Canadian playwrights have long been tempted to dip their pens in the inkwells of domestic history - from John Coulter's Riel to Rick Salutin's 1837 to Michael Hollingsworth's on-going VideoCabaret series.
Daryl Cloran, artistic director of Toronto's Theatrefront company, had a slightly different idea - to create a historical series of plays constructed around the same fictional place.
The result is The Mill , the 10-year-old collective's most ambitious project to date: four plays, by four different writers, all set on the same piece of Southern Ontario land and spanning a period of more than 300 years.
The first two instalments of the series -Matthew MacFadzean's Now We Are Brody (directed by Cloran) and Hannah Moscovitch's The Huron Bride ( directed by Christian Barry) - run from Oct. 10-24 at Tankhouse in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Part three, The Woods by Tara Beagan, and four, Ash by Damien Atkins, will run in the spring and fall of 2010 respectively.
Ironically, it was a couple of trips abroad - to the former Yugoslavia for Return ( The Sarajevo Project) and to South Africa for Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project) - that inspired Cloran and MacFadzean to begin mulling a piece of theatre that might successfully tap the vein of Canadian history.
Travelling abroad, Cloran explained over a morning coffee this week, "it was easy to be swept up by the cultural richness of those worlds. You want to soak up everything they tell you and immediately put it on a stage." But then, almost inevitably, comes the afterthought: Could one do the same thing in Canada and what would that be like?
"Matt and I started talking about this project five years ago. And the more we worked internationally, the more we thought about what is Canada? And what exactly is our historical and cultural identity?"
More tactically, Cloran says the company wanted to "create something that would encourage people to keep coming back to the theatre, not just to see the plays unfold, but to see the same actors challenged by a series of different styles. If he has his way, they will eventually get to see them all on the same day. "I think there's an audience that would enjoy that eight-hour marathon experience."
The four-part, Mill-based structure was there from the beginning. Since no historical series, they knew, could fail to take account of Canada's aboriginal peoples, Tara Beagan ( Thy Neighbour's Wife ), of mixed Nlaka'pamux and Irish Canadian heritage, was invited to join the group of four playwrights.
Now We Are Brody , the first play in the series, is set in 1854 and concerns a woman who arrives from abroad to claim ownership of the town mill, which has been closed for 20 years. The Moscovitch play takes place 20 years earlier.
Although the playwrights worked independently, Cloran staged several workshops, seeking different ways to connect each piece thematically to the next. There's even one ghost-like character that somehow contrives to appear in all four plays.
Born and raised in Sarnia, Ont., Cloran, 35, is married to actor Holly Lewis, who appears in The Mill project as well. Cloran started producing plays in high school and later studied theatre at Queens University. He earned a teacher's degree - "something to fall back on" - but has never formally put it to use. With several of his college chums, he established the 16-member, highly collaborative Theatrefront ensemble a decade ago. It is, he says, "a place to call home," although everyone connected with it works elsewhere as well, including the Shaw and Stratford festivals.
Cloran himself will direct David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole at Halifax's Neptune Theatre next March, and also return to Stratford to assist dramaturge Robert Blacker with the festival's new play development. He's already had two stints there working with Des McAnuff as an assistant director on Caesar and Cleopatra in 2008 and this year on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Given the demands on McAnuff's time, Cloran notes, being his assistant actually involved some heavy lifting. "Des gives a very clear sense of what he wants, but he's also very good at empowering his people." When the Forum 's lead actor Bruce Dow had to withdraw from the show this summer because of illness, it was Cloran who stepped in to help direct his replacement, Sean Cullen.
Cloran, winner of a Canada Council John Hirsch Prize for outstanding emerging theatre directors, is also the director of Drum!, a Maritime song-and-dance show that combines elements of Stomp and Riverdance. Now on tour, the show will be part of the 2010 Olympic Games cultural program next February.