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June 18, 2019

A Conversation with Kate Keenan

I met Kate Keenan about two years ago when our children were enrolled in the same swimming class and she made an immediate impression on me as she spent the class entertaining her other child with hand-clapping games—”See See My Playmate” was a favourite. We finally started talking, which was great because I had decided I wanted to be her friend, and then I ended up giving her a copy of my book after a conversation about books and reading, and then the next week she brought me her CD (“I’m in a band,” said this super-cool mom—who, it turned out, had an intergalactic alter-ego—like this was no big thang).

Swimming remains an important part of our relationship.

So what I’m basically saying is that I’ve been a huge Kate Keenan fan since “See See My Playmate,” and since then I’ve enjoyed watching her as part of the Space Chums (including in their show at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year).

Her play, The Really Real Adventures of Scott Free and Will Do (which she co-wrote with Lesley Halferty)is playing at Solar Stage at Wychwood Barns until the end of June. We saw it on June 9, and loved it—and it made me realize that there was lots about her career in theatre, writing and motherhood that I wanted to ask her.

*****

Kerry: Can you tell me the story of The Really Real Adventures of Scott Free and Will Do—when did you (co) write it and where was it performed? 

Kate: To tell you the story, I could start all the way back in high school at Etobicoke School of the Arts where I was lucky enough to be cast in “Les Goons” a Commedia dell’arte troupe run by our teacher John Glossop in the Lagoon Theatre on Centre Island. Best summer job ever. When Mr. Glossop stopped running “Les Goons” I was in grade 10 and some friends and I started our own children’s theatre company, “Island Treasures” in the same theatre. It was like a dream clubhouse/lemonade stand! And a real crash course in running a business…

It was like a dream clubhouse/lemonade stand! And a real crash course in running a business…

Anyway, after theatre school, I quickly got sick of having to wait to be cast in other people’s shows.  So, knowing the theatre on the island was sitting empty, I started a company, “Shrimp Magnet Theatre Co.”  with a bunch of friends from George Brown. We couldn’t afford the rights to any published plays, so we wrote our own—and I quickly became more passionate about writing than acting, which is saying quite a lot…

 We would do the shows 6 days a week, 4 times a day (6 times a day at the beginning, until we came to our senses). We’d have rotating casts, but I usually worked about 5 days a week (along with running the operation with my best friend and co-author Lesley Halferty). You know that old thing where if you caught your kid smoking a cigarette, you locked them in the closet with a carton and wouldn’t let them out till they smoked them all? Okay, I guess that was actually a 1950’s thing and no one I ever knew was actually subjected to that but we all heard the stories… Anyway, it felt like that doing those shows. If a line was clunky, or a bit wasn’t working, you’d have to do it over and over again, watching audiences lose attention in the same spot, show after show. At the end of the summer, we were gasping to re-write!

“If a line was clunky, or a bit wasn’t working, you’d have to do it over and over again, watching audiences lose attention in the same spot, show after show.

And we did. We usually did shows at least two years in a row—and I think it made us really, really good at knowing what worked and what didn’t and how to be unsentimental about stuff. 

Oh dear, I’ve just noticed that didn’t really answer your question! So! Down to the nitty gritty! We created Scott Free and Will Do the summer of 2003, I think! I was 26. (and now I’m 42. WTF?!?) We performed it on Centre Island that year, then we did Toronto Fringe. Then Canmore Kid’s Festival, then Winnipeg Fringe. (And in between we cobbled together a tour in my parents’ minivan—4 actors, one Stage Manager, an entire set and all our luggage for over a month! We traveled to Sault Ste. Marie (where we stayed with my friend Trish’s family and partied under the Royal Order of the Moose),  Atikoken, where we stayed in an old elementary school and played an epic game of hide and go seek all night, then in Geraldton, where we billeted with amazing people and a pet turtle, and also Thunder Bay, with lovely Rita and amazing Hoito pancakes.

Some incredibly talented people have been in the cast, including Keith Barker, who now is A.D. of Native Earth and Rebecca Benson, a prof at Carleton University. In particular, we can never forget C.J. Schneider,  George Brown Theatre colleague who was a natural clown and a force of nature and comedy. A bunch of nonsensical/brilliant lines in the show are his (mostly and luckily because we could not control him) including “Boingy booing chop chop” and “its crazier than eating a dill pickle popsicle on a Wednesday that’s also a Tuesday!” C.J. died way too young of cancer in 2010. We  miss him so much it hurts. Also the brilliant Matt Olmstead and Mark Purvis.

