CAROL BOLT, Editor; TIM BOLASE, Compiler. Who Asked Us Anyway?: A Collection of Plays Celebrating the First Twenty Years of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival. Copyright: Labrador School Board, 1998. 365 pp.
Readers of Who Asked Us Anyway? should never forget, while proceeding through the twenty-five students' plays in the anthology, that this volume results from the enduring commitment of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival to creativity, especially in drama, and the strong belief of many of the region's adults and school-students in the power and value of students' writing, especially in play-making. Finding the money to print this large 365 page collection may have been a Herculean task, but its very existence serves as an impressive tribute to the both the Arts Festival, which continues to flourish after almost a quarter of a century, and to the thousands of school-students in Labrador who have been given the chance to write and perform in their own original plays under its aegis.
If the prospect of reading a book that contains so many student-written plays is somewhat intimidating, the task of actually reviewing it is potentially even more so. However, the late Carol Bolt's excellent introduction and editorial notes give courage to a reviewer. The choice of student plays is very varied and appealing. Furthermore, the twenty-eight pages of introduction are a real treasure-house of well-selected, valuable instructions on play-writing and play-sharing for students.
Bolt's introduction and the selection of plays alone would persuade readers to praise the Labrador School Board for publishing the volume. Who Asked Us Anyway? is a model of totally committed collective playwriting that school groups in other regions could easily-- or not so easily--follow. Clearly, much depends on the passion and commitment of all involved in the process. These plays certainly demonstrate that any group of school students can make their own collective play a success, especially when they themselves or their peers are acting in it.
Who Asked Us Anyway? is divided into six categories of plays: story-telling, history plays, plays about special community issues, plays about every-day life, problem plays, and fantasy plays. They vary greatly in their subject, style, attitude and length. The shortest play, A Child's First Komatik Ride, written by children in grade 2, contains twenty-one characters and is merely two pages in length. One lucky child has five speeches of one to fourteen lines, while the remaining twenty children share the line "Hut! Hut!" four times. This play does not pretend to be a masterpiece, but the main character's five speeches are full of excitement about the upset of the sled and the dogs, an accident which in performance, I am sure, encourages loud exclamations of "Hut! Hut!" from the chorus of exhilarated children.
The longest play in this anthology, Exceptional Children, one of five problem plays, contains twenty-nine pages--a fairly normal length for a one-act play. The students of Menihek Integrated High School, Labrador City have written this densely structured play, using action that goes from past to present and back again, with four choruses and four main characters, three of whom are twenty-year-old twins and their mother. The writers effectively use name-calling and much repetition from individuals and four choruses. Another variation in the presentation is the use of short, rhyming songs. The chorus-members are also used as props--store mannequins! (The chorus oddly, consists of three people; however, some school groups might want to use larger chorus groups.) The completely credible plot-line presents a mother who seems to blame her "normal" daughter, while lovingly shielding her retarded daughter. The play ends abruptly when the retarded twin's friend does not succeed in taking her away to another town. The prospect of a new life is destroyed when the training school decides not to admit a retarded student. This is potentially strong material that refuses the easy "out" of a happy ending.
Exceptional Children shows effort and talent, but it suffers from inconsistencies in form, style, and emphasis. For example, it abandons the chorus after only a third of the play. However, it is praise-worthy that this high-school group had the courage to tackle a theme of social importance using believable characters and exciting dialogue.
Perhaps a glance at one other play is appropriate--a comedy, the hardest genre to write. Princess Diana Visits the Makkovik Sports Meet, presented by J.C. Erhardt School in Makkovik, has a farcical style and an improbable plot, which takes place in the writers' very school. The students who wrote this play give an even stronger impression of being guided rather than controlled by their teachers! Diana, with Tony Blair as her pilot, has been invited to a Sports Meet and a banquet by the Imperial Daughters of The Empire in their home-town of Makkovik. Diana inspects the school, and ends up with paint splashes and cake batter on her already muddy dress, followed by water from the janitor's hose pipe, prior to the final indignity of having her head pushed into a garbage bag! Nonetheless, the finale features Diana kissing a frog, upon which a handsome young man appears, proving that she is indeed a princess! This ideal ending to an amusing little farce certainly must have charmed the audience.
These three different plays exemplify the appeal and the variety of Who Asked Us Anyway? Possibly the most important section of the whole volume, however, is editor Carol Bolt's introduction. Teenagers may desire to improve their lives, but they usually want to use their own speaking style and expose their personal and social problems in ways that simultaneously allow them to shock adults and to receive insightful responses from their teenage peers. The editor stresses the fact that teenagers enjoy the content and the language of these collectively-written plays, and consequently are often truly inspired to write about their own interests, concerns, and life difficulties. "Take chances," is editor Carol Bolt's advice--an apt encouragement to ordinary students, as well as to eager playwrights. Also, her advice to embrace simple staging techniques and not to depend upon set changes, blackouts, and curtains, gives a freer rein to teenage students who want to concentrate on their natural language and their own social problems rather than technical excellence. "Stretch yourself. Let yourself change and learn as your characters do." Here is the basic platform on which Bolt has presented these plays as an inspiration to all school students to write their own dramas rather than to simply perform the works of others.
Though one could make a case for every one of these twenty-five plays containing appeal and suitability for some acting group in Canada, a reviewer ultimately has no business judging these plays as literature. The whole object of these group-playwrights is to combine words and ideas from many writer-colleagues in order to make one group-property. Clearly not all plays are equally valuable for other school students to "borrow"; however, they certainly encourage other students to make their collective plays on facts or issues that interest or concern them. The plays are the dreams of the playwrights. The plays in Who Asked Us Anyway? are written by courageous children and teenagers who believed in their own ideas and dreams and who trusted in their audiences. As readers of this anthology, we can believe in and be proud of these "home-grown" playwrights.