From Screenwriting to Theatre

Written by Mazna Ahmad

If you desire the pleasure of being in the presence of one of the voices of our generation, spend an afternoon in the Centre for Film and Theatre with Hailee Morrow. Hailee is a fourth-year screenwriting student who is known for her quippy, snarky – yet intelligent – conversations. Hailee is a prime example of artistic freedom and flexibility offered by the AMPD department. She is also one of the biggest advocates for Canadian cinema and content in the York University student body. Last summer, Hailee spent her time as an assistant stage manager and dramaturge on Hey! Good Lookin’, a show which made its debut at the Toronto Fringe Festival. We sat down to chat with her.

How long have you been involved in theatre?

My involvement in theatre stretches back to my wee days as a ten-year-old. I was cast as Rebecca Gibbs in a small local production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – my first taste of having a live audience hang off my every word, and also my first experience of seeing the process behind bringing words off a page to life. I didn’t come to writing immediately; it was acting that first held my attention, the profession of performance being a family tradition. It was Nightwood Theatre, a feminist theatre company in Toronto, that should be credited with bringing my focus to writing, performing my own works in Groundswell Theatre Festival and bringing me into contact with extraordinary female writers and artists, from poets and playwrights to directors and performance artists.

What made you go into screenwriting over theatre?

My decision to pursue screenwriting over theatre isn’t a choice I can clearly pinpoint. It was grade eleven. I came back from Rome and went straight to TIFF to see Les Petits Mouchoirs – mainly for Marion Cotillard’s performance. I think that actors have always been my access points into both film and theatre. It’s their voices I begin to hear when I write, their particular cadences and trademarks that give birth to characters in my head. I’d like to be able to say that my love of screenwriting comes from something more profound, but it might be as simple as seeing a good performance, or being intoxicated by the cinematic grandeur of Italy that we see again and again from La Dolce Vita to La Grande Bellezza. The restrictions of theatre intimidate me. I can’t begin to express my admiration for writers who can take the audience to a whole other world using a small black box and some lights.

How did you discover this opportunity?

The opportunity of the Toronto Fringe show I worked on called Hey! Good Lookin’ in the summer was delivered to me from two fabulous actors, Jillian Rees Brown and Jorie Morrow, one a broadway actor and the other my mother. These two women had the seed of an idea for a play (actors are constantly looking for opportunities to work) – which was two sisters dealing with their aging mother in a hospital – but neither knew how to take it forward, and they entrusted it to me to give it a structure to work around. It was actually some of the films and lectures I had sat through in my genre screenwriting class, taught by Howard Wiseman, pertaining to a class of horror called chamber films that pushed me towards what ended up being the final product.

What was the most exciting part of being involved with the renowned Toronto Fringe Festival?

Being in the Fringe Festival is pretty exhilarating. It’s one of many Fringe Festivals that take place around the world, and there is a definite sense of community and bringing theatre back to more local roots and giving people the opportunity to see and produce shows that perhaps wouldn’t normally get the chance in a more traditional theatre venue. This fostering of a cultural, artistic community I think is particularly important in a country like Canada for two reasons. That it is such a vast expanse, which I think – even despite social media – hinders artists in really communicating their ideas to each other. After all, Fran Lebowitz says the history of art is a bunch of people sitting around a table talking. I think too that Canada has this beautiful humility that characterizes us, but I fear we’re often in danger of allowing ourselves to be overshadowed by our Southern neighbours. Going to and supporting events like the Fringe reminds people of Canadian work, both classical and absurdist, that deserves our support and attention.

Do you feel your education helped you with this experience or did previous hands on experience help you more?

Certainly in terms of the writing and story editing that I contributed to Hey! Good Lookin’ my education at York helped me immensely. I would say that most of the principles around structure and scene that I employed were learned from professors in the film department. My work as an assistant stage manager backstage was all based on hands-on experience I gained working in theatre as a teenager. It was a lovely combination of intuition, academic knowledge, and field experience, which ultimately I think is what most projects are made of.

What advice do you have for screenwriting majors going into their first year?

My advice for first-year screenwriting majors is to keep reading, keep watching, keep writing, and keep an open mind always. Observe people, take note of how people react to different situations, listen to how they speak and how it can change. Most importantly, I think, learn how to pick and choose who you listen to. Everyone has opinions, but they are not made equal. Listen to who you trust. I think we can make the easy mistake of over-identifying with our work, and learning to protect ourselves and being able to look at the work objectively while still maintaining an emotional connection to it is a difficult balance, but an important one to achieve. Choose your mentors carefully and protect your talent.

More info on Hey! Good Lookin’ here.