By Christa Delaney
Alan Neal didn’t have a job when he graduated from Carleton University three years ago. Armed with a journalism degree, Neal went to CBC Radio in Ottawa and offered to work for free for one week. He threw himself into each task and, when the week was over, the producers asked him to stay.
Today Neal, 25, has a nationally syndicated column on CBC Radio. Now he’s hoping for the same success as a playwright. No ordinary Gen-Xer, he has written seven full-length plays and has his own production company.
Neal recently took time out of his hectic schedule to talk shop at The Arrow and the Loon pub. He is becoming well known in the Ottawa arts community. The staff greeted him warmly as he sprinted in a few minutes late for our meeting. (He was caught on the phone for a radio piece he was working on). Our waiter raved about Artemis O’Hara, Neal’s 1998 play.
Neal, whose quick, engaging speech is blended with witty facial expressions and mock accents, says Artemis is about the fans of an Ottawa singer-songwriter who soars to fame — not unlike Alanis Morrissette and Sarah McLachlan.
Artemis was written in a playwrights’ workshop operated by the NAC and Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company last year. Neal got feedback from Sarah Stanley, artistic director at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times, a gay and lesbian theatre group that has operated for 20 years.
“Having this person with so much directorial vision sitting there and critiquing and telling me how to make it better was amazing,” he says.
Since starting The Second Class Theatre Company in 1992, Neal has written, directed and produced a play each year.
Iris Winston, a writer at the Ottawa Citizen, has reviewed all of Neal’s plays and noticed an improvement in Artemis.
“There was a marked difference this time because someone else helped (with writing and directing ideas),” she says. “It was shorter and tighter.”
Winston adds that Neal’s plays, which are usually staged at Arts Court, connect to his generation.
“A lot of student-age people make up Alan’s audience,” she says.
Micheline Chevrier, artistic director at the GCTC, says Neal has promise.
“He is enormously funny and has a great ear for dialogue,” she says.
Neal says he was introduced to plays at a young age.
“When I was six my mom was studying classics at Carleton and was bringing home plays like (Sophocles’) Antigone and Shakespeare. She’d explain how they worked and I acted them out with toys. So you’d have Antigone starring Miss Piggy and Ben Kenobi and, even though I had no idea what I was talking about at that age, I liked the idea of putting on a play.”
He created Second Class in his first year at Carleton to see his plays on stage.
“A lot of people stereotype amateur theatre as second class or not as good,” he says, alluding to the company’s name. “But I knew we could have a community theatre group that delivered first class productions.
“I think it helped, starting as young as I did. People always say it must have been so hard but it’s so much easier that I started then because people are more forgiving when you’re 18 and you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.”
For his first Second Class play, Bridges, about five chambermaids at a Toronto hotel who come to terms with their pasts, Neal simply went to Northern Telecom and asked for sponsorship. It’s been a sponsor since.
Neal says his playwriting is a labour of love and not a moneymaker.
Second Class is made up of volunteers and rehearsal space is donated by Carleton.
Chevrier says Neal’s resourcefulness in producing his own work is an asset.
“Alan doesn’t wait for things to come to him, he searches out opportunities for himself,” she says.
Neal’s philosophy, and perhaps the secret to his success, is a willingness to show others what he can do.
“You prove yourself, do the best with what you’ve got and pray that they like what they see in the end,” he says.
“If you do everything you want to be doing, you’ll find the time. I think there’s a need to just throw yourself into it. And things fall into place.”
Neal is an associate producer for CBC Radio’s All in a Day. His column, Trends, runs on the morning show. It started last November and has since gone national.
Jane Anido, producer at CBO Morning, says Trends’ fun and fresh format has brought in a younger audience and breaks from the traditional CBC mold.
“Alan has an offbeat way of looking at the world that makes any topic intriguing,” she says.
“It’s amazing, how he balances what he does here with cranking out one full-length drama each year,” she adds.
But the heavy workload doesn’t phase Neal. He says creative strategies such as weekend rehearsals are one way of managing things.
“It’s not like I have a lot of time for sitting in front of the TV and eating bon bons or that sort of thing,” he says dryly, adding, “there’s not a lot of leisure time, but that’s okay.”
His focus now that Artemis has wrapped its first production is to get more exposure for the play.
“Before, shopping out a play (to other theatre companies) always seemed like a pipe-dream, but now it feels like something I should do for real,” he says.
“It’s getting to the point where everybody starts saying, ‘you really should head to Toronto’ and part of me says ‘yeah, I should,’ but at the same time everything is really good here now.”
Lise Ann Johnson, the GCTC’s resident dramaturge, says Toronto’s appeal is all its theatres.
“But, theoretically, a writer can live anywhere as long as they work at making outside contacts,” she says.
Artistic directors don’t often read scripts by new playwrights.
Neal plans to promote Artemis through video, script and play reviews.
“It’s the question mark stage. There’s still a lot of people saying it won’t happen in Ottawa . . . and I want it to.”
Does that mean he’s still an up-and-comer?
“I would far prefer to be the up-and-comer than the down-and-outer.”
The Neal anthology
A list of Alan Neal’s plays:
– Bridges (1992)
– Better Off With You Gone (1993)
– And I, James Jordan, Warrior of Justice (1994)
– Angel Vicarious (1995)
– Anarchy and the Dalmation (1996)
– All the Rest Have 31 (1997)
– Artemis O’Hara (1998)