A scene from Scott Free and Will Do…

Kerry: What was it to bring the show to life again? What surprised you about this experience? 

Kate: We brought the show to life at Solar Stage twice before when they lived in North York. This time around we had added two new actors (the moms). There were many layers of mind-blowing weirdness for me. First of all, it’s SUPER weird to revisit a show I worked on in my late twenties, with actors in their late twenties when I am now in my EARLY FORTIES! It was like a strange time warp!

I still felt EXACTLY THE SAME, but to the actors I was an elderly MOTHER OF TWO! I kept having to remind myself that I was not the same! To their credit the actors treated me as a total equal, and I really did feel younger while we were rehearsing. I was even joking more like I did in my twenties—it was really strange! And the second thing that blew my mind were the new jokes we found. I mean, I can’t imagine how many times I’ve done this show and STILL, this time, super obvious jokes would pop out that I guess had been staring us in the face for years! That made it so fabulous to rehearse again—finding new moments that ever-so-slightly improved the play. My mom and I have a joke that we can’t just enjoy a joke, we have to constantly be improving upon it. Turns out this is an obsession, and hopefully a career for me! 

It’s SUPER weird to revisit a show I worked on in my late twenties, with actors in their late twenties when I am now in my EARLY FORTIES! It was like a trippy time melt!

We have done the show for so many audiences but I will always be blown away that we always get new, mind-blowing responses from the crowd. It was such a refreshing thing, right out of theatre school, to be performing a play so many times that you had to work to keep your energy up, as opposed to your nerves down. One thing that always kept me alive and engaged was the excitement of what the audience would bring to the show. And they are still bringing brand new things! For (a slightly unsettling but still interesting) example, just recently when the actors asked the audience, “How do you know you’re real?” A child replied, “because we could die.” Not the usual kids theatre fare, but pretty amazing…

Kerry: You were writing for children before you had kids of your own. Has becoming a parent changed the way you relate to children? Are there things you know better now? (Or vice versa?) 

Kate: How has becoming a parent affected how I write for children? Well, I think it’s allowed me to cheat. Honestly, before I had kids, I felt I remembered what it was like to be a kid myself. I feel further away from that now—can I blame the sleepless nights with my babies? I dunno, but I do feel grateful that parenthood has allowed be to experience childhood all over again with a new perspective. Funny, our show has two moms and two kids in it. If anything, I think I now approach the mom characters less as caricatures and more as real humans! The kids have stayed real…

“If anything, I think I now approach the mom characters less as caricatures and more as real humans! The kids have stayed real…

Space Chums at Toronto Fringe, 2018

Kerry: What do you love about writing for children? 

Kate: My love of writing for kids is twofold. Firstly, I’m super insecure, so writing for kids gives me a flimsy excuse not to “take myself too seriously.” It gives me the permission to be free and not judge what I’m writing. But actually that’s bogus, because I believe that writing for kids is as difficult and sacred as writing for adults—my ego just needs a weird cop-out.

Secondly, I love the honesty of kids. I love that when I’m performing for them, I know when they’re bored. There’s no fakery, so the feedback is super accurate and helpful. Being able to trick my ego and being given such robust feedback has helped my writing immensely!

More from Scott Free and Will Do…

Kerry: What other creative projects are you up to these days?

Kate: Right now I’m writing a bit for children’s television, still with my bestie and co-author of Scott Free & Will Do, Lesley Halferty—shows that have yet to air, but I will keep you posted! I’m also 1/3rd of an outer-space rock band for kids called Space Chums with Ian and Lindsay Goodtimes! This is where I get my acting and singing  itch scratched and my general goofing around with kids itch as well!

And my other passion project is a podcast for kids where I write stories on demand from “story seeds” kids give me. I’ve only just started out, but so far I have a story for my eldest daughter Elwyn, called “The Lights in the Forest” and one for my youngest daughter Lucy called “The Ballad of the Barn Owl” My plan is to record them and eventually publish them.

Go see Scott Free and Will Do at Solar Stage!

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