Is there any one here who has ever tried to submit a script?
That was the question Ottawa TV producer Merilyn Read posed a few months ago to a seminar room full of aspiring film and television producers. One hand timidly went up.
"Yes . . . I sent a play to the Stratford Festival."
And good luck to you, Read must have been thinking.
Around for more than half a century, Stratford has only in the past few years become aggressive in commissioning and developing works by Canadian playwrights. What were the odds they would be interested in buying a script by Nicolas Billon, a completely unknown 25-year-old Montreal writer who had never before written a play?
"So did you ever hear back?" Read politely inquired.
"Yes," said Billon. "They're putting it on next summer."
And so it is that Billon's one-act play The Elephant Song will be given its world premiere at Stratford in August of this year, taking its place among works by a few guys named Shakespeare and Michael Frayn in the schedule of 13 festival productions. It will play for more than a month at the Studio Theatre, with Jim Warren directing and Stephen Ouimette starring.
Billon's story is all the more remarkable when you consider that English is effectively his second language; although educated largely in English, his parents, film and television writer Pierre Billon and Johanne Archambault, are both francophone.
"I never imagined this," Billon fils said in his first ever media interview recently. "In fact, one of the first things I told [Stratford artistic director ]Richard Monette was that in the arc of my career, Stratford was more where I saw myself ending up, not starting."
Indeed, even now -- with one script sold, his second play, The Measure of Love, under consideration at Stratford, and a third in development -- Billon says he hesitates to call himself a writer.
It was a former Dawson College professor, John Lucas, who "turned me on to the idea of writing for the stage," Billon says. He spent two years at Dawson and part of another two afterward at Concordia University's creative-writing program. He dropped out in 2000, feeling that the program was not meeting his needs. "It was more me than Concordia," he explains. "School and I have had a very rocky relationship."
But he continued to write, supporting himself by working as an HTML coder for multimedia companies. Writing in English for the theatre, he says, was his "non-competition clause" with his father, who writes in French and never for the stage.
With a friend, Billon also directed and produced several English-language plays at small Montreal venues, "more for the experience than anything else, and to be part of a community."
He says he'd like to do more directing, but isn't really sure "if I'm any good at it, whereas I do feel I'm good at writing or at least it's something I understand."
The Elephant Song is a dark, savagely funny three-hander about a mental patient, a psychiatrist and a nurse. Crisply written, it has echoes of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, or perhaps something by Harold Pinter. The idea for it (based on a newspaper story he read about a young woman who died of anaphylactic shock after eating an apple pie at McDonald's) grew out of a short writing exercise at Concordia. "I was just struck by this notion that your body is killing you, thinking it's saving you. The first draft was an eight-pager, but my teacher came to me and said, 'This is really good. You should work on this.' "
He did -- for almost three years. When he finished a draft that satisfied him, Billon held a reading of it in Montreal. "It went well, and I thought, it's ready and I'm going to send it to every person I know in theatre."
Among the recipients was Montreal director Jean Beaudin, partner of Stratford actress Domini Blythe. "He read it and said it was great and handed it to Domini, who said it was great, who handed it to Richard [Monette] who said it was great."
Or at least that's what Billon was told. Hoping to confirm it, he thought of calling Monette directly, "but the idea of it -- I mean, what the hell am I thinking?"
A friend finally persuaded Billon he had little to lose. "So I got Richard on his cellphone and he says, 'Who is this?' And I thought, 'Oh, my God.' So I introduced myself and he says, 'Oh yeah, I'm about to go into a meeting and talk about your play. We want to do it.' "
Very large gulp.
Andrey Tarasiuk, who heads Stratford's new-play development program, calls Billion's work "a page-turner, very compact, sculpted, technically very proficient."
Originally, Stratford planned to mount it last summer, but bumped it for Sartre's No Exit. Billon was pleased. "Last summer, it wasn't ready. It would have been too quick."
Instead, the festival gave Elephant Song a public reading in September, inviting Billon to hang around. "The two best weeks of his life," he says. He saw almost every play, and loved meeting actors and directors whose work he had been seeing since high school.
The festival plans a similar reading this fall for The Measure of Love. It's what he calls "a love letter for the theatre, a play that can't be adapted for film or television. Because I have a bit of a reaction when I go to a play and it's clear that it wants to be a TV sitcom."
But why choose subjects -- a mental patient in Elephant Song, two old nuns in Measure of Love -- so remote from his own experience? It violates the first law of writing: write what you know.
"I never write what I know," he explains. "I don't believe in that. I think that's kind of weird. I'm not trying to write anything autobiographical, although some of the elements inside the story are."
Now living alone in the McGill ghetto district of Montreal, Billon supports the playwriting habit by doing technical writing for corporations, and script translations for TV and film. And at least for now, he's not attracted to writing original material for the big or small screen. He knows from watching the development of his father's scripts that TV and film writers are interchangeable parts in that world. They are far more respected in the theatre, he believes.
A confident young man, Billon is thinking strategically about his career, aware that while Stratford turned out to be the beginning of things, "Stratford is not the end of things." In addition to writing, he aims to spend the next few years building a network of friends and contacts, and writing for other theatres.
The other day, he had a call from Iris Turcotte, lead dramaturge at Canadian Stage in Toronto. She'd read The Elephant Song and liked it. A new commission?
"Not yet," Billon said. "She just wanted to have lunch. But that's good. Let's start with lunch."