Berni Stapleton is Paving Her Own Path

Memorial University’s new writer-in-residence talks about inclusive theatre, the power of the province’s past, and her pathbreaking career in the arts.

Berni Stapleton didn’t take the usual road to Memorial University.

Born in Northwest River and raised in Marystown, the now-iconic writer, playwright, and performer left school at 14 to pursue a more hands-on education in the arts.

Now, Memorial University is coming to Stapleton. She has just been named its writer-in-residence for the 2019-2020 year.

What is a writer-in-residence? The title conjures up images of a writer shuttered up in a literal ivory tower, scribbling away.

“That’s how I feel—like Rapunzel,” Stapleton tells the Independent with a laugh. “Except instead of long hair I’m just writing long plays.”

She says the beauty of the position is that it’s different for every writer appointed.

“You are given the most precious gift of all, which is the time and the resources to write,” Stapleton explains. “You don’t have to worry about finding a safe space to write, because that’s provided for you, and it’s a paid residency so you are paid to write. Many writers struggle with the fact that the creation process itself is not lucrative. If you manage to sell something or get it produced later on, then it does generate a royalty for you, but [initially] you’re usually going on your own blind faith.

“So a writer in residency means somebody believes in you.”

A Storied Career

It’s not hard to believe in Berni Stapleton.

She’s produced a prodigious volume of work over the years: plays, novels, short stories, essays, and more. She’s been playwright-in-residence with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal, Alberta Theatre Projects, CanStage, PARC, and others. She was the Artistic Director of the Grand Bank Regional Theatre Festival for eleven years. She wrote the script for the acclaimed musical No Change in the Weather, currently touring the country, and her play Our Frances (about World War I nurse Frances Cluett) has toured internationally. Her play Dolly was awarded the 2018 Arts and Letters Award for Best Dramatic Script. She received the Writers Association of NL Award for Best Work in Non-Fiction for her contributions to the book They Let Down Baskets, the Rhonda Payne award from Arts NL, and she has been named one of Hospitality NL’s Ambassadors of Tourism.

“I’ve been around for a long time so I feel like the past few years have been a culmination of many, many years of work,” Stapleton tells the Independent. “It’s like capelin—these fish swim for a long time before they start rolling ashore. We don’t get to see [art] until it’s done, as opposed to the creation process which is like putting a puzzle together. It’s just one piece at a time.”

Perseverance is a necessary quality for a career in the arts. So is adaptability.

“Newfoundland is really unique in that a lot of artists are multi-faceted,” she continues. “We are because we have to be. If you were going to restrict yourself to one particular thing it might be really challenging. I just came back from a symposium in Gander where I was hanging out with a lot of students who dream of having a career in the arts. One of the things that myself and my colleague Robert Chafe were telling them is diversify and don’t say no. Just explore everything.”

“And get used to hearing no a lot,” she adds wryly. “Don’t take it personally.”

Creative Sparks

Stapleton credits her grandfather with fueling her creative drive.

“My grandfather was a poet and a journal-keeper and a play-maker and a musician, and he used to write away to New York to order up his plays,” she recalls. She still has many of those plays and guides, which were passed on to her.

But her grandfather’s paid employment was with Baird’s Merchants in Marystown. There he was a weighmaster, weighing the fish that the fishers brought in.

“In those days people were not paid in money, they were paid in the barter system where he worked,” she explains to the Independent. “They gave him all his groceries and food, but not any money. And so when he retired, they told him that he owed them 10 cents. I don’t know where he found that ten cents in a world where cash money didn’t really exist. But he found it. And I think that his habit of keeping a journal and writing all those things down stayed with me from a young age.

“He taught me how to read when I was four using Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine,” Stapleton continues. “When I started school I was four years old in grade one, and I remember the nuns giving us this book about a little yellow duck that had three words on each page. And I was: ‘But where’s the real stuff? Where’s the body beneath the bushes, and the guy with the hatchet in his briefcase?’”

“That was the first time I got strapped—for being subversive.”

Stapleton laughs as she tells these tales. But stories like this evoke a stark image of a less enlightened era which is actually not so long ago.

“I think a lot of people have forgotten that we’re not that far away from that, and how our people were mistreated and used like that,” she notes. “I’ll never forget it.”

