On the Fragility of the Shire and All Things Green: An Interview with Colleen Murphy, Green College's Writer in Residence

Green College Staff

19th Writer in Residence at Green College, Colleen Murphy, talks about her work and worldview, and how it is increasingly influenced by her concerns about the climate crisis.

“I call this the Shire,” Colleen Murphy, Green College’s 19th Writer in Residence, said about the College. “It’s like a little shire in the woods. You eat here, you do laundry here, you sleep here, you work here, you read here, you study here and then you go out to the big world. You guys go across campus; I go into the city, to the theatre and so I love that it’s this shire.” For the playwright, the theatre would be a predictable destination, but, for Colleen, a central concern is that “big world.” In the greenery of the shire nestled in the trees, she feels the threat of the climate emergency ever more acutely. A little over two months into Colleen’s stay at Green, she sat down with Green College Resident Member Noah Stevens to discuss her work, drama and creation, the climate emergency and the intersection of the three in her life.

Colleen is a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and the Carol Bolt Award for Outstanding Play for 2016’s Pig Girl and 2007’s The December Man/L’homme de décembre. 2018’s The Breathing Hole was also nominated for the Carol Bolt Award, as well as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the play also marked Colleen’s turn to writing the climate emergency, chronicling, as it does, the epic journey of a polar bear—from his discovery by an Inuk widow in 1535, through his meeting the Franklin Expedition and Inuit hunters in 1845, to his encounter with a luxury cruise ship in 2035 as it ferries its passengers through a Northwest Passage littered with the remains of oil spills.

The Breathing Hole has been performed at the Stratford Festival and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa with more showings surely to come, and it has brought Colleen more and more into climate activism. “Personally, I've been involved with the Extinction Rebellion and climate research because of The Breathing Hole,” she said. “It's an on-going part in my life.”

The hardest part about doing the play though, for Colleen, has been seeing the worst parts of the play’s speculative future come to pass. “When I wrote The Breathing Hole,” she said, “I wrote it up to 2035. And it breaks my heart that every couple of months, stuff happens that leads closer and closer to exactly how I wrote that story. A couple days ago, Biden approved the Willow Project up in Alaska. There is an oil spill up in the Arctic in my play. I know there's a lot of innovation going on to slow the climate emergency but there has to be so much more in order to make a dent. So there’s fictional speculation in my play. Margaret Atwood is brilliant at that stuff. But I'm not brilliant. I just take the research as far as it can go… and hope it won’t come true.”

Colleen’s next project, the one she is writing during her stay at Green, is Growing Up Dead, a play about a ten year-old girl and her family living in 2065 in a post-climate emergency world. Those who have followed Colleen’s stay at the College, especially her first talk on January 17, 2023, will recall her fascination with character. The character is the starting point for Colleen, something she stresses even in these speculative worlds. “I do the character first,” she explained. “I just figure here we are in 2023. You just saw the report [the UN’s “Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report”] that came out today on the climate emergency. So if you think of how I grew up, think of a kid who's only 10 years old in 2065, 2070. The kind of knowledge base that they have will be quite different than mine or even different from yours. I usually put a character in their time and then try to figure out what they may or may not know, and what their life experience would have been up to that point. “

For Colleen, the choice of the ten year-old girl felt right in bringing the intended emotional experience to the audience, stressing the role a child brings in getting the audience to imagine the impacts of present choices on the future. “The last play I did, I offered the emotional experience of climate change to an audience through a 500 year-old polar bear. I often don't know how to offer an audience something they can relate to. Adult to adult, it often goes into lecture. It's hard to get to the heart of the human being. It's easy to get the heart of a polar bear. It's easier to get to the heart of a ten year-old girl than it is to a 35 year-old adult because for a child and for all children 2065 is their future. It's not my future. I'm living my future. And I'll be dead by then. But for children, my son's children, your children, they are the future. So put a 10 year-old girl in a situation where there are marauders, and there's not enough water, and there’s not enough food, and a lot of societal structures have broken down, and what are you offering them? I want the audience to feel the story through that young girl.”

The family dynamic is equally important as it lends the audience a dynamic they are familiar with and which can give them a way into the story and the distressing changes this new big world has forced upon the family. “I think one can talk about the future via family dynamics, a family who lives in that future,” She emphasized then that the world emerges through the changes in family dynamics, “So you, the audience, get a sense of the world they live in through their living in it.”

