It’s hard to explain some of the more scary aspects of our world to someone in grade three. Miss Katelyn is a passionate and loving teacher who is concerned that her grade threes aren’t adequately prepared in the advent of an active shooter. She stays up all night to craft the perfect lesson to teach her students how to survive. Miss Katelyn, though, is very afraid. Fortunately, this isn’t a Daybreak Interview on CBC. It’s the plot of Elena Belyea’s challenging one-woman show, Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable that is appearing at the Wildside Festival this month.
Miss Katelyn was one of the hottest shows at the St. Ambroise Fringe Festival this summer in Montreal. People were both delighted and unnerved by the production that won the coveted Best English Text (Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal) award. I talked to Belyea about the creating the show and her philosophy behind creating theatre.
Belyea explains that she wasn’t inspired by a particular person. She didn’t want to find an answer or deliver a message when she began writing. “To me, when I’m writing a play, I find it more useful and generative and exciting to have a question that I don’t have an answer for,” she says. A number of ideas came together over a period of time. For one thing, Belyea was moved by what she saw in the media. “There’s a lot every day to be afraid of and worried about. Miss Katelyn has really internalized that.”
While studying at Montreal’s National Theatre School, Belyea encountered statistics about school shooters and found that the number of female shooters was infinitesimally small. “The character came into my brain at the same moment I started doing research on mass shootings,” Belyea explains, “Kind of simultaneously, all this reading and research was percolating at the same time. I had this idea for this character who is so scared of everything.”
She further explains, “As I developed piece, that kind of anxiety or fear is amplified in this character. Lots of people experience similar fears. So, a big question for me is how do we moderate that fear. How do we not get carried away. How do we make decisions not just by considering what can happen, but by being brave in spite of pretty harrowing circumstances.”
Miss Katelyn, the character, made her first appearance in a monologue and developed into a full show over a period of time, especially with the help of Iris Turcott who served as a mentor and dramaturge. Once accepted at the Montreal Fringe, Belyea, along with her director Jon Lachlan Stewart, and designer Brad Murphy, worked nonstop revising and improving until the show was ready for opening at the Fringe. “It was very quick and dirty,” Belyea says, “But the show had been in development for a year and a half.”
One aspect about this show that Belyea worked on is involving the audience. The audience functions as the title’s Grade Three class. “I never put anyone in a situation where they have to do say or do more than they’re comfortable,” Belyea says. “I’ll ask for suggestions and the audience shouts things out. I interact with some students individually. Some get names and I call on them using those names. But I never take anybody out of their seat or bring them up on stage.” Some of her ‘techniques’ come from her experiences teaching theatre and writing to youth. “There are a lot of tools that I use during that show that are the same as what I use with kids. I find that when teaching to kids, you can’t just talk at them. It doesn’t work. So, I ask the audience to join me in different ways. On a scale of 1 to 10, sometimes it’s a 1, and sometimes it’s an 8 or a 9.”
Nonetheless, while Belyea was focused on developing a good show that she also considered daily what kind of response the subject matter might generate. “I didn’t know if this audience/student thing was going to work,” she says. “I didn’t know what kind of reception it would have premiering it where there is an intimate relationship with school shooting.” She then recounts an interview that took place before the show opened in which the first question she was asked concerned the Dawson College shooting. “I thought I might be in a position to do a lot of learning very quickly and some quick edits might be required. I couldn’t have a clear idea of what Montreal audiences’ reactions would be until I performed it.”
The show was well-received, though Belyea says a few people were angry about it and uncomfortable with it. “My feeling is that if it’s a play about school shootings, we should be uncomfortable. I’m not interested in creating stuff that doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable and freaked out in some way. I want to create theatre that rouses people or gets people fired up without hitting them over the head with a frying pan and telling them how to feel. A lot of that is humour.” She adds that humour is definitely present in Miss Katelyn. “There’s some moments where it gets dark and pretty immediately afterwards, it comes back and we’re laughing. It goes back and forth, back and forth. If you want to go into dark territory with an audience, it’s like being underwater. Everyone drowns if they don’t come up for breath.”
Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable is playing at the Montreal Wildside Festival on January 7 and 9 at 7 p.m., January 12 and 16 at 9 p.m., and January 17 at 3 p.m. $16/12. Each night will feature a cameo by a different member of the Montreal theatre community. For tickets click HERE. Keep atop Elena Belyea’s theatre with her company Tiny Bear Jaws.