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Award-winning Playwright David French Shares his Passion with Students

Though few senior drama class students said they saw playwriting in their futures, they listened absorbedly for three hours as award-winning playwright and writer-in-residence David French described his passion.

Mr. French inspired the students, in part, by recounting some of his experiences, including that which initially engaged him to write - being instructed to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

"Halfway through the book, not only did I want to be a writer, I knew I was," said Mr. French, who completed his two-week time in residence at Trent University on Friday, October 17.

Mr. French is an Officer of the Order of Canada and is best known for his semi-autobiographical Mercer Family series plays Leaving Home, Of The Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon, 1949, and Soldier’s Heart. These plays, based on a Newfoundland family, have been performed across Canada and the United States. Of The Fields, Lately has been produced on Broadway along with The Seagull, which starred Jon Voight, Laura Linney, Tyne Daley, Tony Roberts and Ethan Hawke.

In his October 16 discussion with students, he took them on a journey that spanned his career of more than four decades. His first play, he told them, was written in 18 hours and subsequently sold to the CBC; it was a year before he sold a second. And for the following nine years, Mr. French said he tried to consciously teach himself the craft, endlessly studying plays, reading books on playwriting and going to the theatre, only to realize the capacity is "in your body somewhere."

Mr. French will soon start to write another play - one he says has been "haunting" him for more than 15 years. How it would come together as a script, came to him in a dream, causing him to put aside the novel he has been working on for a year-and-half. What it will be about, the students were curious to know.

"I never talk about what I’m working on," he said. "I walk around with this wonderful secret inside. I want to tell someone, but I don’t."

Besides, Mr. French explained, his plays evolve as they are written.

"I don’t know what my next line is going to be," he said. "Some of the best work seems to happen when I’m not thinking."

What he can say with certainty, is that a play is about one person, the protagonist, trying to do something; and all the other characters in the play are there to help or hinder the action of that protagonist. That’s how all plays work, he said.

"I start with one or two characters and a situation of conflict and I develop it from there…I let the plot evolve out of the characters."

And his characters are based on real people. Sometimes, they are composites of two or three people, but always, they are composites of their creator.

"Every character I’ve ever written…are all parts of David French. The more interesting you are as a person, the more characters you have inside you."

Mr. French’s plays have inspired screenplays, been filmed as full-length drama specials for CBC Television and translated into French and Spanish. They have garnered awards such as the Hollywood Drama-Logue Critics Award, the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for Drama, the Dora Mavor Moore Award, Outstanding New Play and the Chalmers Award for Best New Canadian Play. Born in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland, Mr. French was the first inductee into the Newfoundland Arts Hall of Honour in 1989.

In his more than 40-year career, Mr. French has worked as a professional actor and in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote half-hour television dramas and episodes of the CBC children’s series Razzle Dazzle. He has adapted his stage plays for radio and has written several original radio dramas and screenplays as well as dozens of short stories, poems and song lyrics for a musical revue.

Posted October 17, 2003

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