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Aug. 26, 2011

Unearthing comedy in tragedy


Vancouverite Tamara Micner has spent the better part of the last decade away from her hometown, studying English literature at Yale University, and European literature and culture (in French and Spanish) at Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Along the way, Micner gained professional experience with the London Review of Books, Google Inc., Toronto’s Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity, and with Condé Nast Traveler magazine. She also served on the editorial staff of the Yale Herald newspaper and as vice-president of Yale’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. And, in the last few years, she has written several plays, one of which is being performed this month at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, known as the “largest arts festival in the world.”

Fantasmagoriana: The Scandalous Birth of Frankenstein re-imagines the circumstances that saw a 21-year-old Mary Shelley write her beloved gothic novel, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, in the early 1800s. The play is set in 1816 Geneva.

“I thought of the idea as an undergrad at Yale, during a Romantic poetry class in which we read Frankenstein,” Micner told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “Mary Shelley alludes to the novel’s back story in her introduction and, I thought, ‘This is a play.’ It’s a case of history being stranger than fiction!”

Shelley’s masterpiece explores the anxieties of modernity and technology and the clash between the emerging science of evolution and creationism. Micner’s imagination was captured by Shelley’s novel, but also the author’s colorful biography.

“One thing that appealed to me about Frankenstein,” said Micner, “is that it has a different hold on everyone: there’s horror and also humanity, and it’s about the risk of creating, or doing anything. We can all relate to that. I’ve since read various books and articles about Mary, Byron, Percy Shelley, Byron’s lover, Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire. It’s a tragic story, with much more to mine.”

While the themes of Frankenstein can be fairly cerebral, Micner’s play is, in reality, a comedy. “One question that Fantasmagoriana explores is how to trust yourself or, in Mary’s words, how to ‘let yourself see what you do when you don’t know what happens.’ We’ve all found ourselves in intimidating situations, and she has to stand up to not only Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, but also her highly regarded parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” she explained.

The play is staged at Cambridge’s “oldest university playhouse,” ADC Theatre, the home of the university’s Amateur Dramatic Club. From the time it was established in 1855, plays performed at the all-volunteer-run theatre have gone on to produce an impressive list of alumni.

Micner began work on Fantasmagoriana while still a student at Yale. However, “the process of staging the play happened at Cambridge,” she said. “I came for a one-year master’s, in French and Spanish, hoping to have the play staged at some point in the year. I met the director, Georgia Hume, on my first day at our college, Lucy Cavendish. That was so lucky. And the first theatre society we applied to, the Amateur Dramatic Club – where people like Emma Watson and Sacha Baron Cohen got their start – accepted us for a production in March! I think, with any work of art, it’s never done, as such, but ready. Deadlines help. I arrived at Cambridge with the script nearly done, and I ‘finished’ it for our application, and then revised it again in time for Edinburgh rehearsals. I’m now extending it for possible production in the U.S. and U.K., and anywhere else with interest.”

Micner is serving as the play’s producer as well, a role, she said, that seems to be a natural fit because of her professional experience doing communications for Google. “Publicity and promotion are a big part of producing, as are organization and time-management skills, so I’ve been happy to do it,” she explained. “I oversee the crew, budget and overall management of the play, and Georgia, as director, oversees the stage. It’s collaborative and fluid. I’ve attended most rehearsals to give input as wanted and, in fact, I enjoy seeing how other people interpret the text in both the acting and the staging. It’s nice to think there are various ways your play could come alive.”

It was Micner’s family that encouraged her love of literature and of theatre. “Reading with my dad is one of my earliest memories, and he jokes that I was chattering away from birth,” she said. “But I really did take to reading from a young age. Another of my earliest memories [is of] children’s theatre and music shows at the Orpheum with my mum’s parents and at [Vancouver] Talmud Torah. I loved them.

“I really took to theatre starting in undergrad, as a spectator; writing for the stage is newer,” she continued. “It started in my last year of undergrad, when I was in the writing concentration of the English major at Yale and, though I was doing non-fiction, I had to take a class in another genre – to their credit – and chose playwriting, as dialogue came more naturally to me than poetry or prose. I chose Fantasmagoriana as my final project because it struck me as such a play-ready idea, and so it went.”

Though Micner left Vancouver in 2003, thoughts of the city and her life here have been at the fore. “I left Vancouver for Yale and haven’t lived there much since, and I miss it,” she said. “My year at Cambridge was fantastic, for the people, the theatre and the course. I’m moving to London because I love it – I want to live in a major city at this stage in my life and, for plays, London is the best city in the world. The theatre there is tremendous in quantity and quality, and there’s a lot of encouragement of new writing. Theatre is also subsidized [in the United Kingdom] and, therefore, more affordable than in North America – something to emulate!”

Her next two plays are already in the works. “Highlight is set in 1979 Vancouver and based on the beginning of my parents’ relationship. It examines the sheepish beginnings of love, and the zealous involvement of parents. Both sets of grandparents are featured, as well. I like to call it ‘a dysfunctional family comedy,’ and it’s being staged at Cambridge in December.

“My third play, Left, is set in both 1982 Israel and present-day London, and it’s about two generations of a family with different experiences of and views toward Israel. It explores the interplay of politics and family, and it will have comic elements because I think life is both comic and dramatic.”

Though family and Middle East politics are fruitful subjects for the  playwright, the influence of her Judaism is less overt, “probably more unconscious than conscious,” she said. “Being Jewish has certainly informed what I’ve learned and how I think, and it’s made me interested in studying Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides and [Baruch] Spinoza…. Highlight and … Left have more overt Jewish themes and, in those pieces, I hope to make the Jewish experience relatable to everyone. Every family has its mishegas, and many people feel invested in seeing peace between Israelis and Palestinians/Arabs.”

As for coming back to Vancouver at some point, Micner said, “I hope so and I would love to. I think any of my plays could appeal to audiences in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada. They’re meant to be widely relatable…. [For] example, Fantasmagoriana is being translated into Russian. I’ve seen a lot of great theatre in Vancouver, at the Arts Club and Bard [on the Beach] and the Cultch and elsewhere, and would love to see more new writing emerge and be supported.”