emerge into what’s working and what’s not. The major realization was that with one of the characters, I hadn’t done a very good job with her. The actress bravely said, ‘I don’t know who this character is; she’s just angry all the time.’ I was taken aback, but then I realized it was true and I had known all along that was true. I tried in the course of a very short time to flesh out that character. That has impacts on everything else when you’re adding a character and scenes. She is the life partner of arguably the most important character in the play. Bottom line, I learned a lot that week about the process. It was very intense. They rehearse for several more weeks and opening night arrives. To my surprise, I wasn’t very nervous. I knew they were going to do a good job. I will never forget that night because I just sat and watched these incredible performers totally nail it. The audience was so receptive. They were laughing at the funny parts and very moved at the poignant parts. There was so much energy in that. I was sitting among my family and friends and I got to watch their reactions. It was odd because I knew where every line was coming from. Two of the characters are based on my in-laws, so when Fred sings in the shower, I’m laughing, and the character based on my mother-in-law says ‘I can’t get him to sing a note in church.’ And she actually said that. It was really neat to watch it and be there in the moment while thinking of the background leading up to it. Paula Citron, a reviewer from Toronto, wrote the review every playwright hopes for when she said, ‘The play was beautifully written.’ That’s a wonderful thing because so often theatre reviews focus on the performance.
I started sending the play out to other theatres, and nothing. I was told, ‘The cast is too big.’ A year goes by and there are no other productions. I had been hoping that since it was such a success that it would go on. I got contacted by Scirocco Drama publishing house that wanted to publish it. A play is in its most fully realized form on stage, so you don’t often think of plays in books except for Shakespeare. But plays are often published, and that’s how they are studied in classrooms and that’s how theatre people get access to them and get inspired to put them on stage. It was really exciting because since the age of seven, I dreamt of having a book published. My first book idea was a mystery novel in the Hardy Boys style called the Mystery of Shadow Ranch. I had never thought that it would be a play that would get published. I also thought it would be a real struggle to find a publisher. You hear all these stories of authors who get 49 rejections, but here was a publisher who sought me out, so that was great.
I knew theoretically (because only published plays may be nominated) that it could be nominated for the Governor-General’s award, but I had no expectations of that. The publication date was September 30, and I just got a phone call the other Tuesday (Oct. 21). The woman said, ‘I’m calling on behalf of the Canadian Arts Council,’ so my wheels started turning and I wondered why they would be calling, and ‘I’m calling to inform you that you have been nominated in the drama category…’ and I’m thinking, Oh my God, it’s the Governor-General’s awards, which it was. It was quite a moment. I was really moved. I was at a business conference in Toronto, so it was a voicemail message I was listening to, and I was immediately a mess. All my writing life flashed through my mind. I saw myself as a kid working on that novel, as a very nerdy high school guy working on a spy novel in high school, and studying literature in university. Whether you paint or write, artistically it’s completely subjective. It’s tough to know whether what you do is good. There are always varying opinions on it. I tend to suspect the negative opinions are right. When something like this happens, a national award, it’s tough to dismiss that. Perhaps now it will be considered for more productions, so that’s positive. For new work in the future, it will be easier to have people consider it. Blyth has commissioned me to write a play called The Five Day Whiteout. It’s a thriller/murder mystery. The plot is that four people traveling separately by car are blinded by a whiteout and stranded on the side of a country road. A retired schoolteacher brings these five people into his house, and there’s a killer in their midst.
My family is really excited for me. Julie is really happy for me and it’s her success, too, because she has to make sacrifices when I’m writing. I get the sense that she also thinks the sacrifices are worthwhile.
Paul Ciufo will find out November 18 whether he has won the Governor-General’s award. The winner will attend a December ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa hosted by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean. The awards are Canada’s oldest and one of its most prestigious literature awards.