“The other thing my mother said about my grandfather was: ‘He never had his name written down.’ And I remember asking her ‘What do you mean by that?’ She said ‘Well he never had the honour of seeing his name in print anywhere.’ And that’s something that I take for granted and I think we all take for granted, especially in this age,” Stapleton concludes. “Your name is everywhere—it’s on Facebook, it’s on your pages, it’s in your computer. But until he died and his obituary was printed in the paper, that was the only time his name was ever in print. His name was John Butler, so I use it a lot in my work, to honour him.”

Glass Ceiling, Glass Curtain

Stapleton has achieved distinction in a range of fields, but some disciplines are more dear to her than others.

“If I could I would simply write. I honestly don’t know if I would even perform any more,” she confesses. “I love performing—particularly these days because I’m working with Artistic Fraud on Robert Chafe’s amazing play Between Breaths and it’s a wonderful role and it’s an age-appropriate role for me. But in a perfect world I would be in that ivory tower simply writing my heart out.”

Yet Stapleton has been a fixture on the province’s stages for many years. One role in which many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have seen her is as a member of the cast for Rising Tide Theatre’s annual Revue series. It’s a creative blend of political satire, skit comedy and rousing, often poignant musical performances. She’s been a cast member for over half the performances since the show first launched in 1984.

But even carving out space on her home field was a lot of hard work.

“That was really part of my development as a writer,” she recalls. “Particularly in the early days—when it was really more authentic as a collective creation, when all the artists were in the room fighting and bickering together, making scenes together—I remember myself and my colleague Amy House went in there and said: ‘Okay, all these guys are not going to write any roles for us.’ Certainly they weren’t writing any funny bits for us. Because at that point, thirty years ago, all the roles for women were the wife, the secretary, the person who set up all the jokes for the guys. And I remember Amy and I going: ‘We can top that!’ So then we started creating our characters, and then our working relationship grew out of that because we thought: ‘Women can be funny!’”

“Even to this day I’ve found that it’s always a bit of a fight in the room. It’s like the guys would write one skit with women in it, and they’d be so proud. And I’d say: ‘Well where’s all the rest?’ There’s 99 skits on the table and one of them is sort of female-powered. So yeah, it’s still a fight.”

Stapleton is adept at weaving strong political and feminist messaging into her work—she refers to this drive as a voice that sits constantly inside of her. Two of her plays are especially powerful reflections of this quality: Woman in a Monkey Cage and Offensive To Some.

“I remember in Offensive to Some I met a woman named Nelly Nippard, and she’s since passed on,” she explains. “Many years ago she was a very prominent activist because her husband had stabbed her so many times—thirty times or something—and she had lived. And she recovered. And she recovered more than physically—she recovered her soul, her spirit.”

“I got to spend a lot of time with her when I was creating that play, and I owe so much to her, because she at that point could really identify how subtle and creepy it is when these things start happening to you—the world of insanity and denial and gaslighting that put you in these very dangerous situations of ‘domestic abuse.’ There’s a line in the play: ‘It’s not domestic—it’s warfare.’”

She’s now working again to pick up the thread that runs through those plays.

“I hope in my work to continue to effect change. The horrific thing about Offensive to Some is that it was revived last year, 25 years later, and it still could be telling the same story today.”

“My intention during my residency is actually to complete that trilogy, with a play called The Antidote for Life,” Stapleton tells the Independent. “It really is about how trauma or mental illness can fragment our personalities. How we have to find safe ways to tell our stories. And how all around us people are telling us their stories in every way that they can, and we just have to listen. And we have to listen in a way that we are not used to.

“In the new play I’m trying to experiment with what happens when the mind shatters and what it means for a performing artist, because a lot of times we are creative because we’re suffering,” she explains. “And I don’t mean the suffering of the artist that people think of when they say ‘oh the artist who drinks and smokes and the Hemingway type of artist shooting in the jungle,’ but when we struggle with our mental illnesses, how theatre happens.”

“Theatre is so fragile, isn’t it? If you think about it, everything in theatre rests on one performer. What if they don’t remember? Everything falls apart.

