A long silence follows when I ask Tabia Lau what John 8 is about. The play is a runner-up in Infinithéâtre’s Write-On-Q, an annual competition in which new plays by Quebec writers are given the opportunity for a public reading in The Pipeline.
“This is a tricky play,” Lau says at last. “It’s a mystery. The premise is the mundane, the insanity in the mundane. It’s about insanity and bureaucracy and about the limitations of the mind. I’m still figuring out how to describe this play.” A Kafka-esque answer to what sounds like a Kafka-esque play. She reveals only a little more: the play is set in the near future and focuses on five people in a laboratory/work space. “A place of experimentation,” she says. “They’re at their work place and all have their own specific jobs.”
John 8 grew out of an “experiment” proposed by one of her professors at Columbia University where Lau is currently pursuing her MFA in playwriting. “This is one of the first plays that I’ve written that I didn’t initially know what the story was,” Lau explains. “I wrote its structure down and the characters came out of it. It was built out of limitations. I usually like to have my characters fully fleshed out on a blank space and see what play they will make. [John 8] was an experiment that a professor encouraged me to set up with a world.”
Lau is pleased with how the experiment turned out. “It’s one of my stronger pieces,” she says. “I wasn’t in my own way when it came to this play. I look at it and I don’t have all those nagging questions that usually are not important anyway.” She concludes, “It’s what I set out to do when I left Montreal, when I left home. I wanted to write something that wasn’t in a living room.”
In particular, she’s surprised by the reaction the play garners. Lau thinks of it as “one of the coldest plays I’ve ever written” but those who read it see “nothing but heart.” She understands why though, and she’s glad with the new types of questions it raises. She keeps getting asked why she wrote it or what it is based on. “It really isn’t based on anything,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s from a specific event or person, which is a good feeling. I wanted it to feel very real and very grounded in the world. I’m glad it gets that reaction.”
Living in New York has helped Lau develop her voice and style, and also has become a tool in generating ideas. She uses the subway in particular. “I get my best ideas, play changing, scene altering ideas, in the shower or the subway. When I hit walls, I just get on the subway and sit there until something happens,” she says. “Something always does.” She takes a pen and paper with her so she can write down her ideas. “Maybe it’s just the people watching,” she says. “Just feeling nondescript in a crowded place.”
New York has also exposed her to a range of possibilities in theatre production. “There are a lot more options,” she says. “It’s very different from writing a play and getting your friends to do it. There are a lot of levels, the budget, the size of your creative team. It’s been overwhelming in a great way.” In particular, she can look back on her older works and see what stage of completion they are at. “Before I thought I was done when I’d written a script from beginning to end, and now I know that’s not the case.”
She especially names Infinitheatre’s artistic director Guy Sprung as critical in her development. Sprung called her up after her first submission to the contest to talk about her work. “He’s been really supportive. We’ve kept in touch through all these years,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to collaborate with him.” Her wish has come true with John 8; Sprung is directing. I asked if she would have liked to direct it. “No,” she says, “I trust him.”
John 8’s run at The Pipeline is just the beginning. The play is slated to appear off-Broadway at Signature Theatre in New York in April. Catch it this week in its first public presentation.
The Pipeline takes place December 3-7 at the Rialto Theatre (5723 Parc Ave) at 7 p.m. John 8 appears on December 4. Also showing are Alyson Grant’s Progress! on December 3, Arthur Holden’s Battered on December 5, Mr Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv by Oren Safdie takes place December 6, and Joan’s Not Here by Fanny La Croix on December 7 (Sunday show at 3 p.m.). $10 or pwyc