She expanded on this point later with a nod towards the incredibly intricate and varying natures of people, “The family dynamics change because I think desperate people do desperate things. So many times, people in disasters become very kind, or they can become very selfish. It's amazing how human nature is so varied, and when you put pressure on it, or a desperate kind of pressure, you can see how it can change.” She then added, with a touch of comedic understatement, “Human beings are pretty complicated. And the decisions that we make consciously or unconsciously are those in which will enhance our survival on every single level, not just on the brutal level of physical survival, but on every other level as well.”

The serious nature of these concerns is certainly reflected in Colleen’s work, and when asked about the typical themes of her work she paused for a moment and then pronounced, “Death, dysfunction, drama,” before stopping to ask herself, “What else? Also, joy, the struggle for joy, the struggle towards joy. Some basic things of life. Grief is one of them as well.” Realizing her works have more life to them than just those traits, she added, “And that makes me sound like a serious, issue-focused, boring writer but the work is also at many times comedic.”

Theatre too, for Colleen, is not issue-focussed. The main function of theatre is the emotional experience, the one she felt best accessed through a polar bear in The Breathing Hole, and a ten year-old girl in Growing Up Dead. “When I go to the theatre,” she said, “I want an emotional experience. If I get a little bit of intellectual experience on the side, that's terrific. I don't want therapy, I don't want preaching. I don't want lecturing. I want to go on a journey with these amazing people on the stage and I want to laugh and I want to cry. And I want to come out of the journey feeling release, happy, sad, moved—all of those things. And then I think, ‘yeah, that's why I write for the theatre.’”

Towards the end of our interview, Colleen spoke of her time at Green College, what she has enjoyed and what is has been like living in the shire. “There's all of these students who are incredibly smart, I really have to be on my toes at dinner. Not just because these people are eager to talk, curious, and very connected to the kind of work they're doing, but also because of their curiosity. They are not single-mindedly focused on their degree, they’re interested in the world. So going to dinner is a treat. And going to lectures. I walk out my door four steps and I'm in a lecture about anything: molecular stuff, colonization, Black history. It's fantastic.”

Her time in Vancouver has also given her added emphasis on the seriousness of the climate emergency and her work. “If you close your eyes and imagine this part of Vancouver, and take all the green away, what do you have?” she asked poignantly. “That’s where we're heading. That's reality. I'm not gloom and doom, but I'm certainly a realist.”

“You taking an English degree,” she added just before parting, “I'm a playwright, my son's in music, none of this will count for anything if we don't get this other thing straight. All that stuff like, ‘Oh, yeah. AI will rescue us all.’ No, no, it won't even count. And that's why the climate is a concern.” She paused for a moment and looked out the window, “It's the biggest concern.”

Colleen Murphy is a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, and the Carol Bolt Award for Outstanding Play, for Pig Girl in 2016, and The December Man / L'homme de décembre in 2007. Other plays include The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (winner of six Jessie Richardson Awards including Outstanding Production and three Elizabeth Sterling Awards including Outstanding Production), The Breathing Hole (shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, U.S., and the Carol Bolt Award), Armstrong's WarThe Goodnight BirdThe Piper and Beating Heart Cadaver (shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama). Libretti include Fantasma, with composer Ian Cusson, for the Canadian Opera Company, Oksana G., with composer Aaron Gervais, for Tapestry Opera, and My Mouth On Your Heart, with composer August Murphy-King, for Toy Piano Composers and Bicycle Opera. Colleen is also an award-winning filmmaker and her films have played in festivals around the world.

She has been Playwright-in-Residence at Finborough Theatre in London UK; Necessary Angel Theatre and Factory Theatre in Toronto, and at the University of Regina. She’s been the Mabel Pugh Taylor Writer-in-Residence at McMaster University; Writer-in-Residence at the University of Guelph; Edna Staebler Laurier Writer-in-Residence at Wilfrid Laurier University; Lee Playwright-in-Residence at the University of Alberta, and Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. She teaches at playwriting at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Colleen Murphy will be at Green College for three months, from mid-January to mid-April, 2023.

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member