“It’s sort of like the way a fishing flake is built. You know, they’re on these tall skinny poles that look so rickety, like they shouldn’t be able to hold anything up, but they do! So like the whole fishery rests on it—these fish being dried on this fishing stage—everything rests upon the very fragile shoulders of the performing artist. So this play, and this piece in particular, is exploring the nature of trauma and damage and how it becomes so creative. And then the other thing I want to explore is: if we ‘get better,’ does that diminish our talent? I don’t know. We’re all so fragile.”

Performing the Past

In a province where many aspiring actors and creators rely on various forms of heritage-related funding to pay the bills—and in which summers are chock-full of historical performances geared largely toward tourists—it can be a challenge to produce historical theatre that is actually substantive and meaningful. Stapleton is among the artists who does this and does it well. She’s not just content to tell funny or moving stories of the province’s past, but also able to make her storytelling and theatre resonate with audiences in the present—and remind us of the lessons the past holds for us, even if we seem all too rarely to learn.

“I feel the past is never really gone,” she reflects. “I feel it’s beside us all the time, just waiting to bite us in the arse. And we’ve got to drag it with us but at the same time we can’t let it drag us down. I often feel the voices of my ancestors in my head.

“I also believe the future is upon us, like we’re waiting, it’s like you’re waiting for something to start and you don’t realize it’s already halfway there,” she says. “Like we are in the future now, like what George Orwell was writing about and stuff. We’re it. We’re in it. Is there going to be a future? I don’t know. I wake up every day going is this the day? Will I look out and see rockets in the sky today? What’s going to happen in the States today? Who has a gun today?”

Theatre is for Everybody

One of the shortcomings of the mainstream arts, historically, has been its very partial telling of our history and culture. Theatre, like literature and other disciplines, has all too often omitted many important stories from the stage—stories from Indigenous peoples, and stories from immigrants and settlers who don’t match the stereotype of a white Anglo-Irish fisherman in a sou’wester. There have been important efforts to address these omissions, like recent works by Prajwala Dixit, or the initiatives of White Rooster Theatre. How does Stapleton see her work fitting into this struggle?

“I’m always constantly keenly aware of it,” she tells the Independent. “Part of what I want to do with my residency is have a dialogue with all of the people in our community who bring those voices and that lens, because I want to learn. I want to learn so much.”

She cites as an inspiration the work of locally-based performer Santiago Guzman, emphasizing that he is now as much a part of the province’s artistic fabric as anyone citing generations of ancestry on the island. She’s also inspired by the work of Paul Power, a playwright and actor who has worked hard to make theatre accessible for and with people with disabilities.

We are the ones who need to step aside, I think,” she confesses. “We need to do everything we can—whether it’s mentorship or going to see the work, visiting the work to support it as much as we can—and to insist, insist, insist always on inclusion. I remember back in the day when people started being really inventive with Shakespeare and they would put women in men’s roles and stuff, and I think now we must insist on casting those in ways that doesn’t exclude anybody.”

Stapleton uses the phrase ‘reverse mentorship’ to describe this process of stepping back and learning. She emphasizes the importance of being humble and open enough to engage in that process, no matter how experienced one may feel that one is in a field.

“Reverse mentorship—you know you think of mentorship as being like the older artist with the younger artist, but for me it’s the other way around. I look at these young diverse artists and I think, ‘Oh my god I have so much to learn.’

“I’m going to be doing a series of little pop-up shows at the library,” Stapleton continues. “Little ten minute lunchtime shows, with me and some guests. So people can bring a sandwich, come sit around for ten or twenty minutes, it doesn’t take a lot out of your day. It’s just going to happen in front of people.

“That’s a scary thing. But I feel why would I be in this beautiful space with so many beautiful places if I’m not going to use them as a performer?”

On top of her own work, Stapleton is also keen to use her upcoming residency to start a writing group.

“I want to call [the writing group] Ophelia Swims, because I want to create a book for young adults of the same name, that offers Ophelia the chance to rewrite her story,” she explains. “I always hate how in Shakespeare all these great women get killed off—poor old Cleopatra and Desdemona—so in the book they become slowly aware that they’re in a loop of tragedy, because every time the play is done they have to go through it all over again. But then they slowly come to an awareness that they can change the narrative.

“They don’t have to follow the path that was written for them by men.”

Berni Stapleton can be contacted at [email protected]

Photo by Hans Rollmann.

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