Blackbirds at the Bauer


A review of the staged reading of Catherine Banks’ award-winning play It Is Solved By Walking

It is one thing to study a play in your English class and ask your professor questions regarding the piece overall. However, it is another to actually attend a staged reading and instead ask these questions to the playwright themselves. For the students of StFX and more particularly those in one of Dr. Kailin Wright’s English classes, the opportunity of taking learning out of the classroom and into the theatre was made possible, with the collaborative efforts put forth by Dr. Wright, the StFX English Department and Festival Antigonish.

On Wednesday, February 8th, 2017, award-winning Canadian playwright Catherine Banks delivered a public talk in Schwartz discussing her highly acclaimed play It Is Solved by Walking. A play about light, poetry and loss, It Is Solved by Walking takes us through Margaret’s recollection of memories and raw emotions from her marriage with her former husband who has recently passed away. Utilizing the lens of Wallace Stevens’ infamous poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and the character of Stevens himself, this play displays Margaret’s journey of making her way back to poetry and reestablishing her relationship with poetic language, all in which is represented through her movement onstage.

Following this talk, the Bauer Theatre presented a staged reading of the play, with actors Genevieve Steele and Hugh Thompson assuming the roles of Margaret and Wallace, as well as an open Q&A session with Banks herself. Despite being in the midst of midterm season, there was a high attendance for both parts of the event, from students who were inspired by Banks’ work to embark on their own career in poetry to those who attended with high hopes of finding out what the hell all those blackbirds even represented.

Catherine banks received a specially bound copy of her play, it is solved by walking, from governor general david johnston after winning the 2012 governor general literary award for drama. photo: dany veillette / Rideau Hall (The Walrus). 

Catherine banks received a specially bound copy of her play, it is solved by walking, from governor general david johnston after winning the 2012 governor general literary award for drama. photo: dany veillette / Rideau Hall (The Walrus). 

Nevertheless, Banks’ lecture early that day opened up with her reading three different sections of the play, followed by a discussion on her development and success as a playwright, attributing this success to the inspiration that arose from growing up and living in rural Nova Scotia. As a playwright, she emphasized that she never writes for her audience, but rather wholeheartedly dedicates herself to telling the story she is consumed in. Despite her outstanding success and being a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for English-language drama, Banks concluded by saying she is always on a path of self-improvement, in which in her eyes, her work is never and will never be perfected.

Although I have always had a deep appreciation and love for theatre and art, I hate to admit it, but this was my first experience at the Bauer in all of my four years of being a student here. Walking into the Bauer, I had little to no expectations for the staged reading itself, as I thought “how could this possibly be any different than when I was sitting at home reading the play on my couch?” Being a staged reading, you typically get what you pay for; a cast sitting in chairs and reiterating the script back to you as you sit in the audience and follow along with your own copy. There are no props, no set and no special effects – it’s basically like eating a vanilla sundae, minus all of good the toppings.

However, this particular staged reading was far from the norm. Thompson and Steele’s performance demonstrated a high appreciation for Banks’ creative construction of the play, embracing every little detail of the text and consistently conveying the depth of their character’s emotions to the audience. It was evident that these actors had attached themselves to the entirety of their characters, and unlike Banks, had the utmost admiration for the work, perceiving the text as solely being unblemished.

With the exact same resources available to them as Banks had earlier that day when reading sections of the play at her lecture, Thompson and Steele’s reading was profoundly different, as there was this ever-present appreciation that these actors had for every word, innuendo, metaphor and detail Banks attributed to the construction of her work. Consequently, as they reiterated the text by reading the script through their rose-colored glasses, the actors nonetheless incorporated this admiration for the play, and in turn, enhanced the audience’s experience and appreciation for Banks’ work overall.

Although I was truly captivated by the delivery itself, the entire time I sat on the edge of my seat desperately thirsting for the sight of Margaret moving across the stage, representing her artistic growth, and aching for a glimmer of light to indicate her escape from the darkness that had once consumed her. I wanted those $0.50 extra toppings more than ever before.

Nevertheless, despite my captivation, I realized that a simple staged reading does not do this play justice. Robbing those who have yet to come across the work from having a profound and powerful experience by eliminating the main features of the play, that being light and movement, the staged reading took away all audience members’ ability to fully grasp the message being conveyed. Thus the students who left the theatre wondering how the title was even relevant to what was presented to them were deprived of acknowledging the overall significance of Banks’ work, misrepresenting Banks’ artistic capabilities as a renowned playwright.

Therefore, although I desperately wanted more, I would without a doubt take that $10 out of my week’s worth of groceries once again, just to experience the beauty of Margaret’s journey portrayed through Thompson and Steele’s reading. The sensation of dreading the final words “the end” is truly a priceless experience, especially when there are no embellishments involved in the performance itself.

Nonetheless, I sincerely hope that my next experience with It Is Solved by Walking does not leave this undying craving for action, representing the play for all that it has been constructed to be, and allowing those unfamiliar to the work to experience the same appreciation. But you never know, maybe one day the Bauer will be the next blackbird for portraying the totality of the beauty of loss, poetry and light in Banks’ play, staging the third production of this refreshing Canadian-inspired story.