Ever since the psychological, time-warping reading of Trench Patterns, I’ve been awaiting a fresh piece by Montreal playwright Alyson Grant. Grant heard my pleas and now offers us Progress!, an absurdist comedy set in the Royal Victoria Hospital on its last day of operation. Middle-aged Sarah wakes in the hospital after trying to end her life. She meets a vaudevillian duo who have haunted/lived in the room since their own deaths in the 19th century. Sounds good, right? Well, to make matters even more exciting, the show is site-specific, performed in the now-closed Royal Vic. I asked Grant about the show and its development.
Rachel Levine (RL): Can you tell me about the piece? Is it anything like Trench Patterns?
Alyson Grant (AG): Sure, it’s an absurdist piece, not a realist piece. It’s set in the last functioning days of the Royal Vic, and meant, in large part, to try to figure out what that means to Montreal — the closing down of these places. The main character, Sarah, is a woman who gets rolled in on a stretcher weirdly like Trench Patterns. She has tried to kill herself and meets two characters who are the first two to die in this particular room. They want Sarah to come to terms with her sadness and get out of there alive. It asks questions about the notion of “progress.” It was a time of real progress in Montreal in the late 1800s, when the city was establishing itself on the world stage. Building this new hospital was part of that. Now it is closing down at a period when progress is more complicated. Then there’s the Super Hospital. Is that progress or not? It’s up to each of us to ask herself.
RL: Is there a personal experience that inspired you in this piece?
AG: I asked myself that too. When my sister was at the Children’s, she mentioned one day that there was a teenager who was dying there and he kept referring to the red-head girl who was in the room who was helping him. The nurses remarked to themselves that there had been a red head girl in the room who had died there. Her parents live in the Maritimes and still came to the hospital. It’s a place of pilgrimage for them. I thought, you know there are those ghosts. Not literally, but I had a dear friend in my early twenties died at the Royal Vic, and I think of him every time I go past. I wondered about the boy and the red-head girl and her parents and how they process that space. It grew out of that.
RL: The play is being performed in the hospital itself. Did you write the show with the intent of making it site-specific?
AG: I didn’t know I would be writing for the specific space. I wrote the play and then Guy [Sprung] agreed to produce it. It had a public reading and people responded to it. As things progressed, Sprung said, ‘Let’s try to get it produced at the hospital.’ It had already closed, and they were generous in opening it up. They got it right away, that it was part of an understanding of how this is a big moment in the city. Those buildings loom large for people.
RL: The performance becomes part of the site’s history.
AG: I guess, you’re right. Part of what we’re trying to do is to mark the space, commemorate it and allow people to walk back into it. There are weeds growing up through the crevices. It’s an abandoned or empty space. Along with the show, there will be an exhibit that people can peruse beforehand of memorabilia from the Royal Vic, medical stuff. We hope it will be an opportunity for people to pay their respects to the building, the people they lost, and the people they saw healed there.
RL: Did you research or interview people who worked at the Royal Vic about the building or its operations?
AG: No. I did some research on Montreal at the moment the hospital was built and what was going on then.
RL: Have you had to rewrite or change the play now that it is site-specific?
AG: A little bit changed. I rewrote the beginning to fit the space. As I fiddled with things, I was aware of the space, as was Guy.
RL: What’s it like to work with Guy Sprung again?
AG: We have a good working relationship, very respectful, but with a different aesthetic in some ways. We know that about each other too. In this one, more than the other, we had to work together pretty intensely, sitting and reading and talking. It’s truly collaborative. Also the actors… they give me tons of feedback. The cast and crew are phenomenal, and really having fun with it. It moves pretty quickly between funny and sad, and I think that’s asking a lot of the actors. But, they get it. They’ve all helped me a lot.
Progress! written by Alyson Grant and directed by Guy Sprung plays at the Royal Victoria Hospital (Nurses’/Employees’ Lounge Pavillion H, 687 des Pins, check Infinithéâtre website for details) plays daily from Oct 21 to November 1 except Mondays. 8 p.m. $25/20. On October 31, come as your favorite soul from the past 122 years and tickets are just $20. PWYC matinees are Oct 24, 25, 31, and November 1 at 2 p.m.