"I think it's very possible that it's not good," Sheila Heti says. "I don't really know."
Heti, the celebrated author, is talking about a play she's written, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, which opens in Toronto on Thursday, and if it sounds as if she's putting on the modesty, you need to remember her reputation for brutal self-assessment. That was the primary fuel, after all, for How Should a Person Be?, the autobiographical novel that shot her to fame in the United States last year after The New Yorker splashed out three pages on a review, including a full-page colour photo of Heti. And she has good reason to be humble: All Our Happy Days Are Stupid has spent most of its 12 years as an unloved child, a curiosity that some considered so misshapen, so unredeemable, that it was best left in a desk drawer, locked, where it could do the world no harm.
But then came the publication of How Should a Person Be? in which the protagonist Sheila fails, epically, to finish writing a play. Last year, the Toronto-based director Jordan Tannahill reached out to Heti to inquire if, in fact, the play was real, and whether she would be open to having it produced at his Kensington Market storefront performance space Videofag.
It turns out that the play had been commissioned by Nightwood Theatre in 2001, shortly after the publication of Heti's The Middle Stories. "I finished it pretty quickly, in real life," she says, sipping a decaf latte one afternoon at a café off Queen Street West. Three directors tried their hands at it: All failed, so in the spring of 2006, she finally gave up. "It wasn't good, somehow, and I didn't know if it was the fault of the play or the fault of the production," she explains. "I kept trying to rewrite it, and it didn't get any better."
That could be because, as Heti admits, she's not much of a playwright. (She says she knew this when she got the commission, but didn't tell Nightwood. "I needed the money," she says with a laugh.) Or it could be that, as How Should a Person Be? caustically chronicles, "everything was wrong at the time."
Then there's the fact that All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is a tough nut to crack. It's an absurdist piece about two families, the Oddis and the Sings, who bump into each other while on vacation in France. When the Sings' 12-year-old son Daniel goes missing during a parade, the Oddis, whose daughter Jenny knows Daniel from school, try to proceed as if nothing is wrong: They're on vacation, and vacations are supposed to be fun. But the crisis creates permanent fissures in both families.
Readers who enjoyed the fraught central friendship between the characters Sheila and Margaux in How Should a Person Be? will hear multiple echoes in All Our Happy Days Are Stupid: in the tension between the two women; in the poor role model that Mrs. Oddi is for her daughter; and especially in many of the characters' halting searches for a way to be, and to be happy.
For Heti, the play served as something of a maquette for the novel that followed. Not that she realized it as she cranked out those multiple drafts. Back then, "I was like, 'I don't know what this play is about.' But writing the book, I can see exactly what the play is about." Now, "I feel that that play is speaking directly to me as the 36-year-old woman I am right now. Whereas, if it was produced when it was supposed to be, it wouldn't have meant so much to me. It almost feels like there was a message that I can read now and understand."
If everything was wrong when All Our Happy Days first came into the world, everything now seems to be right. The cast of 13 is made up of a mix of professional actors and friends of Heti's, who are performing for a cut of the box office along with whatever money is raised from a $2,500 Indiegogo crowdfunding effort.
"There seems to be this strange peace around the whole production," says Heti. "I'm not sure if there was something in Jordan's idea of what the play was about, and then the idea of casting friends of mine rather than professional actors? Or if it was just something in my own perception of the play that changed over the last 10 years."
She mulls this, then says: "Either it was fine all along, or theatre is so specific to the production that it wasn't fine until now."
Still, Heti, who dropped out of the National Theatre School's playwriting program at the end of her first year – after, she says, administrators moved to cancel an adaptation of Faust that she'd written – doesn't believe she's a playwright. "I'm not a Pinter. What they do, it's a mystery to me. You know, if I read a novel, it's not a mystery to me. Beckett – it's a complete mystery. How they do it," she explains. "I don't understand myself in playwriting. I understand myself in books, I understand the world in books."
Tannahill begs to differ.
"I think she's a great playwright, and I think she was probably frustrated by the ways in which we shepherd new plays into being in Canada. It is a challenging piece to produce," he says in a separate interview, adding that the play's large cast, numerous settings, and the fact that there's also a troubadour who plays eight songs written by Dan Bejar (a.k.a. Destroyer).
"There's a certain quirk, and also a roughly hewn quality. Scenes butt up against each other in unusual and unexpected ways, and I find that really appealing," says Tannahill. In Canadian theatre, "there's a propensity to dramaturge a lot of plays into pablum, just to smooth out the rough edges until they resemble other plays."
Heti admits she's just happy to see it on its feet. "I feel like I'm in that scene in Annie Hall; you know, at the end? When he sits there and he has the two actors – he's written a play about him and Annie? And [the actress] goes: 'I could never leave you, Alvy!' We always try to make it work out in art. Whenever I'm watching the play, I feel exactly like that scene." Heti pauses, appearing to consider the pain at the centre of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. "Even though it's not necessarily a happy-ending play."
Then she laughs.
All Our Happy Days Are Stupid runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 3 at Videofag in Toronto (suburbanbeast.ca).